It’s hard to say what goes through the mind of an 11-year-old boy when he realizes he’s the best.
It’s hard, too, to understand what drives one so young to become so great, all while maintaining a personality that’s bigger than life, but shy and modest all at once.
In January 2010, the world got its first look at one such youngster when Salt Lake City’s Nathan Chen burst onto the
national figure skating scene. Chen, only 10 at the time, skated two sparkling programs back to back complete with triple jumps, tricky steps and a tidal wave of personality. He won the novice title, out-skating boys 5+ years older than him in the process.
Not a bad debut, eh?
Later that year, he was honored as ABC’s Person of the Year for his stunning entrance to the national spotlight.
And yet, he took it all in stride.
Chen, again, only 10 years old, wasn’t quite ready to the next competitive step. Wisely, his parents and coaches kept him content at the novice level where he had the chance to continue working fundamentals and technique. When he came out at Nationals for the second time, he wouldn’t be the young kid making a splash. He’d be the defending champion, fully confident in his developed skills.
From every indication, that plan worked to perfection once Chen arrived in Greensboro this past January.
“This year I thought it was a little bit easier than last year because I already had an idea about what it’s going to be like,
Chen said. “I didn’t really think about defending my title I just wanted to skate my best.”
His best just happened to be 36 points better than anyone else in the competition. Good work, Team Chen.
The figure skating world was buzzing with not only the technical skills he clearly had, but his presentation that was head and shoulders about the rest of the field. He skated a long program with a cowboy theme and executed it better than a lot of men on the senior level could have! Between landing triple jump after triple jump, he appeared totally engaged with the crowd.
But if you ask him, the crowd was the last thing on his mind.
“I try not to focus on the crowd and just sell it out,” he said. “I really enjoyed skating the whole piece.”
Now, it’s not unrealistic to expect such a young one to be at least slightly intimidated by the fact that he’s skating with boys 16, 17, 18 years old with years more experience under their belts.
Not so much.
“I don’t think about who I’m competing against I just try to do my best,” Chen said, matter of factly.
And with a kid like him, it’s easy to believe that’s truly the case.
Nathan enjoys the simple things in skating — feeling the wind on his face, skating fast. Even his favorite jump (the triple lutz) is his favorite because of the thrill it brings.
“I get a lot of air and it feels good,” he said simply.
Off the ice, he’s just like every other kid who likes fresh air, playing with friends, and traveling to new places.
But in the two hours he’s skating every day, he’s working with a goal in mind, and with dedication far beyond his 11 years.
This season, he’ll skate as a junior level competitor for the first time. This means longer programs, bigger elements, and international eyes on his every move. Don’t think that scares him, though. He’s got his sights set on the season’s climax already.
“My goal is to make it to nationals.”
But Nationals may just be one step.
The skating world has seen many a phenom come and go over the years. Jumping to the international stage is like jumping from high school baseball to the minor leagues. It’s not the biggest jump. But it changes everything.
For Chen, the world is ready to sit back and watch as he makes that jump, anxious to see if he really could be America’s next-generation Patrick Chan.
For his team, it’s about normalizing it all; making sure he skates for the same reasons he’s always skated, that he trains smart, and that he always – always – has fun.
Skating legend Michelle Kwan lived by a motto that kept her perspective through the years. Perhaps Chen can adopt it as his own — “Work hard, be yourself, and have fun.”
To refresh your memory, take a look back at his exhibition skate from Greensboro. And listen to the commentators rave!
This interview was conducted via email with Nathan Chen after the 2011 US Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina.