Ice Network

Chen's rapid ascent leaves skating fans breathless

18-year-old U.S. champ keeps things in perspective after breakout season
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Nathan Chen captured the imagination of the skating world in 2016-17 with high-flying feats that had never before been attempted. -Getty Images

Icenetwork will announce its choice for 2016-17 Person of the Year later this month. Here's one of the nominations for that honor from icenetwork contributor Philip Hersh.

Could anyone really have seen this coming?

Sure, Nathan Chen had been a skater of immense promise for the six years since he won a first U.S. title at the novice level. But injuries had delayed his development, none more so than the one that left him recovering from hip surgery in February 2016 rather than going on to the world junior championships and world championships following a third-place finish at the U.S. championships.

Would anyone have dared think that a year later, in his debut season as a senior international competitor, Chen would have become a history-making leader of the quadruple jump revolution that has changed the norms of men's figure skating?

Did anyone see it coming after Chen fell eight times and had just eight clean quads in 22 attempts at his first 3 1/2 competitions of this season?

Could anyone have imagined that he would go on to land 20 straight quads (only one with a negative Grade of Execution), become the first skater to land five clean quads in a free skate and seven in a competition, repeat that feat a month later and then be the first in history to attempt six quads in a free skate?

Or that he would land the aforementioned seven quads over two programs in a runaway victory at the U.S. championships? Beat eventual world champion Yuzuru Hanyu and world silver medalist Shoma Uno with a seven-quad performance at the Four Continents Championships on his way to winning the title? Record the highest short program, free skate and total scores ever by a U.S. skater? Start a buzz in the sport to project him as a potential medalist -- even a gold medalist -- at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games? Start a buzz that goes beyond the boundaries of figure skating?

And be my nominee as icenetwork's Person of the Year?

Nathan Chen didn't see that coming, at least not this fast.

But Rafael Arutunian did. He has planned it for the five years since Chen left his home in Salt Lake City to work with the coach in the Los Angeles area.

Despite the hip injury, which could be anathema to jumps, Arutunian was convinced everything still was on track. He saw how fast Chen had recovered from the surgery, for which the coach credited the two U.S. Olympic Committee staffers who worked with the skater last summer at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs: Scott Riewald, the USOC's winter sports high performance director, and Brandon Siakel, a strength and conditioning coach.

"I was waiting for these results," Arutunian said. "For me, they come from the package of preparation which I planned when I took him as a skater.

"When you set up technique, you are looking forward to get the quad. Whenever you do any jump -- single, double, triple -- you are looking forward to do a quad. If you don't have a quad, you're not competitive."

Chen, who turned 18 on Friday, said coming back from the injury had tempered his expectations. That didn't stop him from setting the ambitious goal before the season of earning one of the six spots in the Grand Prix Final in Marseille, France.

He began to imagine himself belonging in such an elite field after landing his first quadruple lutz, at the Finlandia Trophy in October, and then his first clean quadruple flip, at his Grand Prix debut the next month at Trophée de France. With fourth- and second-place finishes at his two Grand Prix events, Chen earned the penultimate place at December's final.

"I didn't think I could compete against the top skaters in the world with just a quad salchow and quad toe," Chen said.

Yet he would botch both the lutz and flip in the short program in Marseille. So, once again, it would have been nearly impossible to foresee what was next: a dazzling, four-quad (lutz, flip, two toe loops) performance to win the free skate and get second overall.

It was the turning point in his season, to be sure. When the time comes to look back at Chen's accomplishments, it may be seen as the takeoff point in his career.

"That long program boosted me to the best part of my season," he said. "I had a lot of energy coming out of that, and it carried over to nationals and Four Continents."

Even Chen is at a loss to pinpoint exactly how it came together.

"Sometimes it's kind of unknown to a skater why they are doing so well or why they are struggling," he said. "I felt so in my zone, and everything was finally clicking.

"All the technique I was doing was spotless, and my body was in a strong state. Between the (Grand Prix) Final and Four Continents, I was kind of on autopilot. After that, it was resetting, and I guess I didn't reset properly."

The reset was needed for two reasons. First, when Chen arrived in Helsinki the last week of March for worlds, he already had endured his longest season to date -- and the amount of attention on him had far surpassed anything he'd experienced to that point in his career. (He did eight competitions in 2016-17 after just five the year before.) Second, the boots Chen had used since Four Continents began to fall apart well before expected, and he did not have another pair broken in by worlds.

In Helsinki, he fell on a triple axel in the short program -- his first fall after 48 successful jumps dating back to December -- and on two quads in the free skate, while landing just two of his other four quads cleanly during his "Polovtsian Dances" routine. Some of those mistakes clearly owed to the physical instability created by boots being held together by duct tape and the adjustments he tried to make because of it. For all that, he finished fourth in the free skate.

"I do regret not having another broken-in pair with me, but if I didn't have that experience, I would never know to do that," he said. "Now I will have a lot of extra boots on hand at any time of the season, so I will have the best options."

Asked to grade his season on a 100-point scale, Chen gave himself an 85 -- a solid B.

"It was a great season for me, but I made a lot of mistakes I shouldn't have, and I obviously didn't end the season the way I wanted," he said. "I still have a lot of work to do."

Over the next month, as he does shows with Stars on Ice and finishes his senior year of high school with the Connections Academy online program, Chen and Arutunian will have meetings about the future. Those meetings are to involve both of them; U.S. Figure Skating officials; USOC sports medicine staff; his "artistic" coach, Marina Zoueva; Chen's family; and his IMG representatives.

The idea is to have everyone on the same page, given the publicity demands that will come with his new stature as a likely 2018 U.S. Olympian. In early April, Coca-Cola signed Chen as one of its "four-pack" of featured winter Olympic and Paralympic athletes.

"He is my Ferrari," Arutunian said. "I want to be sure he has the best maintenance."

Arutunian already has turned the page on this season. His lingering memory will not be of seeing Chen make history but of watching the excitement Chen stirred up for figure skating in the United States.

"I have forgotten what happened," Arutunian said. "I am happy we had some success. My head is busy with what will happen next.

"I have a plan for the Olympic season -- and for hopefully another five seasons, through the 2022 Olympics."

Six quads again? If that is what Arutunian thinks it takes to win, count on it. At this point in Chen's development, his shortcomings in the areas rated by program component scores -- whether they be merely perceived or actually based in reality -- probably mean he has to out-jump the competition in order to climb onto the podium in PyeongChang.

"I'm so young, I feel I can do [the jumps]," Chen said. "But sometimes it's a good idea to push, other times to pull back and really work on components."

One of the pieces of Arutunian's plan for 2017-18 is to minimize Chen's travel. It is likely he will open the season at September's U.S. International Classic in Salt Lake City and be the headliner at Skate America over Thanksgiving in Lake Placid. It would not be surprising if Team Chen requested late October's Skate Canada in Regina, Saskatchewan, as his second Grand Prix event.

Chen will also be thinking of geography next fall as he applies to college, which he hopes to begin in the academic year after the Olympics. He said he would love to go to an Ivy League school and likely will test the application waters at one or more. But those all are on the East Coast, so he realizes a Southern California school -- USC, UCLA, UC-Irvine -- would be "more realistic" to allow him to continue training with Arutunian through 2022.

Some think falling short of a medal at worlds will ultimately work to Chen's advantage, in terms of the expectations he will face for next season. Others say making the podium would have further enhanced his confidence. Arutunian's goal was simply to have his skater in the top six, which the coach calls "the magic number," because it generally means a medal was within reach.

 "There are pros and cons to aspects of that," Chen said. "I'm cool with the way things are."