Five of the six U.S. men's Olympic gold medalists were in attendance at the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose, California. In the days following the competition, icenetwork asked them their overall impressions of Nathan Chen, one of the favorites for the gold medal at next month's Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.
The respondents were:
- Brian Boitano, the 1988 Olympic champion and a two-time world champion, who has followed Chen closely for years
- Evan Lysacek, the 2010 Olympic champion and 2009 world champion, who trained briefly on the same ice as Chen when the younger skater began working with Rafael Arutunian in California seven years ago. The 2018 U.S. Championships were the first time Lysacek had been in an arena to watch Chen compete.
- Scott Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic champion, four-time U.S. champion and four-time world champion, who has watched Chen compete at various levels
- Dick Button, the 1948 and 1952 Olympic champion, who got his first chance to see Chen -- 70 years his junior -- in person at the 2018 U.S. Championships
- Hayes Jenkins, the 1956 Olympic champion, who first saw Chen in person at the 2014 U.S. Championships in Boston, where Chen, then 14, won his second U.S. junior title
On Chen's maturity
Boitano: I've liked his stuff before, but his long program this time -- his positions, his fluidity, the way he holds himself -- is more adult. It's getting more adult, and it's getting more precise. ... It's amazing that he's able to be so precise with his jumping and have the style that he does right now. It's pretty ahead of the ballgame.
Lysacek: When you have a technical ability as high as what he is doing, to (completely) balance that and components is virtually impossible.
When I watched him last season, I said, "Wow, he has great posture, great line, he relates to the music, he understands cadence of a program, he understands character, he has great musicality." The way he has built both programs this season is so smart and strong that I think he has a great balance between technical and components.
Hamilton: It's the maturity, being more comfortable in his own skin. When you're trying to win something, it's different than owning it -- that sports cliché about it being easier getting there than staying there. He has shown it is now his (U.S.) title. There was nobody going for first place except for him. When you've got your competitors thinking they're just trying to get on the podium because first is already taken, that's a pretty good step forward.
He's stronger, more mature, with a lot more winning under his belt. He sees the promised land now more than he could before. He knows he has a place in the world of skating. That's step one to being able to win.
On Chen's improvement as an artistic skater
Boitano: You can tell the difference in skaters who are actively trying to improve and those who are just giving people lip service. The guy is so intense, such a hard worker. I know that he works really hard on his jumping, and I also know he does days when he doesn't jump and he just spins. I believe he really works on movement.
He's so intense that he doesn't want to leave any stone unturned. I love that intensity, and I think that's why he's going to be a (global) champion.
I definitely think he could become equal in artistic and technical ability. He's so young. It's a hard thing to time everything because (you don't know) how long is his body going to last doing this. A lot of us come into our own in our mid-20s to early 30s...who knows if he'll have that time window? But if he did, he would certainly be as great of an artist at about (age) 25 to 30, if he was able to make it that far.
Hamilton: He has always been able to be forward thinking. He's still going to get technically stronger at his age. As he gets in front of more and more audiences and understands music and movement better and how to really reach into an audience, which comes early 20s for most guys, I think there is still a lot he has left to do to take his skating to its peak.
He's still got some improving to do, even if it seems hard to believe, and Rafael has this grand scheme of how to take him to places no one has ever dreamed of. At the same time, he is going to be a stronger performer, be able to better handle music.
Button: He is already (good artistically). His line, etc., improved incredibly this year. That's because he spent the time worrying about it.
He is a very intelligent kid. He has the right kind of understandings from both [Rafael] Arutunian (his coach) and [Marina] Zoueva (his previous coach) for creating the programs that will enhance his artistry or at least create enough to show what it is he is capable of, and he is capable of an enormous amount.
I saw an enormous difference this year in the creative sense. He had Marina Zoueva work with him. And she understands the importance of that combination of athleticism and dance and position and balletic moves. So he does, too.
Jenkins: I thought there was lot of artistry and musicality in him four years ago. Now, I think it has matured even more, and the Vera Wang outfits he wore (this year) really complemented him. The whole package was very impressive.
Everybody marvels at his quads, but I think he goes beyond the quads. I think the young man has a lot of the art of skating in him.
On Chen's elegance
Button: I think he has improved tremendously this year. I thought he was very elegant.
I think his jumping ability is extraordinary. And I think he is very elegantly aligned this year. He improved phenomenally with the elegance of his skating.
