Keeping the balance: Yale’s Nathan Chen and the pursuit of Olympic gold


Nathan Chen ’24 has skated in arenas around the world – from the Globen in Stockholm, the largest hemispherical building on Earth, to the Osaka Municipal Gymnasium, which is built entirely underground. But something special happened the first time he stepped on the ice of Yale’s Ingalls Rink about three years ago.

The arena, Chen recalls, was the perfect blend of form (the elongated plunge of its exoskeleton, which gave it the nickname “Yale’s whale”) and function (the exceptional quality of the ice cream). And there was the thrill of seeing the blue “Y” encrusted in the center of the mirror. “I was just blown away.”

Chen arrived at Yale months after his much-anticipated Olympic debut in men’s figure skating at the Games in PyeongChang, South Korea in February 2018. During those games, Chen, who was considered a serious contender for a medal, suffered a setback when a series of errors the short program left him in 17e place, with little hope of reaching the podium.

Remarkably, he responded with a record-breaking long program in which he completed six physically demanding quads, or quads, that require four rotations in the air and have become a hallmark of men’s skating over the past decade. He climbed to fifth place in the men’s singles. (He also won bronze in the team event.)

So the news that he was about to enroll at Yale left many skating fans in awe. His performance in the long program left no doubt that Chen had the makings of an Olympic champion. How was he going to train like an elite athlete while meeting the demands of an Ivy League education? But Chen was determined.

It was honestly obvious, ”he says. “Yale was a whole different business for me. I never thought I would really get the chance to go, and I didn’t want to let it go.

(AP / Kazuki Wakasugi)

During his first two years of university at Yale, where he is a resident of Jonathan Edwards College, Chen proved opponents wrong. Even with a full-time course load, he didn’t lose a single competition: he won a world title, two Grand Prix finals, two US titles and four individual Grand Prix events.

Since taking a break from Yale last year to focus on training for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, his winning streak has continued. In March, he won another world championship, in Stockholm, his third consecutive world title. He is the first American skater to do so since Scott Hamilton in 1983. Hamilton won a fourth title a year later.

Chen, who plans to return to campus in the fall of 2022, remains deeply connected with Yale, where he specializes in statistics and data science. Currently in California, he is reading textbooks for the courses he plans to take when he returns to New Haven. But it lacks the inspiring verve of the campus.

It just isn’t the same feeling to read this stuff in your own bedroom, ”he says. “I am delighted to go back and continue to learn. “

Olympic aspirations

Chen grew up in Salt Lake City and started skating at the age of three. As the youngest of five siblings, Chen got a taste of the activities of his older siblings: piano (he still plays), hockey, gymnastics, ballet. But figure skating got stuck. And from an early age, the Olympics were already part of the air he breathed; the city hosted the 2002 Winter Games, and training facilities were easily accessible and affordable.

As his skills grew, he began to look beyond his hometown for another kind of inspiration. Asian-American figure skaters Michelle Kwan and Kristi Yamaguchi broadened her perception of who might be successful on the ice. “Growing up in Salt Lake City, where most of my classmates and other athletes were predominantly white, you don’t see this reflection of yourself that easily,” says Chen, whose parents emigrated from China. “I see myself in these athletes and I see how capable and talented they are. If they can do it, I hope I can do the same too. Being able to see a face like yours helps a lot as an athlete.

At the age of 16, he competed at the national championships, where he was the first American to land two quadruple jumps in his short program and four in his free skate. But during exhibition skating after the competition, he injured his hip and required surgery. The enforced break from skating served as a kind of early warning to Chen that his athletic career would not last forever.

I was always determined to continue skating, I was not in a position where I was ready to retire, ”he recalls. “But I knew that transition to school had to happen at some point, and the sooner it did, the easier it would be for me when I left skating.”

After re-educating at the US Olympic / Paralympic Training Center in Colorado, Chen returned to the ice more powerful than before, but also with the determination to stay on track for college.

A ‘model student’ comes to Yale

In the fall of 2018, he arrived at Yale full of excitement and trepidation – in other words, a typical freshman – and immediately found a supportive community ready to help him find the balance between training and studies. “Whatever you need,” he recalls, having told athletic director Vicky Chun, “we can help you. He also received much needed support from Wayne Dean, the longtime administrator of Yale Athletics, who passed away in 2020 just months after retiring as deputy director of athletics. “Without these two people, honestly, it would have been so difficult for me to go anywhere,” Chen said.

