Nathan Chen's Cheat Code to Win Olympic Gold in Figure Skating

Tom Weir@@tomweirsportsFeatured ColumnistFebruary 7, 2018

Nathan Chen's ability to land multiple quads makes him a contender for Olympic gold.
Nathan Chen's ability to land multiple quads makes him a contender for Olympic gold.Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

No one ever tells Steph Curry to quit shooting threes, nor would anyone suggest Roger Federer cut back on serving aces. But in the Olympic sport of figure skating, some have a problem with Team USA's gold-medal hopeful, Nathan Chen, and his proliferation of mind-blowing quadruple jumps.

Chen and the quad have become synonymous, as the 18-year-old from Salt Lake City has owned the four-revolution jump like no one else. He has two quads in his short program and packs a stupefying five into his free skate, a once-unthinkable number that Chen has made his standard. And because there's no maneuver more challenging, figure skating's scoring system heaps on the rewards, which is a big part of why Chen is undefeated this season.

But some old-schoolers complain the obsession with quads has morphed figure skating into figure jumping, leaving little room for artistry and grace as the human kangaroos take over.

Preaching that sermon loudest is 88-year-old Dick Button, the two-time Olympic gold medalist who was the sport's most prominent commentator for a solid half-century.

In a conference call with Olympic reporters, Button described Chen as "wonderful" but went on to grouse about the quad's impact on skating:

"I don't even enjoy watching skating today because it's all about quadruple jumps and the winner of the Olympic Games in the men's will be the skater that performs the best and most quadruple jumps. Period, end of subject."

That grumpiness seems more than a little hypocritical, given Button's legacy as the pioneer who landed the first triple jump in competition.

Tony Avelar/Associated Press

Another criticism is that the scoring system awards points for merely attempting a quad, regardless of whether it's successful. That's aimed at encouraging competitors to keep pushing their limits.

"I don't think you should get credit for just trying things," says NBC commentator and two-time Olympian Johnny Weir, who acknowledges he stayed away from the quad for fear of falling in front of a national television audience. "That's what makes a mess in figure skating."

The quad has been around for 30 years, but the arguments about it were tempered because until the last few years hardly anyone attempted more than one in a program.

Then came the Chen explosion. He had the first five-quad performance in skating history while winning the 2017 U.S. Nationals and then repeated that feat at this year's nationals in January, even though he had been sick the week before.

Chen has heard the quad gripes, but he's also not apologizing for packing his routine with the jump that clearly is the coin of the realm in skating.

"Honestly, this is the direction the sport is taking," Chen says with a shrug. "If we all took away the quads, we wouldn't get the scores. I'm just going to continue with my plan this season."

     

Raising the bar

At the Pyeongchang Games, Chen's biggest rival figures to be defending Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan. Hanyu also has the chops to deliver a five-quad performance, but a nagging ankle injury has limited him this season.

But as the skating world became more accustomed to seeing Chen land multiple quads, it also began to nitpick his technique, particularly after he was sloppy on three quads while winning the Grand Prix Final in Japan.

Some of the criticisms strike 1988 Olympic gold medalist Brian Boitano as petty and distracting.

Brian Boitano
Brian BoitanoDavid Goldman/Associated Press/Associated Press

"I'm watching the commentators, and they're like, 'Oh, he almost put his hand down on that quad flip,'" says Boitano. "I feel like they're judging him at a different level now, and I'm like, 'Guys, he's doing a quad flip and he did not put his hand down. Cut him a break. He's setting the bar so high that if he doesn't land every quad perfectly in the program, it's OK. This guy's creating history here.'"

Boitano has been a fan of Chen ever since 2010, when he saw him become the youngest U.S. novice champion in history at the age of 10. Boitano was sitting with 1992 gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi and says the two Olympic champions rushed backstage to meet the youngster afterward. ABC News also took note and gave the then-4'5" Chen his first taste of national fame, naming him its "Person of the Week." When he was asked when he'd be going to the Olympics, he quietly answered, "Uh, 2018."

Chen's first quads were still a few years away.

"I remember working on it when I was 11 or 12, and it was like just not coming along at all," Chen says. "I'd fall really, really hard, and I kind of got scared of it. Didn't even really want to attempt it."

