One year after undergoing hip surgery, Nathan Chen took the ice for the free skate at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January. Wearing a red jacket with gold trim, he spun around and began his routine as the "Polovtsian Dances" music from the Russian opera "Prince Igor" played over the arena speakers.
Barely 20 seconds into his program, Chen landed a quadruple lutz-triple toe loop combination so impressively that it prompted 1998 Olympic gold medalist and NBC commentator Tara Lipinski to say, "I'm speechless."
Then he landed a quad flip jump. Then a quad toe loop. Then another quad toe. And then a quad Salchow to make figure skating history. Chen had become the first skater in history to land five quadruple jumps in a single program. He received a standing ovation from the crowd and won the national championship with a record score of 318.47, beating his nearest competitor by a record 55.44 points.
A month later, Chen landed five quads again to win the Four Continents championships in Gangneung, South Korea. This week he will go for gold -- and try to win the first medal by an American man since 2009 -- at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships in Helsinki. Naturally, he is a contender to medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang next February.
And bear in mind, Chen is skating this well and landing that many quads at just 17 years of age.
"It's really great to see somebody who not only is really pushing it to evolve the sport technically, but it's even better to see an American do it," said 2002 Olympic bronze medalist Timothy Goebel. "Essentially, since I was out of competition, the Americans have been technically behind. They hadn't been doing the quads; they hadn't been landing the harder tricks consistently. In most cases, they hadn't even been trying them.
"And now he is head and shoulders superior, in my opinion, to anyone in the world, at least technically."
CHEN IS THE YOUNGEST CHILD of Chinese immigrants who moved to America in 1988 and raised their family of three sons and two daughters in Salt Lake City. His father, Zhidong Chen, grew up in a rural Chinese town and is a medical research scientist. His mother, Hetty Wang, grew up in Beijing and is a medical translator. They always emphasized education to their children.
"An athlete can only stay in a career for a very short time," Wang said. "Education can last a lifetime."
Nathan, who plans to go to medical school, said his parents' background was a big influence in his life.
"There are a lot of cultural differences between Americans and Chinese, and I think that having both aspects be part of my life has helped me in a lot of ways, from an academic standpoint to an athletics standpoint," Chen said "They came to the U.S. with not much, and it's really inspirational to see how far they've come and how hard they worked for us. To be able to raise that many kids, and my dad was going to school at the time, just to listen to some of the stuff they've been through really motivates me."
Chen started skating at age 3 with the original goal of becoming a hockey goalie. While he doesn't remember his first time on the ice, his mother says he was so captivated by the experience that he wept when forced to exit the rink for the Zamboni machine.
"He didn't want to leave." Wang said. "He just stood there and cried and cried."
Chen had many interests off the ice as well. He danced ballet, played the piano and performed gymnastics. But he grew to love figure skating and soon became exceptional. He won the U.S. novice championship in 2010 at age 10, the youngest skater to ever win that title. Two years later he won the U.S. junior championship and won it again in 2014 while breaking the scoring record with 213.76 points.
He competed in the U.S. nationals at the senior level for the first time in 2015, finishing eighth, and in the 2016 event Chen became the first American to land four quads in the long program. He finished third, while Adam Rippon took the gold despite not landing a single quad.
That January weekend, Chen suffered a pelvic avulsion injury (when a tendon or muscle connected to the hip pulls off a piece of bone) that required surgery and kept him off the ice for almost six months. He wasn't able to compete at the 2016 world championships but says that rehabbing at the U.S. Olympic Training Centers in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Chula Vista, California, helped him become a better skater.
"When I was in Colorado Springs, I was also doing as much training off the ice and in rehab," Chen said. "Every day there was improvement and improvement, and I even surpassed what I was before the injury. All that time off the ice and in the gym helped me."
Chen was back on the ice last summer, and by December he'd improved enough to finish second at the Grand Prix Final in Marseille and become the youngest American to medal at that competition. He landed four quads in his long program but was looking ahead to doing more.
"By the time U.S. nationals rolled around," he said, "I knew I was capable of five."
A QUADRUPLE JUMP is obviously difficult. You must leap in the air fast enough and high enough to fully rotate your body four times before landing cleanly back on the ice. And you must do it in roughly two-thirds of a second. "It requires a lot of neuromuscular computing power in a very short period of time," Goebel said.
