At just 18, U.S. men’s championis facing pressures that most teenagers could hardly imagine. He’s one of the United States’ best hopes for a figure skating medal at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics in February. As such, he’s the focus of media attention and sponsorship interest. Next week at Skate America, Chen will seek to win his second Grand Prix this season and qualify for the Grand Prix Final. Then in early January, he’ll compete at U.S. Nationals.
Despite all the big competitions coming up, Chen was calm and composed on a recent call prior to Skate America. Unfazed by expectations, Chen said that he embraces his new role as a leader in U.S. men’s skating. He welcomes the interest in his skating, and hopes to help raise the sport’s profile in the Olympic year.
The men’s discipline has seen some surprising results this season. Yuzuru Hanyu will miss the Grand Prix Final due to injury; Patrick Chan will also miss the Final. Chen said that, should he make the Final, he’ll miss having some of his usual competitors there. “It’s kind of a shame that they’re not going to be at the Final. It’s going to be totally different,” said Chen.
“Obviously, you know, I haven’t qualified for the Final yet. But at the same time, I feel I have the highest chance of making that Final again. And without Yuzu and Patrick, that definitely opens up the podium at the Final. But Raf [Chen’s coach Rafael Arutunian] said, not long ago when he was in Japan, that a competition’s not really a competition without everyone. So that kind of takes away from the competition a little bit. But I’m hoping that Yuzu heals fast. And that everyone’s able to be at their best by the end of the season.”
This year, Chen worked with two new choreographers. Lori Nichol choreographed his long program, while Shae-Lynn Bourne created his short program. Chen talked about his experiences working with the new choreographers.
“Both of them are very creative. They have brought a lot to my skating that I hadn’t had in the past. Very interesting people to work with,” said Chen. “When I first went to Lori, she just let me start my own choreography, essentially. She gave me the music, and we were in the middle of the ice, and she said: ‘Do what you want. Do what you feel the music calls you to do.’ And you know, I’ve never had that with any choreographer before. So I thought that was a very cool experience.
“And Shae’s completely different,” Chen continued. “She’s just so contemporary, so avant-garde. She’s so different, in terms of her choreography and her style. She’s also just so positive on the ice, and so friendly. Sometimes, she’ll come out to California to train me. She’s not like anyone I have worked with in the past, in terms of her personality, and the stuff that she brings to me. Just things that I have to think about when I’m on the ice. Definitely very helpful.”
They have made some minor tweaks to the choreography in his free skate. “We implemented some more lines, and some more body, to the footwork, aka ‘The Rite of Spring’ passage,” Chen explained. “There haven’t been any crazy wholesale changes to the program, but we’ve worked on some details.” Chen revealed that he does not yet have his final costumes for the season. “There will be a lot coming for Nationals and Olympics,” he said of his costumes. “What I’m currently wearing is not what I’ll be wearing for the Games. And even for Nationals. But currently, what I have–it works for what I have to do. I’ll just try to let my skating shine through, without the costume,” he said with a laugh.
In this Olympic season, Chen has many corporate sponsors. He said that it hasn’t been too difficult to balance his sponsor obligations with his training. “It’s been very easy to manage,” Chen said. “I’m so grateful for all my sponsors. To have corporate support like that heading to the Games, from companies that have supported many Olympic champions and athletes in the past. It’s very reassuring to know they see the potential in me. Honestly, it’s been great so far, and I’m excited for more.”
Chen credits his upbringing, as one of five children, with helping him cope with the pressures and responsibilities he’s facing. “They made sure that I stayed humble, stayed focused on my own goals, didn’t get distracted by other things,” he said.
Asked what he does to relax during the Olympic season, Chen laughed and said: “I just try to be a little kid for once. Go out to the beach. I’ll watch a movie or go get dinner with friends. I want to watch ‘Thor: Ragnarok’. I haven’t seen that yet, so I’ll try to get to the theater soon and watch that. Or even just sit at home playing music.”
Chen is also working on college applications. “Obviously that’s not un-stressful, but it’s something that’s different from skating, so it takes my mind off of that,” said Chen. “I finished the application for Harvard. I’m doing some applications for University of California schools now.”
He’s focusing on UC-Berkeley and UC-Irvine. Stanford could be a goal as well. “You send out applications, hope for the best,” he said philosophically.
Chen will be at Skate America with his mother over the Thanksgiving holiday. He said they’ll probably go out for a nice dinner to celebrate, but will keep it low-key. Obviously, his main focus will be on the competition—where he will continue his campaign toward a spot on the U.S. figure skating team for the 2018 Olympics.