By the numbers, Nathan Chen’s jumps add up to a new dimension of skating
Having basically exhausted the English language’s supply of superlatives to describe Nathan Chen’s skating over the past three seasons, I woke up Sunday morning looking for other ways to find context for what seemed his almost certain fifth straight U.S. title.
Without more than a gut feeling, which was intensified by his commanding execution Saturday of the most technically difficult short program he had done since 2018, I had a sense that Chen has had a remarkable success rate for several years in programs packed with the toughest array of jumps anyone ever has tried in the sport.
So, with the help of the data mining genius behind the invaluable web site skatingscores.com (who prefers anonymity), I set off to dredge through old scoring protocols to see whether statistical evidence supported my intuition about how consistently good Chen’s jumping has been during an unbeaten streak in 12 individual live competitions that began with the 2018 World Championships.
I would wind up going in a slightly different direction for my Sunday NBCSports.com story on Chen’s triumph, partly because he stumbled and nearly fell on his first jump in the free skate, a quadruple lutz, prompting this immediate text from my friend at Skating Scores: “Oh god did u jinx it?”
I should note Chen went on to land cleanly four more quads, which would be utterly extraordinary for almost anyone but him. According to skatingscores.com, only three other men, Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu and Shoma Uno and China’s Boyang Jin, have ever done free skates with four or more “clean” (positive grade of execution) jumping passes that included a quad; of the 14 times that has happened, Chen accounts for seven.
With that in mind, I am going back here to the original idea, for which I had sought comments from some of the greatest skaters in history.
A few caveats:
*Figure skating excellence is not defined only by statistics showing an ability to reel off quadruple jumps, as the current and recent past great performances by quad-less athletes like Jason Brown and Misha Ge make abundantly clear. But since the sport switched 16 years ago to a numbers-intensive scoring system, it has – for better or for worse - generated mountains of statistics that can be fun to explore.
*Comparing Chen’s stats with anyone else’s (notably Hanyu’s) is tricky. Setting time period parameters is complicated.
*Letting someone like me who could never manually balance his checkbook deal with so many numbers is risky business. So thanks to skatingscores.com for the stat fact checking.
Chen’s unbeaten streak, which includes the last two world titles and wins over Hanyu at the 2019 World Championships and 2019 Grand Prix Final, is an obvious period to look at his results.
In that time frame, two-time Olympic champion Hanyu has missed some events with injuries and this year’s sort-of Grand Prix season by choice.
Despite his unquestioned status as the greatest men’s skater of at least the past 69 years, Hanyu’s longest individual event win streak is four. But he has not finished lower than second in his last 29 individual competitions dating to a fourth at the 2014 NHK Trophy - winning 19 of them, including the two Olympic golds, two world titles and four Grand Prix Final titles.
So, even though I will make a couple numerical comparisons between the two men, it is probably better – and more accurate - to appreciate Chen’s impressive statistics during his win streak on their own merits.
“He’s just simply that good,” said 1988 Olympic champion Brian Boitano.
*Chen has now landed 120 jumps of all types without a fall, including 50 quadruple jumps, dating to the 2018 Grand Prix Final. (Hanyu has currently gone 17 jumps without a fall.)
“That is astounding,” said 1984 Olympic champion Scott Hamilton of Chen’s ability to stay upright. “Looking back on the many champions who have dominated our sport, difficulty and consistency are the two things they all have in common. Nathan has taken those qualities to a level no one could have predicted.”
*Of Chen’s 71 jumping passes with a quad during his win streak (not including two where he doubled a planned quad), 57 have been done cleanly, i.e., with a positive grade of execution. (Hanyu’s numbers on his last 71 jumping passes with a quad are equally striking: 51 have received positive GOE.)
“(Nathan) makes mere mortals out of the rest of us jumper types,” said four-time world champion Kurt Browning of Canada, whose quad toe loop at the 1988 World Championships is the first credited quad in competition.
To coach Tom Zakrajsek, who has been teaching quads for 20 years, the numbers not only show “impressive consistency” but also point out that even for accomplished practitioners like Chen and Hanyu, “quads are risky.”
Yet Chen does not back away from them, no matter the competition. He has twice attempted six in a free skate (with five of six clean the first time, at the 2018 Olympics, were he won the free but finished fifth overall, his last defeat; and four of six in the second, at the 2018 World Championships).
He has done two quads in all but one of the short programs during the win streak. In the 12 free skates, he has done six quads once, five twice, four five times and three the other four.
“You know me: I like to always challenge myself and one-up myself after every competition,” Chen said of his decision to try five in the free skate at the 2021 national meet.
Trying to put Chen’s prowess and commitment to quads into perspective, Browning noted how another accomplished jumper from the days before women did quads, 1998 Olympic champion Tara Lipinski, would do “10 to 12 triples a night” during Stars on Ice shows in Canada and “she missed (popped) just one in 12 shows.”
“I thought that was pretty cool,” Browning said, “but what Nathan has done over a longer period of time in a competitive environment with quads is… I don’t want to say ‘unbelievable,’ but with a wink I will say, ‘highly unrealistic.’”
Nathan Chen’s skating clearly has augmented reality.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Olympic Winter Games, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.