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‘I just lay there in the darkness': Nathan Chen details 2018 Olympic experience in new book

Nathan Chen

GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 17: Nathan Chen of the United States competes during the Men’s Single Free Program on day eight of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Gangneung Ice Arena on February 17, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

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In “One Jump at a Time,” which comes out Tuesday, Olympic champion figure skater Nathan Chen tells his life story, from his upbringing as the youngest of five children in a Chinese-American family to his journey through sports. In this excerpt, Chen writes about his disappointing and then redeeming performances at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, including his coach, Rafael Arutyunyan, and sister Alice ...

As soon as I stepped onto the ice for the individual short program, it was the exact same situation as before the team short program a few days before—the exact same feeling. I thought, “Oh no, I don’t think I’m capable of doing this.” This time, it was almost worse because I couldn’t shake the memory of what had happened a few days earlier.

Against Raf’s advice, I decided to go for the quad Lutz to open the program, rather than the quad flip. When I fell on that first jump, my first thought was, “I really wish I could go back and restart this program.” But of course, that wasn’t an option. Instead, I allowed myself to get caught up in a complicated game of trying to make up for that initial mistake by mentally mixing and matching the remaining two jumping passes to maximize my points. I had spent so much energy getting up from that fall, I started to think, “How can I adjust my program to potentially get a higher score and conserve my energy, so I don’t miss every single jump in this program?” I made a last-minute decision to swap out the planned quad flip for the easier quad toe in the second half of the program, but I wasn’t mentally prepared for that jump. And while I was busy worrying about that, I did exactly what I feared—I messed up each of my three jump passes. Again.

I stepped out of my quad toe and did the same after landing my triple Axel. I was so off-balance that I had to put my hand down on the ice.

If I had set my mind on one short program—either the one Raf suggested or the one I had wanted to perform—and stuck to it no matter what happened, I probably would have been able to salvage both those disastrous short programs, or at least scrape together something that would have been better than what I actually performed. Having too many backup options, and too many combinations running through my head, when I should have been focused on following through on what I had practiced all season, introduced too much room for error and ended up setting me up for failure.

Coming off the ice, I couldn’t look at Raf or anyone else in the arena.

I knew I would just see disappointment. I hadn’t received scores that low in years. I wanted to slink away from the bright lights of the arena. I didn’t want to talk to the media, I wanted to get out of the rink as quickly as I could. I didn’t know that I was allowed to skip the mixed zone, which is this gauntlet of reporters who pepper you with a bunch of questions. So I faced them. I remember the reporters were really gentle, maybe because they were as shocked as I was and didn’t know what to make of what had happened. They asked me, “How do you feel?”

I answered, “I don’t feel good,” and that was pretty much it.

By the time everyone had skated, I was in seventeenth place out of two dozen skaters. As soon as my press obligations were done, I slipped out of the arena and went back to my room in the Village. I just wanted to lie in bed and not think at all.

I can’t remember if I called my mom, or if she called me as she was walking out of the arena with my family, but we talked.

“Do me a favor, Nathan,” she said.

“What?” I responded.

“Just skate a clean long tomorrow. You can do it.”

I desperately wanted to do the same, but wasn’t in any mindset to make promises. It was my mom’s way of encouraging me. Her philosophy in parenting all her children was to never give up. She wanted us to work hard and train hard for the best results; but if things didn’t go well, she also wanted us to push on despite the result. That’s why she had told Genia that I would still skate at the novice championships so many years ago, even though I had been injured three weeks before the competition. Even if I came in last, if I didn’t even try, then I would never know what I could accomplish. Her one sentence request embodied all that: by asking me to skate a clean free program, she was telling me that the competition wasn’t over yet.

Nathan Chen One Jump at a Time

At the time, though, I didn’t want to think about what had happened at all. For the next eighteen hours I just lay in bed under my blankets. It was still relatively early in the afternoon, since the competition had been in the morning, but I closed the shades and didn’t eat anything. I just lay there in the darkness. At some point, I got up to take a shower and then tried to go to sleep. But sleep had eluded me ever since I arrived in PyeongChang. I was only half sleeping, which meant I never felt fully physically recovered. I was used to sleeping close to ten hours at home, but was not getting nearly that over the past few days. Since I was struggling with it now, I started to panic.

