Nathan Chen can join Brian Boitano in U.S. figure skating history this week, a decade after holding Boitano in the palm of his hands with a program set to music from “Kung Fu Panda.”
Chen seeks a fourth straight national title in Greensboro, N.C. He would be the seventh man to do so since World War II. Five of the previous six won Olympic titles — Dick Button, Hayes Jenkins, David Jenkins, Scott Hamilton and, most recently, Brian Boitano from 1985-88.
Boitano remembered the first time he met Chen. He and Kristi Yamaguchi were compelled to leave their seats to find the teeny, tiny wunderkind who performed that program to the 2008 DreamWorks film.
“He was taking off his skates, and he probably came up to our waist,” Boitano said. “We knew when we saw him back then that he was going to be something special. He was really quiet. He’s still very quiet.”
In an interview last week, Chen focused on the present — coming back from a two-week cold or flu bug — rather than the perspective.
“I don’t like to typically think about that,” Chen said when asked about his streak. “It’s just different [from year to year]. It’s not really necessarily easier or harder.”
It is also different from previous eras. The last five men to win four in a row did it all in one Olympic cycle, then stepped away from competition after the Winter Games. That was back when turning professional meant the end of an Olympic career.
“It was kind of the norm back then,” Hamilton said. “After that it was kind of back and forth a lot [until Chen]. The business of skating changed so skaters could stay in a lot more, a lot longer. With all the money they brought in, they were able to prevent skaters from turning professional. So that brought in a different approach to nationals.”
Both Hamilton and six-time (non-consecutive) U.S. champion Todd Eldredge could think of just one name to compare Chen’s dominance in the history of U.S. men’s skating: Button, who won the first seven national titles after World War II, plus two Olympic golds.
Button earned national and world titles as a Harvard student. Chen is on a two-season win streak while majoring in statistics and data science at Yale. Button was the first skater to land a double Axel and a triple jump of any kind. Chen was the first to land six quads in one free skate.
Eldredge coaches skaters at the same rink where Chen trains when Chen visits his Southern California-based coach Rafael Arutunian. He is awed by watching Chen working out. Though Eldredge owns more national titles, he never felt the massive favorite status that accompanies Chen.
Eldredge competed in the post-Hamilton/Boitano era, when national champions began competing over multiple Olympic cycles. Eldredge ebbed and flowed from his first national title in 1990, when compulsory figures were still around, to 2002, when he defeated Timothy Goebel, then known as the Quad King.
“Physically, the demands of the sport take their toll on your body,” Eldredge said. “It’s hard to maintain that same level for that length of period of time.
“[In] 12 years [since Chen’s first national title], when he’s 29 years old, is he going to be able to continue to sustain that?”
All of the recent top U.S. men competed in multiple Olympic cycles. The last multiple national champion was Jeremy Abbott, who earned two titles each in two different Olympic cycles. Abbott finished his career in a third Olympic cycle, placing fifth at the 2015 U.S. Championships. Abbott didn’t remember that Chen made his senior nationals debut that year, finishing eighth at age 15.
“For me, winning the third and the fourth [titles] were harder because I started thinking about winning,” Abbott said. “After the second one, I was heading into a new quad and I was two-time U.S. champion. Then my focus was, oh, I’m expected to win. So that was a harder mental game rather than just focusing on making an Olympic team. The expectation now that I’ve done this twice in a row, I’m expected to win again and again and again.”
Abbott and Chen came up in the era of the points-based judging system instituted in 2004.
“Now with the way the scoring system is very different [from the old 6.0], cumulative points, if you have a bad day as a national champion, that’s it. You can’t get the points,” Eldredge said. “[In previous eras], if a certain skater was, I’ll say politically supposed to be the champion, you got a higher score, and rightfully so in most cases.”
Chen has the benefit of going into competitions knowing the kind of advantage he has in base value points from his jumping arsenal. He won last year’s national title by 58 points. This international season, he is 80 points clear of the next-highest-ranked U.S. man, Jason Brown.
“I don’t think that the try-to-push technique is necessarily my goal here,” at nationals, Chen said. “Hopefully just to maintain my body, maintain my health and try to prepare myself for the second half of the season.”