Keeping balance: Yale’s Nathan Chen and the pursuit of Olympic gold

As he trains for the 2022 Winter Olympics, Chen ’24 talks to Yale News about his path to figure skating, the rigors of training and study, and his inspirations.
Nathan Chen.

(AP/Kazuki Wakasugi)

Nathan Chen ’24 has skated in arenas around the world — from Stockholm’s Globen, the largest hemispherical building on Earth, to Osaka’s Municipal Gymnasium, which is built entirely underground. But something special happened the first time he stepped onto the ice of Yale’s Ingalls Rink some three years ago.

The arena, Chen recalls, brought together a perfect meld of form (the elongated swoop of its exoskeleton, the source of its “Yale Whale” nickname) and function (the exceptional quality of the ice). And there was the thrill of seeing the blue “Y” embedded at center ice. “I was just blown away.”

Chen arrived at Yale months after his highly anticipated Olympics debut in men’s figure skating during the PyeongChang, South Korea Games in February 2018. During those games Chen, who was considered a strong contender for a medal, suffered a setback when a series of mistakes in the short program left him in 17th place, with little hope of reaching the podium.

Remarkably, he responded with a record-shattering long program in which he performed six quads, or quadruples, physically demanding jumps that require four mid-air rotations and have become a hallmark of men’s skating in the past decade. He rose to take fifth place in the men’s single competition. (He also took home the bronze in the team event.)

So the news that he was about to matriculate at Yale left many skating fans bewildered. His performance in the long program left no doubt that Chen had the makings of an Olympic champion. How was he going to train like an elite athlete while also tackling the demands of an Ivy League education? But Chen was determined.

It was honestly a no-brainer,” he says. “Yale was a completely different venture for me. I’d never considered that I’d really truly have the opportunity to go, and I didn’t want to pass that up.”

Nathan Chen
(AP/Kazuki Wakasugi)

During his first two academic years at Yale, where he is a resident of Jonathan Edwards College, Chen proved the naysayers wrong. Even while carrying a full-time course load, he didn’t lose a single competition: he won a world title, two Grand Prix Finals, two U.S. titles, and four individual Grand Prix events.

Since beginning a leave of absence from Yale last year to focus on training for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, his winning streak has continued. In March, he won another World Championship, in Stockholm, his third consecutive world title. He is the first U.S. skater to do so since Scott Hamilton in 1983. Hamilton went on to win a fourth title a year later.

Chen, who plans to return to campus in the fall of 2022, remains deeply connected to Yale, where he is majoring in statistics and data science. Currently in California, he reads textbooks for classes he plans to take once he’s back in New Haven. But he misses the inspirational verve of the campus.

It just doesn’t feel the same reading through that stuff in your own room,” he says. “I’m excited to go back and keep learning.”

Olympic aspirations

Chen grew up in Salt Lake City and began skating at age three. As the youngest of five siblings, Chen sampled the activities his older brothers and sisters pursued: piano (he still plays), hockey, gymnastics, ballet. But figure skating stuck. And from an early age, the Olympics were already part of the air he breathed; the city had hosted the 2002 Winter Games, and facilities for training were easily accessible and affordable.

As his skills grew, he began to look beyond his hometown for a different kind of inspiration.  Michelle Kwan and Kristi Yamaguchi, trail-blazing Asian-American figure skaters, widened his perception of who could succeed on the ice. “Growing up in Salt Lake City, where most of my classmates and fellow athletes were predominately white, you don’t see that reflection of yourself as easily,” Chen, whose parents emigrated from China, says. “I see myself in these athletes and I see how capable they are and how talented they are. If they can do it, hopefully I can do the same thing, too. Being able to see a face like yours helps a lot as an athlete.”

By the time he was 16, he was competing at the national championships, where he was the first American man to land two quadruple jumps in his short program and four in his free skate. But during the exhibition skate that followed the competition he injured his hip and required surgery. The forced break from skating served as a kind of early warning to Chen: his athletic career wouldn’t last forever.

I was still determined to keep skating, I wasn’t in a position where I was ready to retire,” he remembers. “But I knew that this transition to school had to happen at some point, and the earlier it did, the easier it would be for me as I transition out of skating.”

After rehabilitating at the U.S. Olympic/Paralympic training center in Colorado, Chen returned to the ice more powerful than before, but also with a resolve to stay on track for college.

A ‘model student’ comes to Yale

In the fall of 2018, he arrived at Yale full of excitement and trepidation — in other words, a typical freshman — and immediately found a supportive community ready to help him figure out the balance of training and study. “Anything you need,” he remembered Athletic Director Vicky Chun telling him, “we can help you.” He also received much-needed support from Wayne Dean, the longtime Yale Athletics administrator who died in 2020, just months after retiring as deputy athletic director. “Without those two people, honestly, it would have been so challenging for me to get anywhere,” Chen said.