He was 14 or 15 when he successfully resumed the quest, knowing quads had become mandatory for any would-be champion.

"I wanted to do it, and I knew that I had to it, because even all these junior guys were doing quads at the time. It was definitely the priority on my agenda."

For the uninitiated, Chen explains that, "Quads are kind of a mix of just a lot of power, a lot of mental stress and a lot of technique.

SAN JOSE, CA - JANUARY 06:  Nathan Chen acknowledges the crowd after competing in the Men's Free Skate during the 2018 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships at the SAP Center on January 6, 2018 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/G
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

"I would relate it to an Olympic power lift where you're lifting an extremely heavy weight in a very short period of time and you're basically using all your exertion in a split second. And then, once that happens, you have to be very precise on where your body is so that you can check out [land] properly."

Then the jumps have to be coordinated with the crescendos in his music, and the entries into and out of his jumps have to be executed in a judge-pleasing manner.

"It definitely makes it much more difficult, especially since you're trying to think of so many different things in one second. If your mind slips for a second, a quad won't go the way you want it to," Chen says. "You've got to work out all those little kinks so you know what to think about."

So, let's cut to the chase. Just how much more difficult is it to do a quad instead of a triple?

Chen, who now stands 5'6" and weighs 135 pounds, sounds like Atlas with the world on his shoulders as he answers, "It's like adding 100 pounds to the bar."

        

Freaks and mutants

The competitive career of 1984 Olympic champion Scott Hamilton was winding down just as talk of quads started revving up. The Soviet Union's Alexander Fadeev failed on one at the 1984 Olympics, and it wasn't until 1988 that Canadian Kurt Browning landed the first one in competition.

Scott Hamilton
Scott HamiltonJason DeCrow/Associated Press/Associated Press

"If you were doing quads in my time, you were a freak or a mutant," says Hamilton, who will be part of NBC's team at Pyeongchang. "There were a lot of guys who were attempting them, just to see if they could get all the way around, and we all knew that it was just a matter of time. But this leap, this quantum leap, is what I'm most astounded by. Because you went from a guy doing two quads in a program, and that was spectacular, to a guy doing five in a program. It's nuts; it's insane."

Hamilton makes the case that figure skaters have always been underappreciated athletically, and he backs it up with his description of what the quad demands.

"Let's just break it down," Hamilton says. "You're forcing your body into the torque of getting up into the air, all the craziness about how to twist your hips so suddenly and so forcefully that you're now rotating so fast that you can do four revolutions in seven-tenths of a second. And then stop it perfectly on one foot, going backwards."

Seven-tenths of a second. Barely a heartbeat. Not even a full "One, Mississippi." Blink an eye, and you might miss it. Yet Chen nailed three of them in just the first 70 seconds of his free skate at nationals.

It was just one more sign of how far Chen has come. The family moved to the U.S. from China in 1988, and he is the youngest of five children. His mother Hetty grew up in Beijing, which could make for an intriguing homecoming when the Chinese capital hosts the 2022 Winter Olympics.

And it's clear that corporate America has no problem with the number of Chen's quads. He is one of four U.S. Olympians whose likeness appears on boxes of Kellogg's Corn Flakes, Vera Wang makes his costumes, and he also has sponsorship ties with Coca-Cola, Bridgestone and United Airlines.

"We got so many calls, honestly, we had to start turning things down," says Yuki Saegusa, a senior vice president of the IMG company that represents Chen.

Chen says it's "crazy" to see his picture on a cereal box, and of course, he's feeling Olympic pressure. But he adds that he wouldn't have it any other way.

"This is exactly where I wanted to be, this is all that I dreamed of. I'm really happy that I took all the right steps; I put the work in to get myself to where I am now. It's all happening so fast; it seems like it was yesterday that I first stepped onto the ice. I still need time to wrap my head around everything, but I'm so happy with everything that's already happened."

And the biggest chapter is still to come.

                

Tom Weir covered eight Winter Olympics as a columnist for USA Today.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story identified Kurt Browning as an American skater. He is Canadian. We regret the error. 

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