Nathan Chen: ‘Simone Biles gave athletes a sense of peace’


Nathan Chen takes nothing for granted. At the dawn of an Olympic season where he’s widely expected to bring home the gold medal that eluded him four years ago, the world’s most dominant figure skater is savoring every step of the journey rather than focusing on the finish line.

“Every single day is a new day,” Chen said at this week’s ​​United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee media summit. “Every opportunity is a new opportunity. Every competition’s going to be different.”

This weekend Chen will embark on the final stretch before the Winter Games at Skate America in Las Vegas, the first of six Grand Prix events in the run-up to Beijing. The 22-year-old from southern California by way of Salt Lake City, who is undefeated since the Pyeongchang Olympics, attributes his remarkable run of form to a change of perspective borne from his competitive nadir.

Four years ago Chen, then 18, made his Olympic debut as the joint favorite with Japanese superstar Yuzuru Hanyu, only to spit the bit in the biggest competition of his life with a catastrophic short program that left him in 17th place. Not even a redemptive, personal-best long program that netted the highest free-skate score in the field could lift him into medal position. Instead, Chen settled for fifth overall, along with a bronze medal in the team competition that brought him a measure of pride but no great solace.

“Having the opportunity to have such a rough skate at the previous Olympics gave me the insight that skating, while it is incredibly important and the thing I’ve literally done every day since I was three, is also just a passion project for me,” he said. “All of that sounds a little like I don’t necessarily care that much about skating, but skating is important and that’s what I’ve been doing all my life. At some point I will have to take a step away from skating. I won’t be able to skate the rest of my life.

“I think having the realization that every competition is just a great opportunity for me to show the work that I’ve been putting in as well as just know that I have a limited number of competitions in my life. And to really just take the most, make the most out of each competition and try to enjoy myself the best that I can. I find that when I am able to adopt that mentality I am able to skate a lot better and can enjoy it rather than worrying about what the outcome will be.”

As he picked up the pieces from the devastating setback at the 2018 Winter Olympics, Chen received a call from an unexpected supporter: tennis star Serena Williams.

“It was a huge thing for me,” Chen said. “She messaged me after the last Olympics in 2018, when I didn’t have the best skate, just voicing her support for me. That was really, really impactful and meaningful to me. Since then, [we’ve had] very, very small nuggets of communication. She’s an amazing athlete, an amazing role model and now an amazing mom. I was really lucky to have the opportunity to have her reach out to me.”

Since then, Chen has dominated the circuit like few skaters in recent memory. He’s won all 11 competitions he’s entered – including three straight world championships – while expanding his repertoire to push the sport’s outer technical limits. The high-profile rivalry with Hanyu, who in Pyeongchang became the first men’s skater to successfully defend an Olympic gold medal in 66 years, was primed to explode at the Beijing Games but has since been reduced to one-way traffic.

Even on the rare occasions when Chen has stumbled, he’s roared back with ferocity and verve. When he fell in competition for the first time in two years on a quadruple lutz during his short program at this year’s worlds in Stockholm to fall to third place, Chen delivered a sublime free skate including no fewer than five four-rotation jumps to win by more than eight points.

As he reflects on the three-and-a-half-year high borne from his competitive rock bottom, Chen marvels at what Simone Biles achieved this summer in highlighting mental health with her shock decision to withdraw from the women’s gymnastics team final and several individual apparatus finals.

“I think what Simone did at the last Olympics was extraordinarily inspirational and really just allowed all athletes to feel like, ‘Hey, we are important as people, not just as athletes,’” he said. “And I think that it almost set the precedent to be like … I didn’t even realize that was an option, what she decided to do. And I was like, ‘Wow, that actually makes me feel a lot better about who I am as an athlete, too.’ Knowing that, you know, when it comes down to it, I can choose my destiny.’”

He added: “It gives all the athletes a sense of peace knowing that when the time comes – of course, we’re there to do our jobs and that’s what we dreamed about doing – but ultimately it comes down to our own well-being as people. That’s definitely something that she highlighted that I’ll take. Everyone’s dealing with something. Whether or not people like to talk about it, everyone is dealing with something. So I think having an ideal in Simone really gives all of us hope and comfort knowing that, when the time comes, we just have to do what’s best for us, whether that’s competing or not competing. That’s the athlete’s call.”

Chen was so moved by Biles’ decision that he reached out shortly after, offering the same gesture of support he received from Williams when he needed it most.

“I actually reached out to her after the [Tokyo] Games, but I’m sure she was swarmed with millions and millions of messages,” he said. “I was basically voicing my support for what she accomplished, but also the steps that she was taking to take care of herself.”

Chen, a junior at Yale who has taken a leave of absence from his studies to focus on the Olympics, said his time at the Ivy League university has broadened his perspective on the world beyond the rink, informing his decision to speak out on social issues like voting rights, racial inequality and violence against Asian Americans.

“The last four years have given me a lot of opportunities to learn more about what’s going on in the world,” he said. “I’ve spent my entire life since I was three years old basically in an ice rink, but fortunately I was also able to go to college starting in 2018 and that gave me a little more exposure of what the real world is like. I think that we’re so sheltered as athletes being in this little bubble all the time, seeing the same people, not really knowing what else is going on. Our job is to skate. We’re at the rink. We come in at 8am and we leave at 6pm. We’re here to skate, nothing else matters.

“But then also being able to like switch away from that for the past couple of years, and sort of recognize that, and then as well as just saying all this stuff comes to light over the past period of time during the pandemic and whatnot. It’s great to be able to at least figure out yourself and where you belong and how you can create whatever positive influence you can.”