Vicky Chun described Chen as “a model Yale student, who also competes at the highest Olympic level.”

I love that he can be a student at Yale, versus being an Olympian, a medalist,” she said. “He gets to be himself.… He chose to come to Yale, and we wanted it to be the best experience for him. That’s what I want for all the student-athletes.” 

There have been many other Yale Olympians over the years, including fellow figure skater Sarah Hughes ’09 (who matriculated after she won Olympic gold at 16); swimmer Don Schollander ’68, who racked up seven gold medals during the 1964 and 1968 Games; runner Frank Shorter ’69, who won the marathon in 1972 and helped popularize recreational long-distance running; and rower Dr. Benjamin Spock ’25, whose Men’s Eight boat won gold in 1924 (an accomplishment later overshadowed by his fame as a revolutionary figure in child development and care). This year, 18 Bulldogs participated in the Summer Olympics in Tokyo in various roles across seven sports.

Like those before him, Chen’s athletic achievements have required focus and discipline, not to mention a tenacious competitiveness balanced by humility. These qualities have also served him well as a student.

Skating is extremely good at teaching you how to plan,” he says. “It is similar to school. You know your test dates, you know when your midterms are, you know when your projects are due, you know how much effort you might have to put in depending on how difficult the material is.”

During his first two years at Yale, Chen’s schedule allowed him three hours of ice time daily. After morning classes, he would spend an hour and a half at the Whale; he’d make a quick commute to the Champions Skating Center in Cromwell, Connecticut, for another 90-minute skate; and then he would return to New Haven for evenings of discussion sessions and homework.

He has nerves of steel, or at least seems to,” said Penelope Laurans, a senior advisor at Yale, who has been one of Chen’s academic advisors since his freshman year. “How is it possible to leave a rigorous and demanding college schedule of midterms and fly to a national or international competition and perform in front of thousands of people, and win? And then return and take another statistics exam? Ordinary people would collapse under the tension, but, incredibly, he seems to be able to handle it.”

Nathan with his coach, Rafael Arutyunyan
Nathan with his coach, Rafael Arutyunyan (courtesy of Nathan Chen)

While he largely trained on his own, he’d also consult via Face Time with coach Rafael Arutyunyan for support. (Arutyunyan took remote coaching in stride. “[F]or nine years I have been preparing Nathan for independent work,” he’s said. “I wasn’t training him but teaching him to train.”)

Among his courses, fittingly, was “Exploring the Nature of Genius,” a study of exceptional talent taught by Craig Wright, Emeritus Professor of Music. Chen found the overlaps between his own experience and the subjects of the course intriguing. And he was inspired by Wright’s clear passion for the topic, which also produced a best-selling book, “The Hidden Habits of Genius.”

Wright used the opportunity of having an Olympian in his classroom to add to his research: in his book, he quotes Chen on the balance between nature and nurture when it comes to athletic genius (Chen settles at an 80-20 split in favor of nature).

In turn, Chen’s classroom experiences have found resonance on the ice. The music in his free skate program at the 2021 Worlds included a piece by composer Philip Glass that Chen first heard in a “Listening to Music” class during his freshman year. (Glass responded with a shout-out on Instagram, noting that Chen had “dominated men’s figure skating this season.”) Having an academic experience with the music helped Chen connect more viscerally to it in the rink, adding to the muscular grace of his performance.

Eyes on Beijing 2022

These days, Chen’s world centers on preparing for the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing. “I’m basically in my house, and then I go to the rink, and then I’m in my house, then I go to the rink,” he says wryly.

Chen’s skating season began this past weekend in Las Vegas with Skate America, part of the Grand Prix series, where he finished in third place. The 2022 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships (an event he’s won every year since 2017) will be held in January in Nashville, after which Olympic team selection will be announced.

While he stays doggedly focused on the present, he’s looking forward to returning to New Haven in the fall of 2022 and the life of a student: dinners at September in Bangkok, study sessions in the glass atrium of the School of Management, meeting friends in their common rooms.

And despite his achievements in skating, Chen manages to keep it all in perspective. “Of course, I would love to be able to win the Olympics,” he says. “But if that doesn’t happen, it’s not as though who I am is ultimately diminished.”

As a young skater, approaching his first judged competition, Chen was suddenly struck with nerves. He didn’t understand why the judges were there — he didn’t even want to be scored.

But his parents stepped in with some advice: Don’t worry about it. They’ll do their job, you do yours. Go on the ice, do your thing, get off the ice, they advised him.

He’s been doing it ever since.

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