Doing it once in a 4½-minute program is hard enough. But to do it five times?
"There is so much precision required just to do one quad," Chen said. "Even in practice, there is so much focus, so much attention on each jump. I have to be super-prepared, super-ready to do each jump. And every single quad, you're basically pushing your body fast, to get the rotations and the height, and then be able to slow the jump and slow the momentum so you can land the jump.
"If something you really want to watch is artistry, go watch ice dancing. I think with what we're doing now, we're bringing such an athletic aspect to the sport."Nathan Chen, U.S. national figure skating champion
"Just one quad takes a lot out of you. And then you're preparing your body for another and preparing for another one and another one."
The emphasis on quad jumps over choreography, along with the scoring boost they can provide, is controversial. Longtime coach Frank Carroll says he doesn't think the sport can be called figure skating anymore but rather "figure jumping." Choreographer Rohene Ward, a former skater, says the emphasis on jumping is good for the competitors who can do it but bad for the sport overall.
"It's an artistic sport," Ward said. "It can't be just athletic."
Goebel, however, is a big proponent of quads and jumping even though Carroll was his coach at the 2002 Olympics. In fact, Goebel was known as the "Quad King" for his jumping ability.
"The whole point of sport is do it more and better, right?" Goebel said. "People don't want to see athletes running the same pace in the sprint that they were running 25 years ago. Sport is evolution. And what Nathan is doing is evolution. ... I think it will help. I think it will generate interest in the sport. And hopefully, it helps to get a little momentum behind the sport again."
Chen's early figure skating inspiration was Russian Olympic gold medalist Evgeni Plushenko, who is also was noted for his quads. Chen says jumps helped draw his interest to the sport.
"If something you really want to watch is artistry, go watch ice dancing," Chen said. "I think with what we're doing now, we're bringing such an athletic aspect to the sport. I'm not saying anyone can be fully artistic, but it's easier to work on things like that than these jumps."
Which is not to say that Chen is downplaying the artistic element of his skating. He says he pushed hard to improve that aspect last year, working with noted choreographer Marina Zoueva. "That's something I don't want to put aside," he said. "I want to continue work on that. I think that's a longer process to work on and will gradually mature over time."
Carroll says Chen has made a huge leap forward artistically.
"I thought in his long program, he really stretched and looked up," Carroll said of Chen's U.S. nationals performance. "His arms were much improved, much softer. I thought he was very good in program component scores. I think he improved that performance a lot -- much smoother, much more audience appealing. It was a big, big, big step up from last year."
SINCE SCOTT HAMILTON and Brian Boitano won consecutive gold medals at the 1984 and 1988 Winter Olympics, only one American male has won a gold at the Games -- Evan Lysacek in 2010 (a victory that was criticized, most notably by two-time Olympic silver medalist Elvis Stojko, because Lysacek didn't attempt a single quad). Lysacek and Goebel are the only U.S. men to win individual medals over the past six Olympics.
If Chen wins in Pyeongchang, he would be the youngest male figure skater to win an Olympic gold since Dick Button won at age 18 in 1948.
Chen faces stiff competition from the likes of reigning world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain and 2014 Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, but don't rule out Chen. Even Carroll likes his chances: "He did five quads, and if he skates with any kind of class and he can improve more in this coming year, he will be difficult to beat."
As two-time Olympian and NBC analyst Johnny Weir said during the broadcast of Chen's U.S. championship skate: "This is America's hope."
Regardless of whether Chen medals in 2018, he could complete an Olympic family circle of sorts. You see, his sisters, Alice and Janice, then 13 and 11, were cast members in the "Child of Light" skating presentation during the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City -- although it wasn't a competition, so they did not do any quads, let alone five.
If Chen is still skating in 2022, he'd have a chance to compete in his mother's hometown of Beijing, which will host the Winter Olympics that year.
And perhaps by then he will be landing six quads in a program. Or seven.
"Last year I was doing four quads, and at that point in time that was a big deal," Chen said. "Maybe I'm the first to do the five quads, but there are others who have pushed four, pushed five.
"It's crazy to think how much it's improved in a year. I think it's a cool direction for skating. It brings a lot more entertainment to the sport. It's fun for all of us to pushing each other and see how far it can go."