I kept tossing and turning, until finally, I called Alice.

“I can’t sleep. What should I do?” I asked. “Should I take Tylenol PM?”

I had brought some Tylenol PM to PyeongChang just in case I needed it to help me fall asleep. I had previously used it, but I would feel drowsy and not as responsive the next morning. I had an early morning practice for the free program the next day, and I didn’t want to feel drowsy on the ice.

Alice was at the Airbnb and decided to consult with the whole family. We figured it was okay for me to take one so I could sleep and still get up relatively early the next morning. I didn’t really want to get into a discussion about anything else at that point, and I think my family sensed that and respected it. As soon as we decided I could take a Tylenol PM, I hung up.

That night I got the best night’s sleep during the whole time I was in South Korea. I woke up the next morning well rested and was feeling really fresh for the free program, which was scheduled at 10 a.m. The further back in the standings you are, the earlier your practice time, so I was among the first skaters at the rink that morning.

In the back of my mind, I was wondering if there was any point in trying six quads, as Raf and I had planned, since my practices had been so inconsistent. I had made every mistake possible on my jumps in the two short programs I had skated so far, so I figured, what difference would it make if I made a few more? I was beyond worrying about the outcome at that point. I had nothing to lose: falling further back in the placements wouldn’t change anything, and winning a medal was off the table. My mom and Tony were at my practice that morning; and though we didn’t talk, I did make eye contact with my mom, which made me feel a little better. I knew she was rooting for me no matter what had happened. Tony was being very supportive—and loud. There weren’t many people in the rink at that hour, so I could hear him screaming “Go, Nathan!” or “Yeah, Nathan” every time I landed a jump. With all the pressure finally dissipated, I skated a clean run-through of my program during that practice.

During that session, Yuzuru came in for his practice session. I was still on the ice as he was just arriving and started to warm up. He was, of course, in the lead after the short program, with a 4.1 point margin over Javier Fernandez, who was in second. Maybe I was projecting how I was feeling, but to me, it looked like Yuzuru was taking in the moment and really savoring being at his second Olympics and perhaps on the verge of defending his Olympic title. That’s not an easy place to be, and he also had a lot of pressure on him to repeat as Olympic champion, which hadn’t been done since Dick Button in 1948 and 1952. But rather than looking anxious or uncomfortable with all those expectations, he seemed calm and just grateful for the chance to be there competing. I remember realizing that I hadn’t experienced those feelings once during this competition. I didn’t talk to him, or ask him how he was feeling; and maybe it was just in my own mind, because my Olympics had been so stress filled and disappointing, but it’s something that stood out for me from that practice.

My mentality going into the free program was entirely different from what it was before the short program. I didn’t care about the results anymore. It’s not that I wasn’t thankful for the opportunity to skate at the Olympics, something that I had dreamed so long of doing, but my goal had drastically changed. I talked briefly to my family, and through texts, they were telling me to focus on that gratitude—as poorly as my two previous programs had gone, I still had another opportunity to compete. And that was more than many athletes could hope for.

At that point, it was no longer about where I placed. I wasn’t focused on getting the highest levels for my spins or my footwork, and I didn’t really care if I fell on every single jump. I told myself my goal was to start the program when the music began and end it when the music finished, and whatever happened in between would happen.

As unappreciative as that approach seems, that mentality was what I needed to counter the “Olympic gold or bust” thinking that had weighed me down to that point. Sitting in seventeenth place, I had almost nowhere to go but up, so that might have freed me to finally skate at the level I knew I was capable of reaching. And somehow, I did. I stayed upright on all six quad jumps, and won the free skate portion of the event.

I had done what my mom had asked me to do.

From the book ONE JUMP AT A TIME. Copyright (c) 2022 by Nathan Chen. Published on November 22, 2022 by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

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