Who Is Nathan Chen?
During the 2022 Winter Olympics, Nathan Chen stood alone in the middle of the ice rink in Beijing (say: BAY-jing), China. His legs were spread apart and his arms were relaxed at his side. He was dressed in black pants and a red shirt covered in stars. The stars were not like those you see on a flag. These were more like stars you see in space. They shone brightly on his red shirt, just like he did against the white ice.
Softly, music started playing in the Capital Indoor Stadium. Nathan closed his eyes, raised his right hand, and spun. He glided across the ice, skating and dancing along with the music. The song was “Rocket Man” by Elton John. It is about an astronaut that is leaving Earth. Nathan’s star-covered shirt matched the song perfectly.
Suddenly, he leaped into the air. With his arms crossed tightly against his chest, he spun. He went around one, two, three, four times. The music spiked and crashed right as he landed back on the ice. His skates barely touched the ground before he was in the air again. This time he spun two times and landed safely on his feet.
The crowd cheered as the music picked up speed, and Nathan danced and glided around on the ice.
These jumps with four spins are called quadruple jumps, also known as quads. Nathan performed four more quads before his routine was over. He is the first person ever to do five different quads in a single performance! These spinning jumps are the reason why he is known as the “Quad King.”
After four and a half minutes of incredible skating, Nathan’s routine finished. The crowd was on its feet, and Nathan knew he’d done an amazing job.
Sitting in the booth, Nathan waited for the judges to report his scores. The seconds ticked by while everyone waited in silence. After what seemed like a lifetime, his scores appeared. The crowd roared and Nathan clasped his hands to his head. He had won the gold medal. He was now an Olympic champion. Even though he was wearing a mask because of the coronavirus pandemic, everyone could see he was smiling.. Chapter 1: Born into a Family of Skaters
On May 5, 1999, Zhidong Chen and his wife Hetty Wang welcomed a newborn son they named Nathan. They had left China and lived in Salt Lake City, Utah, with their four other children, two boys and two girls. All four of those children were skaters, and baby Nathan would be, too.
Nathan’s older brothers are named Tony and Colin. He grew up watching them play ice hockey. Each weekend Nathan would watch his brothers score goals and battle for the puck. His older sisters are named Alice and Janice. They also skated. They didn’t play hockey though; they figure-skated. Figure skating is dancing on ice, where skaters spin and jump to music. In competitions, they are scored based on how well they perform their routines.
When Nathan was just three years old, Salt Lake City hosted the Winter Olympics. At this very young age, Nathan had the wonderful opportunity to see world famous athletes, like Michelle Kwan, compete in his hometown.
Michelle Kwan is a Chinese American skater who had won silver at the 1998 Winter Olympics and then bronze during the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. (She has also won the US Championships nine times and the World Championships five times.)
Nathan looked up to Michelle Kwan and her many skating victories. After seeing her compete at the 2002 Olympics, Nathan learned about another Asian American skater, Kristi Yamaguchi. Kristi, a Japanese American skater, had won the gold medal at the 1992 Winter Olympics. She also won the US Championships twice and World Championships once. These two Asian American women inspired Nathan to believe he could be great. They are among the reasons he started skating. Seeing people who looked like him becoming so successful on the ice gave Nathan the drive to begin skating at age three.
Growing up, Nathan’s family didn’t have much money. When he started figure skating, he used the same pair of skates that he did when he played hockey. However, hockey skates have curved blades and make it easier to fall backward.
His mom bought him his first pair of figure skates. She picked out a white pair for him, since the white ones were cheaper than the black ones. What his mom didn’t know was that white skates were worn by girls and black ones were worn by boys. People thought these skates were his sister’s old hand-me-downs.
As Nathan grew, he quickly became too big for these white skates. He needed a new pair, but his family did not have enough money to buy them for him.
His dad thought he might have a solution. He had heard about a place that gave money to help people who wanted to skate, called the Michael Weiss Foundation. It was created by Michael Weiss, a figure skater who had gone to the Olympics twice and had been the US National Champion three times.
