Of all the athletes who won gold at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, few outcomes were less surprising than Nathan Chen's win at the figure skating singles competition.
Chen has been the most dominant men's figure skater in the world for the better part of five years, ranking No. 1 in the world in each of the last four years and setting numerous world records in the process. Were it not for an ill-timed bout with the flu, Chen might have claimed his first gold medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
Nicknamed "The Quad King" for his incomparable skill in quadruple jumps, Chen has been a dominant force in the sport ever since he was a child. To date, he has 9 championship wins in singles competition and one in team competition.
Off the ice though, Chen is just a normal college student, currently enrolled at Yale and majoring in Statistics and Data Science. He'll graduate in 2024 and from there, the sky - or in this case the ice - is the limit.
We caught up with Nathan Chen to discuss his Olympic experience, his new partnership with Invisalign, his love of skating, Elton John, his skating future and more.
This interview is made possible by Invisalign:
TheSpun: What made you want to get on board with Invisalign and this campaign right now?
Nathan Chen: Growing up I wasn’t particularly confident with my smile, so I’m really excited to start my treatment with Invisalign aligners to transform my smile and build my confidence, which of course links to me being on the ice. You have to be really confident while you’re on the ice and know for sure that you’re capable of doing everything that you’re trying to accomplish. So having a good smile and being confident has a direct tie-in to that, and I’m really excited to start treatment.
TheSpun: Does your dentist tell you to floss more, like they do with everyone else?
NC: My mom has made me pretty good at flossing, so I’ve (done well) dealing with that since I was a kid.
TheSpun: I heard you took a little trip to Beijing a few months ago. Did you get any souvenirs while you were there? Perhaps something circular and made of metal?
NC: (laughs) It was an amazing experience. It was my second Olympics so I really wanted to have this second opportunity to look back on this experience and remember how great this opportunity was as a whole rather than just (focusing) on this specific competition. I had a really great time in China and will remember it very dearly for the rest of my life.
TheSpun: You’ve been the No. 1 ranked figure skater in the world for several years now. It feels like your gold medal performance would be more of a confirmation than a competition. But were you at all surprised that you won the gold medal?
NC: I went in with the intent of not focusing on trying to win. I went into 2018 with that intent of “I’m here to win and if I can’t win I’m not worth anything.” But going into 2022, I (said) “I’ve trained the best that I can, if things happen and turn out the way that I want to, then awesome. If not, I did everything that I possibly could and I’m still gonna enjoy the experience.”
Skating is a very particular sport where every competition can go one of many ways, even if you’re a solid competitor or a consistent skater. Little mistakes will completely change the result of a competition. So it’s really hard to (know) on a given competition who is going to win. There’s a lot of skaters that can win each competition. So focusing solely on saying “I have to win” is really challenging because you can’t control what other athletes do. Even for yourself you have to know that you can’t skate perfectly. So you’re just trying to do the best that you can and that’s the mentality I had going into Beijing.
TheSpun: You had a special version of Elton John's Rocket Man prepared for your Olympic final performance. Have you ever spoken to Elton John prior or since?
NC: I haven’t actually been able to speak to him in person, but he tweeted me after the game, which was huge and was really cool to see. I actually also went to one of his concerts and before he played Rocket Man he shouted me out during the concert, which was really cool.
TheSpun: What’s the gym routine for a figure skater like? Is it more focused on muscle, or cardio?
NC: For my particular training style it’s more on strength and power - a little bit less focused on cardio. Given that I’m on the ice many hours a day, I do get a lot of cardio just by being on the ice. Certainly there are periods of time where I need a boost - especially during the off-season - it might be a little more important to do cardio. But I’ll say it’s mostly weighted towards core stability - glute and core stability - just so I can be sure that I’m staying healthy. Then developing strength, power and speed, I need weight-based exercises and transfer that onto the ice.
TheSpun: How about the diet?
NC: It definitely varies… I think it’s important that you get nutrition… Don’t compromise on food. I always focus on, whenever I’m hungry, eating the foods that I want to eat, but also making sure I’m getting the nutrients that I need with no wasted calories. I make sure to eat what I need to eat.
TheSpun: Who would you have on the figure-skating Mount Rushmore?
NC: I think that’s really challenging. There’s so many incredible skaters through history. But I think if I had to put one together quickly - I would need more time to think of one but Michelle Kwan is there for sure. Yuzuru Hanyu would be up there. Dick Button would be up there. And maybe (the duo) Torvill and Dean. (laughs) Unfortunately that’s five but since they’re one pair I’ll combine it.
TheSpun: Has your newfound fame changed your life on a day-to-day basis?
NC: Definitely not. I’m here at school and I feel like I’m just a regular student which is awesome. Overall I don’t feel like anything has changed to much. I’m just doing the things that I like doing, being a student here right now.
TheSpun: Do you have any favorite athletes or sports teams that you root for these days?
NC: I’m a big Utah Jazz fan - I’m from Salt Lake City. We are (heading into) a bit of a strange season this year. (laughs) It’s a rebuild year. It’s a rebuild. But I have also been following along with the NFL and NHL, but the sport that I watch the most is probably basketball.
TheSpun: Let’s have a quick speed round: Favorite team sport?
NC: Either basketball or hockey.
TheSpun: Favorite superhero?
NC: I’m a big Marvel fan, so I would have to say Iron Man or Spider-Man.
TheSpun: Favorite post-skate meal?
TheSpun: Is it your plan to skate professionally or moving forward?
NC: Right now my focus is on school and my partnership with Invisalign. But I will certainly find myself on the rink whenever I can… so if I have opportunities to continue performing I will still do that and just see where things go.
TheSpun: Will you attempt to qualify for the next Olympics (in 2026)?
NC: It really depends on where I am in my life. Four years from now is a long time so I’m not sure.
TheSpun: What’s one final message you have for any youngster with dreams of being an Olympian?
NC: There’s a lot of advice that I could give but the thing that has helped me the most would be understand the people who are working with you and lean on them for support and help. It’s impossible to do everything by yourself so it’s good to have people that you trust and you love who give love and support. It makes all of the difference.