Chen's jumping display has skating world buzzing17-year-old American sets himself apart from peers with arsenal of quads
"Remarkable," said Tim Goebel, the first skater to land three quadruple jumps in a program.
"To master so many different takeoffs, that's where the hat comes off," said four-time world champion Kurt Browning, the first to land a quadruple jump in competition.
"Amazing. Amazing," said 1988 Olympic champion Brian Boitano, the first to land all six types of triple jumps in a competition.
"Welcome to the future," said 1984 Olympic champion Scott Hamilton.
"This is crazy...quite extroaordinary...staggering," British Eurosport's Simon Reed told his TV audience.
Such was the reaction from some of figure skating's most accomplished champions and a veteran commentator to what they had seen Nathan Chen do in the free skate at last week's Grand Prix Final in Marseille, France.
Chen had just staged the greatest jumping show in the sport's competitive history, landing four quadruple jumps of three different types, with two in combination, as part of his winning free skate program. His Grades of Execution (GOEs) were remarkable as well: 2.0 (quad lutz-triple toe loop), 1.29 (quad flip), 1.0 (quad toe loop-double toe loop-double loop), 0.71 (quad toe loop).
Judging from his emotionless expression as his scores went up -- a small smile and a head nod were all he allowed himself -- Chen appeared to be the only person not blown away by a performance that made him the silver medalist at the event behind Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu, the 2014 Olympic champion who won the title for a fourth straight time.
Four quads no big deal?
"That's kind of my personality," Chen said of his low-key response via telephone Tuesday from Los Angeles, "but it definitely was a big deal to me."
It was to everyone in the sport as well, especially those in the United States, who have been waiting six years for a man capable of keeping pace with skating's thoroughbreds.
"It's exciting to finally have a horse back in the race," said Goebel, the 2002 Olympic bronze medalist.
This is what Chen accomplished in 4 1/2 minutes of flawless skating, when, almost ironically, his success on a nemesis jump, the triple axel, made him the happiest:
*The most impressive result by a U.S. man against a field of the world's best skaters since Evan Lysacek won the 2010 Olympic gold medal
*A first-place finish in the free skate, ahead of the three men who had combined to win the last six world titles and both the 2014 Olympic gold and silver medals -- Javier Fernández of Spain, Hanyu and Patrick Chan of Canada.
"That's big for me, too," Chen said, "but I'm not thinking about it like, 'I beat this guy and this guy.' I'm glad I was able to come out there my first year as a senior and kind of make a statement."
A big part of that statement: He became the first U.S. man to earn a Grand Prix Final medal since 2009, when Lysacek won gold and Johnny Weir was third.
Chen also set new U.S. men's records for free skate score (197.55) and total score (282.85) across all competitions, national and international. Only Hanyu, Fernández and Chan ever have scored higher in the free skate. (Chen had recorded the highest international short program score by a U.S. man, 92.85, at Trophée de France in November.)
"How exciting that an American is once again setting the standard when it comes to technical content -- it's been a long time coming," Goebel said.
Chen's stunning performance in Marseille came when he was still five months shy of his 18th birthday (he already was the youngest U.S. man ever to win a Grand Prix medal) and just 10 months after the hip surgery that brought his 2015-16 season to a premature end.
No one, least of all Chen, is ready to project him as a likely world or OIympic medalist this season or next. At this point, Chen still needs the likes of Hanyu, Fernández and Chan to make mistakes if he is to beat them because of the gap between their program component scores and his.
But the quads give him a chance. In the Grand Prix Final free skate, the four jumping passes with quads accounted for 58.9 of his 113.13 technical element points. He has added both the quad lutz and quad flip this season.
"Of course, the whole point of competition is to win, but I wasn't thinking of putting in those quads to beat certain people," Chen said. "I did it because I was thinking that was the progression I was supposed to go in, and I knew I was capable of doing it.
"I hadn't initially planned to put quad lutz in my programs this season, but it's just something I landed in the offseason, and I was like, 'Since I have it, why not put it in?' I didn't think of it in terms of making history."
At the Grand Prix Final, Chen earned a technical score bettered only by Hanyu and Fernández last year. His jump arsenal is so potent that it gives Chen a shot, even this year, at becoming the first U.S. man to win a world medal since Lysacek's gold in 2009.
There also is no doubt he has a good chance at becoming the youngest national champion since 16-year-old Scott Allen in 1966.
"My Grand Prix Final opens up the door for nationals," Chen said. "I come in with a little more strength than I did last year, when I kind of came in as a nobody."
Chen, then the reigning Junior Grand Prix Final champion, made history at the 2016 U.S. Championships in Saint Paul, Minnesota, by becoming the first U.S. man to land two quads in a short program and four (of two varieties, toe loop and salchow) in the free skate, with three of the latter four gaining a positive GOE and the fourth a neutral 0.00. He took only third overall because of relatively low component scores.
Just a few hours after the free skate in Saint Paul, Chen injured himself on a quad toe attempt in the gala exhibition. Surgery for a hip avulsion would follow a few days later, knocking him out of both the world junior championships and world championships, and keeping him off the ice until June.