Vicky Chun described Chen as “a model Yale student, who also competes at the highest Olympic level.”

I love that he can be a student at Yale, rather than an Olympian, a medalist, ”she said. “He’s becoming himself… He chose to come to Yale and we wanted it to be the best experience for him. This is what I want for all student athletes.

There have been plenty of other Yale Olympians over the years, including figure skater Sarah Hughes ’09 (who entered after winning Olympic gold at 16); swimmer Don Schollander ’68, who won seven gold medals at the 1964 and 1968 Games; runner Frank Shorter ’69, who won the marathon in 1972 and helped popularize recreational long-distance running; and rower Dr. Benjamin Spock ’25, whose men’s eight won gold in 1924 (an achievement later eclipsed by his fame as a revolutionary figure in development and child care). This year, 18 Bulldogs competed at the Tokyo Summer Olympics in various roles in seven sports.

Like those before him, Chen’s athletic achievements demanded focus and discipline, not to mention tenacious competitiveness balanced by humility. These qualities also served him well as a student.

Skating is extremely effective in teaching you to plan, ”he says. “It’s like at school. You know your test dates, you know when your mid-term, you know when your projects are due, you know how much effort you might have to put in depending on the difficulty of the material.

During his first two years at Yale, Chen’s schedule allowed him to spend three hours on the ice a day. After morning lessons, he spent an hour and a half at the Whale; he would make a quick trip to the Champions Skating Center in Cromwell, Connecticut, for another 90 minute skate; then he would return to New Haven for evenings of discussion and homework.

He has nerves of steel, or at least looks so, ”said Penelope Laurans, senior advisor at Yale, who has been one of Chen’s academic advisers since his first year. “How is it possible to leave a rigorous and demanding mid-term college schedule and fly off to a national or international competition and perform in front of thousands of people, and win? And then come back and take another statistics exam? Ordinary people would crumble under the strain, but, incredibly, he seems to be able to handle it. “

Nathan with his trainer, Rafael Arutyunyan
Nathan with his trainer, Rafael Arutyunyan (courtesy Nathan Chen)

While he has largely trained on his own, he is also reportedly consulting via Face Time with coach Rafael Arutyunyan to gain his support. (Arutyunyan took the remote coaching in stride. “[F]or nine years of preparing Nathan for freelance work, ”he said. “I was not training him but teaching him to train.”)

Among his classes, and rightly so, was “Exploring the Nature of Genius,” a study of exceptional talent taught by Craig Wright, professor emeritus of music. Chen found the overlaps between his own experience and the course topics intriguing. And it was inspired by Wright’s obvious passion for the subject, which also produced a bestselling book, “Hidden Habits of Genius.”

Wright took the opportunity to have an Olympian in his class to supplement his research: in his book, he quotes Chen on the balance between nature and education when it comes to athletic genius (Chen se happy with an 80-20 share in favor of nature).

In turn, Chen’s class experiments found an echo on the ice. The music for her free skating program at the 2021 Worlds included a piece by composer Philip Glass that Chen first heard in a “Listening to Music” class during his first year. (Glass responded with a shout on Instagram, noting that Chen had “dominated men’s figure skating this season.”) Having an academic background with music helped Chen connect more viscerally to her in the rink, adding to the grace. muscle performance.

Eyes on Beijing 2022

These days, Chen’s world is focused on preparing for the Beijing 2022 Winter Games. “I’m basically home, then I go to the rink, then I am home, then I go to the rink,” he says wryly.

Chen’s skating season started last weekend in Las Vegas with Skate America, part of the Grand Prix series, where he finished in third place. The 2022 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships (an event he has won annually since 2017) will be held in January in Nashville, after which the Olympic team selection will be announced.

If he remains stubbornly focused on the present, he looks forward to his return to New Haven in the fall of 2022 and his student life: dinners in September in Bangkok, study sessions in the glass atrium of the School of Management, meetings between friends in their common rooms.

And despite his accomplishments in skating, Chen manages to keep it all in perspective. “Of course, I wish I could win the Olympics,” he said. “But if that doesn’t happen, it’s not like who I am is ultimately diminished.”

As a young skater, as his first judged competition approached, Chen was suddenly struck with nerves. He didn’t understand why the judges were there – he didn’t even want to be graded.

But her parents stepped in with some advice: don’t worry. They will do their job, you do yours. Go on the ice, do your thing, get out of the ice, they advised him.

He’s been doing it ever since.

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