Jenkins: The black (free skate) outfit made the jumping more elegant because he has good form on his jumps. They are very tight, the legs are straight, they all flow nicely, and it all shows up much better when you have a complete line, as he did with the black outfit. It accentuates his line.
On Chen's mental toughness
Backstory: The day before the start of the men's competition in San Jose, Boitano witnessed an awful practice session Chen had, one in which he made significant errors on more than half of his jump attempts. Then, Chen went on to land all seven of his quad attempts cleanly in the short program and free skate. (His only jump mistakes were on a triple axel in each program.)
Boitano: His music started, and he fell on his first two quads. He stopped (for a few seconds) and then continued. He didn't seem upset. I was sitting there thinking how hard it would be as a skater to have a practice like this and maintain your confidence. You rely on how you practice for confidence. All I could think about was, "Man, how does a guy make it back from a practice like this?" ... He obviously didn't have a problem with it.
Lysacek: A lot of skaters, [a bad practice] would ruin their week. The Brian Boitanos and Michelle Kwans and Scott Hamiltons of the world, they don't get rattled.
Nathan is mentally strong. That's the kind of athlete I would hope to see representing our country in the Olympics in any sport.
Hamilton: I do think he is getting stronger. He's mentally very, very tough. He has shown a high level of consistency this year (Chen has won all five of his competitions, including the Grand Prix Final), with no big disasters. Just watching him as he goes out on the ice, it seems he expects to do everything. He lands his fifth quad in his long program, and he's not fist pumping, jumping up and down. There's not that wondering if he's going to land them -- I just expect him to.
On Chen's ability to perform under pressure
Boitano: Those were the best landings I've seen (for Nathan this season), and he did it in a pressure situation, while skating last (in the free skate). … I mean, the guy is a monster.
Lysacek: Because of the difficulty of skating -- and a lot of that is thanks to skaters like Nathan that have pushed the envelope and raised the bar technically -- the sport has become even more mental than it was before. It's cool to see a skater like Nathan that has the ability to deliver under an immense amount of pressure. Seeing the excitement around him, the way they (television) promote him coming out later to skate -- there's a lot of pressure on his shoulders to carry U.S. men's skating, if not U.S. figure skating, as a whole.
It seems like he's better than ever in competition, when the pressure is on. That reminds me of great champions like Michelle and Brian and Scott. Every one of the greats in U.S. figure skating had that ability to deliver under pressure, and they really thrived in that moment.
A lot is changing for Nathan. When you go from an elite athlete to one who is winning major international and domestic championships, you are no longer free. You skate with a new weight on your shoulders, the pressure of expectations. I think Nathan has found a perfect balance (between) the components and the technical side of skating, and he has been able to deliver.
Jenkins: He has been at it a while, and he should be a seasoned competitor at this point. In terms of the maturity of being a competitor, that doesn't surprise me. He has been through the wars. He knows what it is all about and, by this time, he has figured out how to deal with the pressures.
On the expectations Chen has for himself
Boitano: I can see he's more angry at himself for making mistakes not because he's going to have a poor placement -- it's just that it's hard (for him) to live with himself. (He thinks), "I turned out of that triple axel. I can't believe I turned out of that triple axel." I'm sure that that was what was going through his head when he was taking his bow the other night (during the men's free skate in San Jose). He hits all these quads and he's like, "That darn triple axel."
Hamilton: Knowing he was sick and the (poor) practices he was having, I was trying to temper expectations. But then he went out and threw it down. So I just get this impression he is so incredibly strong and tough, expects to win, expects to land the jumps, expects to perform well -- and that it would be a real strange occurrence if it didn't go as planned.
On Chen's mastery of the quad
Lysacek: When I have seen him practice, he's a machine. He's doing quads by the 10s and 20s.
Jenkins: I marvel at what Nathan and other guys are doing with the quads, particularly the ease with which he rolls them off. What he is doing is brilliant.
I don't think people truly understand, unless you have been a skater yourself, the difficulty of what he's doing.
On Chen's competitiveness
Lysacek: I loved seeing him at the beginning of the season (Rostelecom Cup) against the reigning Olympic champion, Yuzuru Hanyu, to not back down, to throw every trick he had against him and let the chips fall, and they fell in Nathan's favor. That showed an incredible competitive nature.
On Chen's Olympic prospects
Hamilton: It seems like he is in a pretty good place to do extremely well at the Olympics. I would think he'd medal if he skates anywhere near how he skated at nationals.
Lysacek: If I were having to compete against him, I think I would be pretty scared going into the Olympics.
(This article originally appeared on icenetwork.)