Chen realizes there was an element of hubris in putting a quad into an exhibition program. He admits some regret over taking that unnecessary risk yet insists it was only the straw that broke the camel's back in terms of his injury -- a different one from the heel ailment that had compromised the end of his 2014-15 season.
"My hip was already so injured at that point that whether it happened then or later, it would have happened -- especially because I made the world team and would have been training," Chen said. "It's disappointing, but it gave me time to reflect. In hindsight, it wasn't the worst thing that could have happened."
The past greats who were contacted for this article all addressed the issue of injury.
"God, I worry about the body health of the young guys when they will have to jump like that for years," said Boitano, 53 and still doing triple jumps in his show performances.
"Because he looks very 'safe' on the takeoffs and in the air, I don't see much risk for injury with the quads he is currently doing," Goebel said. "They (Chen and his coaches) just need to be responsible with the number of repetitions and diligent in the off-ice training. I think he'll be fine so long as he doesn't push to try for an all-quad long."
Browning also felt Chen's technique is good enough to minimize the risk of injury.
"If you take off and land as quiet and softly as Javi, Nathan and especially Yuzu, then I think injury can be kept under control," Browning wrote.
"A home-run swing is an easy swing (when) done correctly. I feel for the skaters swinging for the wall with bad technique, because they will injure themselves out of a career."
Chen and his primary coach, Rafael Arutunian, both feel that taking advantage of his age to master the quads will pay off in the long run.
"He who starts there sooner, gets there sooner," Arutunian said in Saint Paul.
Chen also has enough youthful energy to stack the quads together in a program and still recover, as he did at the Final, with all four attempts coming in the first 90 seconds of his free skate.
"Since I'm still a young skater, it's the best time to put out these high-risk jumps," Chen said. "As I get older, I will have more jumps to choose from and, at the same time, more experience with each of these jumps.
"I feel like the artistry is something I can build up. The quote-unquote 'full package' is something I am trying to attain. At the moment, this (the jumps) is what I have."
To get the full package, the artistry and the athleticism together, Chen began work in Detroit with coach/choreographer Marina Zoueva, who helped turn Soviet pairs team Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov, Canadian ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and U.S. ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White into Olympic champions. Chen spent a month with Zoueva early in the fall and plans to return to Detroit next week and stay until New Year's.
There are those who criticize Chen for his relative lack of artistry, compared to that of rivals Hanyu, Fernández, Chan and reigning U.S. champion Adam Rippon. But considering how much jumping is rewarded in the current judging system, it makes sense to push the envelope in that direction. China's Boyang Jin won a 2016 world bronze medal with an arsenal of quads and an overall skating quality that was far less refined than Chen's.
"Is this where men's skating is going? I think the answer is yes," said Canada's Brian Orser, the two-time Olympic silver medalist who coaches Hanyu and Fernández. "Can someone with three different quads and four quads in a program be beaten? The answer is yes as well.
"It will be quality over quantity. However, if the quads are done with quality, as Nathan executed this past week, and (you have) quality spins, steps and a well-balanced program, then that is where you win."
One can make the case that Chen's jumping is so impressive that it creates its own form of artistic impression -- not unlike the way a 15-year-old Tara Lipinski's boundless enthusiasm swayed the judges at the 1998 Olympics or the way reigning Olympic champion gymnast Simone Biles uses her rafter-rattling tumbling passes to dazzle in the floor exercise, also done to music. Lipinski and Biles, of course, have already achieved the things (world titles, Olympic gold medals) Chen dreams of.
"Simone is such an idol to me," Chen said when her name came up. "Being compared to her is humbling. She is so far ahead of me (in terms of results) and so consistent in competition."
Consistency can be elusive when you are trying to land a four-revolution jump one-footed on a blade less than a quarter-inch wide.
Chen had clean landings, with positive GOEs, on 11 of 18 quads (all but one was given full base value) in his three Grand Prix events. Five ended in costly falls -- including one in a nervous short program at the Final, the only Grand Prix program where he did not have at least one clean quad.
"For sure, I want to get a higher (success rate)," he said. "But it's risk/reward: I felt it was a good time to get these quads out there, to see what it's like to fall on a quad and still push through the rest of the program or to land a quad and know how to recover from that and continue the program."
And then there is the matter of expectations: When you have landed four quads in the free skate at the U.S. championships and the Grand Prix Final, will anything less do?
"Of course there's always that pressure, but I think the pressure is more from myself, and I'll be a little disappointed if I'm not able to do that," Chen said. "We're human, we make mistakes, and they're very difficult jumps, but I think I've set a bar for myself, and I want to keep pushing that."
Does that mean quad axel?
"Not from me in the near future," he said. "I want to make sure I can get my triple axel, because that's a bigger issue than the quads at the moment. At least through 2018, I don't think the quad axel is in my sights."
But less than a year ago, no one could have envisioned what Nathan Chen is doing now.
The amazing, remarkable and staggering.