Nathan’s dad applied for a scholarship to help pay for Nathan’s skates. There was just one problem: Nathan was only ten, too young for the scholarship. News about how much Nathan wanted to skate started spreading around the foundation. It eventually made it to Michael Weiss himself. When he heard about Nathan, he knew that he wanted to help even if Nathan was too young for the scholarship. He gave the family $200, and Nathan was able to get a brand-new pair of skates in his new size.
Those skates meant the world to Nathan. Now he could keep skating and work toward his dreams. Michael’s generosity had kickstarted Nathan’s career.
At age seven, Nathan started ballet lessons at the Ballet West Academy. He became a talented dancer, performing in ballets such as The Nutcracker
, Swan Lake
, and Sleeping Beauty
. Learning how to dance on stage helped him become a fantastic dancer on ice. Not only did it teach him how to move to music beautifully, it also taught him how to not get nervous when performing in front of people. Chapter 2: Driving for a Dream
In 2003, when Nathan was four years old, he began competitive figure skating. He started small, at local and regional competitions. By 2007, he had won enough competitions to land a spot at the US Junior Nationals. He would compete against young skaters from all over the United States. That first year, he won tenth place. Just two years later, in 2009, he took home second place and the silver medal. His second-place finish earned him a spot at that season’s US Championships.
The US Championships has different levels. This is so that skaters compete against other skaters around their same skill level. That year, Nathan entered the US Championships at the novice level, the third hardest. Junior level is the second hardest and senior level is the hardest.
At the 2010 US Championships, Nathan skated to Peter and the Wolf
, a musical story about a boy who outsmarts a wolf with the help of his animal friends. In this song, there are many different instruments. There are violins, cellos, trumpets, and horns. Each instrument represents an animal. Just as the characters create the drama, the instruments all work together to create the music.
At just ten years old, Nathan won the 2010 US Championships and made history as the youngest novice champion ever!
In January of 2011, Nathan held on to his champion title, winning the novice US Championships again.
Nathan was a rising star, and he needed a great coach to help him get even better. Since his family didn’t have much money, his mom, Hetty, was his first coach. From his first shaky steps on the ice to the US Championships, she coached him on how to be a better figure skater. Now that he was competing at a national level, he needed a professional coach. His family heard of an amazing coach who specialized in jumps named Rafael Arutunian. However, Rafael lived many miles away in California. Nathan’s family lived in Utah. What could they do?
Hetty decided that she and Nathan would drive all the way to California for his lessons.
So, in 2011, Hetty and Nathan would pack up the car and drive the ten hours from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Lake Arrowhead, California, multiple times. They would stay for days or weeks at a time so that Nathan could train. It was a long drive in a small car, but the time that Nathan got to spend with his mom meant a lot to him. Although Nathan was now training with Rafael, Hetty continued to play an important role in his skating career, as his coach and as a parent.
In December of 2011, Nathan and Hetty decided that these trips were not enough. If he wanted to keep winning, he needed to start training with his jump coach full-time. That meant that he had to be in California more often. Driving ten hours to train would be too difficult, but his family couldn’t leave Utah. The family made the difficult decision that just Nathan and his mother would move to California. His dad, brothers, and sisters all stayed in Utah.
It was a hard time for Nathan’s family, but his training was very important. Hetty worked multiple jobs so they could pay for his lessons and buy him new skates when he needed them. Nathan worked hard. He appreciated his family’s sacrifice.
In 2012, he competed in his first junior level championship and won the US junior champion title! His family’s sacrifice had paid off. He was twelve years old.
Already making a name for himself in the United States, Nathan was ready to step onto the world scene. In 2012, he competed in the International Skating Union Junior Grand Prix. The ISU Junior Grand Prix has six events that take place in different nations around the world. At the end of the season, there is a final competition.
At his first ISU Junior Grand Prix event in Austria, he not only won, but his score was the highest anyone had ever scored!
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