DETROIT – A Yale freshman is leading the U.S. men’s national figure skating championships.
Juggling a full course load in his first semester in the Ivy League with lonely training sessions at the Yale ice arena, 2018 Olympic team bronze medalist and reigning world champion Nathan Chen hasn’t missed a step.
Chen’s exquisite, two-quad short program Saturday afternoon at the national championships put him comfortably in position to win his third consecutive U.S. title. His score of 113.42 was well ahead of veteran Jason Brown, who settled into second place with a beautiful performance of his own with 100.52 points.
Chen’s 2018 U.S. Olympic teammate Vincent Zhou was in third but basically tied with Brown, just a sliver behind with 100.25 points.
Elite international figure skating and college can be a difficult mix, so much so that most top skaters either never try it or quickly give up. Some have taken years to get a degree, as 1992 Olympic silver medalist Paul Wylie did at Harvard. Two-time Olympic medalist and nine-time national champion Michelle Kwan gave it the good old college try at UCLA but soon realized it just wasn’t going to work, going back to get undergraduate and graduate degrees at Denver and Tufts, respectively, after her skating career was over.
But for the 19-year-old Chen, college and skating are so far co-existing just fine.
“I’m really loving being in the college atmosphere, being able to have something to do outside of the rink, being able to focus on things that are in my opinion equally as important as the time that I spend on the ice,” he said after his short program. “Whereas in California, it’s everything just structured around skating. If you have a bad day, that kind of carries on throughout the rest of the day. But, potentially, if I have a bad day on the ice, you can have a good day outside of the rink. That sort of mood change carries on for the next day.”
Chen practices by himself for an hour to an hour and a half each day at Yale’s Ingalls Rink. When things aren’t going well, he pulls out his phone and Facetimes with his coach, Rafael Arutunian, who is based in Southern California.
“It’s really just when I’m really struggling on the ice and I need some key pointers that I’m forgetting,” Chen said.
While he was getting “some A’s and B’s” in calculus, chemistry, Spanish and an English course fall semester, Chen also was winning two Grand Prix events as well as the Grand Prix final. He made it look easy, but there were moments when he found the balancing act to be discouraging.
“Of course,” he said. “There were times that I was really struggling with them both, not sure how I was going to handle the two, especially around competition time, around Skate America, it was a lot. Midterms are coming up, this is the first competition of the season, if you don’t do well, the first half of the season kind of ends right there, so I just felt there was a lot of pressure there. I just took that for the good I could take out of that and just try to focus on using that to develop myself as a skater and as a person.”
As luck would have it, Yale’s two-week spring break coincides with the 2019 world figure skating championships in Japan. Chen could stop in California to train with Arutunian, then continue on to Asia. Like everything else about this season, it’s all new.
“I feel like I’m learning quite a lot obviously outside of skating and within skating,” Chen said, “in terms of how to train by myself, how to deal with unknown circumstances that I’m definitely not used to. So overall everything’s playing off exactly as I’d hoped it would.”