March 29, 2019
The question, inevitably, on the Yale campus this week as classes resumed was: “What did you get up to over spring break?” No one had an answer quite like Nathan Chen’s.
The American figure skater – and Yale freshman – traveled to Tokyo last week to capture his second consecutive world championship, this time triumphing over two-time Olympic gold medalist and Japanese hero Yuzuru Hanyu on home turf. While it’s not Chen’s first win over Hanyu, it is his biggest (Hanyu missed the worlds last year) and has many inside the sport believing that this is a rivalry that could build to – and explode at – the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
“Anytime you have a rivalry, it’s awesome for the sport,” says Todd Eldredge, the 1996 world champion and three-time Olympian. “It’s like Boitano v Orser, or me and Elvis [Stojko]. There’s always been two guys and then a bunch of other ones who are trying to knock you off of your pedestal. There is an excitement that comes with that.”
Hanyu has had rivals in the past, such as Patrick Chan, and, more recently, Javier Fernandez. But it’s the Japanese star who rose above each of them to win his respective Olympic golds in 2014 and 2018, earning the Greatest of All Time stamp from legions of skating fans.
And while it was unclear if Hanyu will continue to skate beyond this season, the 24-year-old sounded as determined to continue the rivalry with Chen sat next to him during their press conference on Saturday night.
“I am disappointed with the result, somewhat, being in second place,” he told reporters. “Even so, I’m also very glad that I was able to compete with these two skaters [Chen and bronze medalist Vincent Zhou] and I want to thank them for making me feel that I want to become better now. I am determined to evolve … and hopefully catch up as a skater one day.”
The 19-year-old Chen, armed with a myriad of quadruple jumps, has passed Hanyu on the technical front, but also – with the help of famed choreographer Shae-Lynn Bourne and his roots as a ballet dancer as a child – blossomed artistically. Hanyu, known to be one of the great artists in modern-day skating, edged Chen out by just 1.35 points in their components scores at worlds. Chen, however, won the event by 22.45 points.
“Nathan’s [team] is smart, they’re playing our game: it’s not just about getting those technical points,” Hanyu’s coach, the Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser, told the Olympic Channel. “His skating skills have gotten better. We did the same thing when we were challenging and trying to compete with Patrick Chan. The thought was, ‘How do we get ahead of Patrick?’ With Nathan and Yuzuru, they’re getting better because of each other. How long will this go on? I have no idea.”
Chen, meanwhile, will return to the rigors of Yale, where he has said he’ll focus his studies on pre-med. This semester includes an abnormal psychology class, and his training routine is executed alone, often with coach Rafael Arutunian watching on FaceTime … 3,000 miles away in southern California.
“I can’t imagine taking on a full load of school and training away from your coach while trying to defend a world title,” says Eldredge. “For him to keep his focus, it speaks to the kind of person he is.”
Paul Wylie, the 1992 Olympic silver medalist, attended Harvard while training in Boston for part of his career. “Going to a place where you practice this incredibly demanding discipline and then are able to step back into the dining hall or classroom, it sort of normalizes you, it enables you to oscillate between the two,” says Wylie. “You’re at a place life with a bunch of people who are striving for greatness in so many different ways. That place vibrates with so much energy and attention to detail. A lot of skaters sit out the college experience. I think they could learn something there, being surrounded with new ideas.”
How Chen’s college schedule changes as Beijing grows closer remains to be seen. In a way, being at Yale has helped lessen the pressure that contributed to his implosion – twice – at the Olympics last February. But that low was a learning experience. On Saturday night he skated immediately after Hanyu, with 20,000-plus Japanese fans roaring for their hero, showering the ice with his favorite stuffed toy, Winnie the Pooh. Chen didn’t mind. In fact, he was following it all off-ice on Twitter before taking his starting his routine.
“It’s a huge honor just to be at this event with Yuzuru in Japan. I was fully expecting him to bring the house down and everyone to their feet and have this crazy atmosphere. They cheered for me as well – though a little bit less,” he told reporters with a laugh. “It’s the reason I love skating so much.”
Moments after Hanyu had set a world record free-skate score, Chen topped it. By nearly 10 points. A great rivalry could no doubt serve the sport well.
“It’s something the fans love to see,” says Wylie. “I think they are worthy rivals and can push each other to greatness. I’m selfish… I want to see it! They need it too: it keeps them going.”
In the meantime, the rivalry has both Chen and Hanyu looking inward: Chen wants to bring back his quad Salchow, Hanyu the quad Lutz and flip, as well as the never-done-before quad axel.
Chen is leaving that task to his rival. “If anyone is going to do a quad axel it’s going to be this guy,” Chen said, smiling and pointing to Hanyu, sitting feet away from him. “I’m not doing a quad axel anytime soon. There are a lot of things that I can improve. I really look forward to and am striving towards [improving]. There will never be the perfect performance, but I would like to come close to it.”
And while Hanyu goes back to the drawing board, Chen goes back to class. Final exams begin on 2 May at Yale. And, world gold medal or not, he has some studying to do over the next few weeks. He does, after all, have to finish his freshman year of college.