Perfect symbolic fit: Five Olympic rings. Five Nathan Chen free skate quads. And Chen doing them on the rink where a year from now he should be a strong contender for an Olympic gold medal.
The improbability that I can now confidently make such a bold statement about Chen is, in keeping with the numerical theme, the first of five takeaways from what he did Friday and Sunday in winning the Four Continents Championships in Gangneung, South Korea.
1. Few U.S. singles skaters have had as meteoric a rise as Nathan Chen.
Last December 8, a day before the free skate at the Grand Prix Final, the 17-year-old from Salt Lake City was a prodigiously talented young skater with no striking international success at the senior level.
Barely three months later, he has become the most striking figure skater in the world, with a real chance to win the title in his debut at the senior World Championships beginning March 28 in Helsinki, Finland.
The closest U.S. parallels I can think of from the 27 seasons since the end of compulsory figures made it possible for skaters to jump quickly to the top would be Tara Lipinski in 1997 and Michelle Kwan in 1996.
It took the redoubtable Kwan four tries to win her first of nine senior national titles, at age 15. (She was sixth in her first try – at age 12.) Kwan followed that initial U.S. title two months later with her first of five world titles – at the time, she was the third youngest women’s world champion in history.
Lipinski moved even faster. In her second year as a senior, at age 14, she became the youngest women’s national and world champion and, a year later at 15, the youngest Olympic champion. All those distinctions remain hers.
This season, Chen’s third as a senior skater at nationals (but only his first as a senior internationally), he became the youngest U.S. man to win a medal on the Grand Prix circuit and the youngest U.S. men’s champion since Scott Allen in 1966. He could become the youngest men’s world champion in history, a distinction belonging to 18-year-old Donald McPherson of Canada since 1963.
2. Chen literally has jumped to the top. At the U.S. Championships last month, he became the first to land five quads in a free skate. (All got positive grades of execution). At Four Continents, he became the first to land five fully credited quads in international competition (one had a negative GOE of -.51; before that, Chen had landed 15 straight clean quads over three events.)
His fifth quad, a salchow, at Four Continents proved the difference in Chen’s 3.75-point win over Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu. The 12.84 points from that quad salchow were at least 2.2 more than the maximum he could have received for the triple loop Chen had done in its place as recently as the Dec. 9 free skate at the Grand Prix Final.
At Four Continents, Chen was the only skater to land more than one clean quad in the short program and joined Hanyu as the only ones to land more than three in the free skate. His quad consistency has been stunning: 17 positives in the last 18 attempts.
But the jumps alone are not what have propelled him from just being a Grand Prix finalist to winning Four Continents over all but one of the prime contenders for the world title (Spain’s Javier Fernandez, whose country is not in the Four Continents field.)
In his first senior Grand Prix last November, Chen got PCS scores of 41.11 for the short program and 79.36 for the free skate. At Four Continents, those scores increased by some five percent – to 43.54 as he won the short and 88.36 as he finished second in the free skate to Hanyu.
Those PCS scores are an indication that international judges believe Chen now has what skaters call the “full package” – artistry and athleticism. And Chen’s artistry, not yet equal to that of Hanyu, Fernandez and Canada’s Patrick Chan (when Chan isn’t falling all over the place, as he did three times at Four Continents), has a big upside.
Perhaps the most significant thing is that all this recent success has pleased Chen without satisfying him.
“There were some mistakes here and there,” Chen said after the free skate. “There are definitely things I need to work on.”
3. Chen’s free skate at Four Continents was not quite as good as those in his break-out, four-quad winning free at the Grand Prix Final and the historic win at nationals.
Yet this was the most impressive, because it followed the hype created by the other two, it came in his first senior international championship and in the first significant international senior event where he had a real chance at the title. (Chen was 19 points behind Hanyu after the short program at the Grand Prix Final; he finished second overall to Hanyu by 11 points but wound up 14 points ahead of Fernandez, winner of the last two world titles.)
The pressure increased when Hanyu, one ahead of Chen in the free skate order, delivered a terrific if slightly flawed performance that led fans to litter the ice with seemingly millions of stuffed Winnie the Poohs, in reference to Hanyu’s good luck totem.
Chen had the competitive maturity to turn all that to his advantage rather than let it become nerve-wracking.
“Skating after Yuzu is obviously kind of exciting because he really gets the audience into his program, and they get really excited,” Chen said. “With the whole Winnie the Pooh situation, it’s something that I can’t change, but it was something I was expecting. I just waited until everything was cleared, got on the ice and did everything that I needed to do. I had plenty of time to do what I needed to do, so it wasn’t too much of a struggle for me.”
4. The healthy rivalry between Chen and 2014 Olympic champion Hanyu, now 22, is a wonderful thing for the sport.
“Yuzu definitely pushed everything in terms of figure skating – the jumps, the artistry, everything together as a whole package,” Chen said.
“It is nice what Nathan said about me, but we all together pushed the sport forward,” Hanyu said, also referring to Japan’s Shoma Uno and China’s Jin Boyang.
5. The duo of Chen and Jason Brown, sixth at Four Continents, has an excellent chance at worlds to earn the U.S. men three spots at the 2018 Olympics.
Brown, still working his way back into shape after a foot stress fracture, recovered at Four Continents from falling on a triple axel in the short program to land the jump twice cleanly in his quad-less free skate. By skating clean at worlds, even without a quad, he should be able to crack the top 10, meaning a Chen medal of any color would be enough to give Team USA the places it needs for the third spot.
After the way Chen has skated since Dec. 8, it is hard to imagine him not winning a world medal.
Corrections: The U.S. Figure Skating 2017 media guide incorrectly lists Evgeny Plushenko of Russia as the youngest men's world champion in history; it actually is Donald McPherson of Canada, who was 18 years, 9 days when he won in 1963, while Plushenko (18 years, 140 days when he won in 2001) actually is the fourth youngest.
Both Nathan Chen and Yuzuru Hanyu landed four clean quads in the free skate, not just Chen. That was my error.