Nathan Chen begins four-month journey for redemption – and for elusive figure skating gold

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For figure skater Nathan Chen, America’s best hope for a gold medal in the most popular Winter Olympic sport, a journey of four years comes down to the next four months.

Will he achieve in Beijing the promise that was bestowed upon him back in 2018, that his prodigious talent and impeccable athleticism would carry him to an Olympic gold medal? Or will he once again be denied the only title he does not possess, that of being an Olympic champion?

His quest begins Friday night at Skate America in Las Vegas, the first major international skating competition of the Olympic season. It will end in the long program of the men’s event at the 2022 Winter Olympics on Feb 10.

It will be then that Chen, 22, will know. Does the greatest U.S. male skater in a generation join the likes of Dick Button, Scott Hamilton and Brian Boitano as an Olympic gold medalist? Or does he not?

Since his disappointing sixth-place finish at the Pyeongchang Olympics, American Nathan Chen has won three world titles, the last three of his five U.S. championships, and the two most recent Grand Prix finals.
Since his disappointing sixth-place finish at the Pyeongchang Olympics, American Nathan Chen has won three world titles, the last three of his five U.S. championships, and the two most recent Grand Prix finals.

“It’s always been a dream of mine to be able to win a national title, to win a world title, to win an Olympic title,” Chen said earlier this year. “Easier said than done. I thought that I had a chance in 2018 and that didn’t happen and I’m able to live with that.

“Of course I would love to be able to win the next Olympics, but if that doesn’t happen, it’s not like my legacy or who I am is ultimately diminished. I’m still happy with everything that I’ve done. I’m proud of everything that I’ve already accomplished in skating. I still would love to improve and be better, but truthfully, I’m really happy with where I am and what I’ve already done, so whether or not I get that title at the Olympics is not going to define me as a person.”

Nearly four years ago, Chen was an 18-year-old gold medal favorite at the 2018 Olympics in South Korea when he fell apart in the men’s short program, finishing a dismal 17th. Having no chance to win a medal, the weight of the world lifted from his shoulders, he went on to win the long program and finish fifth overall.

How significant was that moment? Chen has not lost a competition since. World championships, national championships, Grand Prix events – Chen is undefeated since Pyeongchang, a remarkable achievement in any sport at any time, but especially at this time in men’s skating, the most competitive era athletically in the history of a sport where four-revolution jumps are landed on a sliver of a blade of steel, on ice of course.

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Chen, who is on leave from Yale, where he is majoring in statistics and data science, said his poor performance in the 2018 Olympic short program taught him a valuable lesson.

“Being able to have the opportunity to have such a rough skate at the previous Olympics did give me the insight to realize that skating, while it is incredibly important and the thing I've literally done every single day of my life since I was three, also is something that is just a passion project for me," Chen said earlier this week.

“All of that sounds maybe that I don't necessarily care so much about skating, but skating’s important and that’s what I’ve been doing and that is what my life has been, but there is a life outside of skating and at some point in time in the near future, I will have to take a step away from skating. I won't be able to skate for the rest of my life.”

So what does that mean for this crucial 2021-2022 Olympic season?

“I think having the realization that every competition is a great opportunity for me to show the work that I’ve been putting in as well as know that I have a limited number of competitions in my life and to really just make the most out of each competition and try to enjoy myself the best that I can,” he said.

“I find that when I’m sort of able to adopt that ideal, I’m able to skate a lot better or at least put myself in a position where I feel a lot more relaxed and continue to enjoy it more than being worried about what the outcome will be.”

An outcome that will come quickly now, as sure as the fall turns to winter and a new year dawns. Before we know it, Feb. 10 will be here, waiting for him.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Nathan Chen begins a four-month journey for elusive figure skating gold