In return to Yale, Nathan Chen goes back to his future
When Nathan Chen returns to Yale late this summer after a two-year leave of absence, his housing arrangement will make Chen think he is going back to the future.
“I feel like I’m a returning first-year,” said Chen, actually a rising junior.
He has a room on Yale’s Old Campus, where the residence halls are primarily occupied by first-year students. It is where he lived the first time around after matriculating in the 2018-19 academic year.
The difference this time is Chen also wants to feel present on campus in a way he could not during his first two years of college, when he jammed studies and an international figure skating career into days that seemed too short.
He wants to find a fun extracurricular activity or two that aren’t related to skating. He wants to take guitar lessons.
Chen, majoring in statistics and data science, wants to focus more on his classes, to “make sure the learning is truly, truly ingrained in me rather than trying to get quickly through it, just doing well enough to get through exams.”
And, Chen added, he would also like to be more engaged with other students.
“Making friends,” he said. “I didn’t get too much of a chance to do that.”
That is why he wanted to live on campus again even though, at 23, he will be five years older than many of the students in rooms near him. His original class, Yale ’22, is graduating this week.
And it is why the reigning Olympic champion is unlikely to compete during his final two years at Yale (and perhaps ever again), even as he says his skating future remains uncertain. He does expect to skate “more days than not,” but he said that likely will be mainly on public sessions at the Yale rink.
Asked if there were any chance he would compete next season, which begins in the fall, Chen answered, “I don’t think next season.” Asked if there was a decent chance he would compete again after graduation, he said, “I have no idea. I’m really happy with the things I have already accomplished.”
Who wouldn’t be, with an Olympic singles gold medal, two Olympic team event medals, three world titles, six straight national titles and landmark jumping achievements?
Truth be told, Chen has been so busy with his post-Olympic life, first as a celebrity talk show guest, then with Stars on Ice in Japan, now as the headliner on the 24-city Stars on Ice U.S. tour that runs through May 29, that he has found little time to think about anything beyond the next day’s schedule.
(There was also an unscheduled five-day quarantine on Long Island, New York, after Chen contracted Covid. Because the tour dates are nearly all on weekends, he did not miss any shows but was unable to join the 2021 and 2022 U.S. Olympic teams for their White House visit.)
Speaking via FaceTime last Friday before the Stars show in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Chen said he has yet to talk with U.S. Figure Skating about whether he wants to be considered for this year’s Grand Prix Series. Two USFS officials told NBC Sports the deadline for athletes to inform the federation has not yet been set.
Chen also said he had not even spoken to his coach, Rafael Arutunian, since the Olympics.
“After Stars on Ice is over, it will be great to talk to Raf to see what he thinks, what I think, what my parents think, what my family thinks – and then kind of go from there,” Chen said.
When Stars ends, Chen will have a month before his next skating commitment, four “Dreams on Ice” shows in Yokohama, Japan, in early July. He will be back in Japan in late July for a nine-show, three-city tour called “The Ice.” The other major item on his agenda for the summer is a Hawaii vacation with his parents and four siblings, one of whom, Tony, lives on Oahu.
“As a family, we’ve never gone on a vacation,” Chen said.
He and his mother, Hetty Wang, have lived apart from their family base in Salt Lake City since Chen began working with Arutunian in southern California some 12 years ago. They will no longer have a California residence at the end of the summer, when he leaves for Yale, and his mother goes back to Utah.
“If something happens, and I want to train in California, I can always go back and stay with Mariah (Bell) or Michal Brezina,” he said. “That would only be for a couple weeks during (school) breaks.”
During his first two years at college, Chen bridged the 3,000-mile distance to Arutunian mainly with video sessions. He moved back to California the past two seasons to focus solely on skating.
Chen insisted his Stars on Ice experience has been little different as Olympic champion from what it was four years earlier, when he had finished fifth in the 2018 Olympics.
“I’m a little later in the show,” he said, in characteristic understatement, of the tour recognizing his change in stature.
He does two individual numbers, one with the Elton John music used in his Olympic free skate. When the Stars on Ice cast went to John’s concert in Greensboro, North Carolina, last month, the legendary musician gave Chen a shout-out.
“I was just so honored he chose my song,” John said.
“That was crazy,” Chen said of John’s acknowledgement.
Among other perks from winning gold: the acclaimed guitar making company Paul Reed Smith recently gifted Chen an electric. (“One of their employees who was a figure skater saw I was really into guitar and reached out to ask if I would like one of theirs,” Chen explained.)
And, coinciding with Wednesday’s tour show in Salt Lake City, the Utah governor, Spencer Cox, has declared it “Nathan Chen Day” in the state. That was to include honoring Chen in a ceremony at the State Capitol chamber.
For Chen, the best part of winning the gold medal was giving it to his mother in a surprise reunion between them on the “TODAY” show after he returned from Beijing.
“(It was) for the work she helped me with over many, many years,” he said. “It resulted in the goal we both really wanted.”
He won gold in a runaway with some of the greatest skating in Olympic history. It began with his performance in the team event short program, continued with his record score in the individual short program and ended with a free skate that included five clean quadruple jumps and one blip, a watered-down final jump of a combination.
Chen said he generally does not re-watch his skating. He has made an exception for the 2022 Olympic short programs, which did more than exorcise demons from botching them both at the 2018 Olympics. He had fresher doubts to deal with, related to his combination jump, a quad lutz-triple toe.
“I was struggling so much on the lutz-toe in training (for a couple months),” Chen said. “I would go into the jump, fall, go into the jump, fall. I had repetition after repetition of the short program not being able to hit it. That engendered a lot of worry over my preparation for the Olympics.”
Chen hit the combination both times in the Beijing competitions, becoming the first skater to land it in the second half bonus area of an international short program. That is why he has found it compelling to watch the programs again. That is why after the second short program the usually self-contained Chen gave a powerful fist pump, a public display of emotion he called, “Unconventional for me.”
“I’m able to generate so much pride for that because I know how hard it was to get to that point,” he said.
For four years, Chen had been motivated by the desire not only to compete again at the Olympics but to give himself a good shot at the gold medal. What he did in Beijing will be forever present in Chen’s life, but it already is also in the past. Right now he is excited to play the new guitar.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.
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