Why Nathan Chen Shuns Sequins?
Going into the Olympics, Chen looked like the United States’ best shot at a gold medal in figure skating. His long program is built on the story of a Chinese defector.
Nathan Chen, the American figure skating champion, is known for his jumping ability. Leading into the Olympics, he sought a more even balance of athleticism and artistry.
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — There is a saying in figure skating, full of truth and untruth, that jumpers can’t be artists and artists can’t be jumpers.
“When one side of your skating is so unbelievable, people can think the other side has fallen short,” said Scott Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic champion.
At 18, Nathan Chen of Salt Lake City has made himself into the lone American gold medal contender largely as a pioneering jumper, the first person to complete five jumps of four revolutions apiece — known as quads — in a single routine. But quads alone will not put him atop the medal podium.
Skating’s scoring system requires a ravenous accumulation of points for victory and assigns a numerical value to every element of a performance: jumps; spins; the flow, glide and intricacy of footwork; the translation of music and choreography into performance; and the purpose and design of movement across the ice.
So Chen, who took classical ballet classes for six years as a boy, spent months training for the 2018 Winter Olympics with a plan for evolution on the ice as much as revolution in the air.
Seeking a more even balance of athleticism and artistry, Chen worked with two renowned skating choreographers, consulted a blade specialist to refine the edge control of his skating and hired Vera Wang to design his costumes. He even cut the youthful wave from his hair, seeking to appear more mature and purposeful.
ImageChen’s costumes are designed by Vera Wang. In his short program, he skates to experimental pop music while his rivals use classical pieces.
Chen’s costumes are designed by Vera Wang. In his short program, he skates to experimental pop music while his rivals use classical pieces.Credit…Mladen Antonov/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
“The curl is gone, but I guess that makes me more aerodynamic, so that’s all right,” Chen joked last month at the United States championships.
After some hesitancy, given the subjective nature of skating, a sport in which judges determine winners and can reprove what they consider to be overtly political acts, Chen decided for his Olympic free skate to perform to the music from the 2009 movie “Mao’s Last Dancer.”
It is based on a memoir of the same name that depicts the harsh childhood, unexpected discovery, wrenching familial separation, and ultimate liberation and triumph of the dancer Li Cunxin.
The story bears some loose parallels to the immigration of Chen’s parents from China as they sought careers in the medical field. In November, Chen spoke by phone with Li for performance advice and to understand the dancer’s motivation. He gained a deep appreciation of Li’s perseverance.
“He’s been through a lot of pain and struggles, and maybe that’s not super parallel to my life,” Chen said in a series of interviews over several months. “But I think that mentality of pushing through anything is something I can relate to. Li is incredibly tough; nothing fazes him. That’s something I can definitely learn from and not let my emotions get in the way.”
‘The Best of the Best’
With a breakout season a year ago, and a sixth-place finish at the 2017 world championships last spring, Chen displayed more artistry, “but it wasn’t enough,” said Tara Lipinski, the 1998 women’s Olympic champion who is now an NBC commentator