Top of the World

Nathan Chen adding climactic ending to centennial anniversary

By Philip Hersh

In January 2010, while the attention at the U.S. Championships was focused on the senior skaters seeking spots on the U.S. team for the Winter Olympics a month later, the youngest skater in any division of nationals stepped briefly into the spotlight.

Nathan Chen, then 4 feet 5 inches tall and 10 years old, had captured people’s fancy to such a degree in winning the novice title that NBC featured him in its telecast of the gala exhibition. Chen reprised his free skate interpretation of “Peter and the Wolf” because he wanted to perform it better than he had in the competition, when he fell twice and was third in the free skate.

Nathan Chen as a young boy in red holds up a medal atop a podium.
Nathan Chen at the 2010 U.S. Championships

In the gala, all 10 of his jumps, including two triples, were clean. Commentator Sandra Bezic praised his solid jump technique and said, “Remember that name.”  Commentator Scott Hamilton described Chen as fearless. When rinkside reporter Andrea Joyce asked Chen, “Which Olympics are we going to see you in?” he replied without hesitation, “Two thousand eighteen.”

For the ensuing five seasons, Chen went off the radar of all but skating’s most involved fans.

In the six seasons that followed those, the boy who grew up in Salt Lake City would become the man in the center of a global spotlight that got brighter and brighter as his skating became more and more dazzling.

Beginning with his bronze medal senior debut at the 2016 U.S. Championships, when he became the first U.S. skater both to attempt and land two fully accredited quadruple jumps in a short program and the first U.S. skater to attempt and land four in a free skate, Chen’s name has become one everyone who follows the sport will remember forever.

It is easy to forget that Chen’s future suddenly seemed uncertain after he aggravated a chronic hip problem while doing a quad in the gala at the 2016 U.S. Championships. That led to surgery, forcing him to withdraw from both the junior and senior World Championships and keeping him off the ice for some three months.

“Nathan is ready to be in the (2018) Olympics right now,” his coach, Rafael Arutunian, said in 2016 after Chen withdrew from the Worlds.  “The most important thing is to keep him healthy.”

By the next season, when Chen won the free skate at the Grand Prix Final, it was clear Arutunian’s analysis was spot on, as the skater not only went on to make the 2018 Olympic team but also made history over and over again.

By 2021, after he had spent two years as a student at Yale, Chen had become the first U.S. man to win three World titles since Hamilton in 1983 and the first to win five straight U.S. men’s titles since Dick Button in 1950.

In the process, Chen also became the first to land five clean quads in a free skate and first to attempt six quads in a free skate. He helped redefine the parameters of the sport.

No one other than Chen in the 125-year history of the World Championships has done two unblemished, artistically compelling skates with the technical demands of the jump elements in his short program and free skate at the 2019 event. In 2021, when Chen rallied from a mistake in the short program, his free skate left teammate Jason Brown in “absolute awe.” I had the same reaction (for the first of several times) watching Chen land five quads in the free to win the 2017 U.S. Championships.

Chen’s progression hasn’t been linear. He was underwhelming in finishing sixth at his senior World debut in 2017.  He botched two short programs at the 2018 Olympics but left South Korea buoyed by winning the free skate by a decisive margin with six fully accredited quads (five clean) to move from 17th to fifth.

That performance is the most significant in his career. To have finished his debut Olympics with nothing to offset his poor results in the team event and individual short programs would have been a burden Chen couldn’t have shaken until 2022 — if ever.

“I was glad to show myself and everyone else I could bounce back from a bad performance,” he said.

Going into the 2021–22 season, Chen had not lost in 13 consecutive individual competitions since the 2018 Olympics.

“I think I definitely have grown since 2018,” Chen said. “That experience at the Games was a great teaching moment.”

He has grown a foot since 2010 and assumed a large place in the history of figure skating.