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2018 Olympic medalist Nathan Chen ’23 is taking a break from his studies and preparing to compete in the Sin City this weekend.

The reigning world champion in men’s figure skating is set to begin the 2020-21 season this weekend at Skate America — the first Grand Prix event of the year — at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.

“I am ready to compete,” Chen said, speaking with the News from his hotel room while awaiting the results of the COVID-19 test he took upon arrival. “I know that my career is not that long in respect to other sports, so the goal is to make sure that I’m present at these competitions and really enjoying myself.”

The statistics and data science major — who is on a leave of absence this year and also plans to take off the following academic year to prepare for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing — is set to embark on a season unlike any of his others. With the world championships scheduled for last March canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, it has been nine months since Chen’s last competitive event — the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, where he claimed his fourth consecutive national championship. Chen noted that while this year’s offseason has been a little longer than normal, the relative overlap with a typical figure skating offseason helped him stay prepared to return to the ice.

During quarantine, the Salt Lake City native, who is currently living in California, spent most of his time training and getting ready for the new season. Chen is working with choreographer and former Olympic ice dancer Shae-Lynn Bourne, who developed this year’s programs. Chen previewed these routines at a virtual competition set up by the U.S. Figure Skating Federation earlier this fall to help get athletes back in competitive shape.

“I kind of let her take the reins with these programs,” Chen said. “I feel as though if the choreographer is passionate about a certain genre or theme they will give me the best work.”

Chen’s short program this year features music from the 1995 film “Desperado” starring Antonio Banderas, while his free skate is a selection of pieces from American composer Philip Glass.

Chen noted the difference in styles between the two programs, as well as the contrast between this year’s music compared to last year’s. Specifically with the free skate, this year’s slower, classically driven program is very different compared to the more contemporary “Rocket Man” program from last year, which featured a strong hip-hop section. Last year’s program set a world record for points in a men’s free skate at the 2019 Grand Prix Final in Turin, Italy.

“Even since I was a little kid … I’ve really been trying to explore new styles, new genres of music per competition,” Chen said. “The [free skate is] more or less in my comfort zone since it’s a little slower, the music is a lot more emotional.”

A combination of flamenco and mariachi styles, this year’s short program is “character-driven” and specific to the feel of “Desperado,” Chen told the News.

Chen’s ambitious and wide range of musical choices has not gone unnoticed, especially by figure skating analyst Jackie Wong — the “most trusted name in figure skating news,” according to Ben Cohen of the Wall Street Journal.

“[Chen’s] range in artistry is underrated,” Wong told the News. “He’s been able to pull off a variety of genres of music and character, going more classic to more contemporary.”

Going into this season, Chen, whose proficiency in landing quads — jumps with between four and five revolutions — helps him consistently garner high technical scores, is focused on raising his program components score, which is judged based on the more artistic elements of the sport.

Chen said that this year, he wants to work on skating a more cohesive program by making sure each element does not seem randomly spaced throughout the program.

“One of the things [Chen has] been working on is weaving his jumps into his programs more seamlessly, and I’m looking forward to seeing how his new programs push him to continue to be a more complete skater,” Wong said.

While Chen is excited to get back on the ice, he pointed out one major difference between this weekend’s event and events prior: the lack of sound. Skate America has suggested the possibility of fake crowd noise, but Chen emphasized the irreplaceable nature of a live audience.

“We feed off of the sound of the audience as the program goes on,” Chen said. “Our long program is four minutes and 10 seconds, and once you get to the halfway point you’re pretty tired, so it’s nice to have some sound behind you just to sort of give you that second wind through the rest of the program.”

Replacing the audience with cardboard cutouts is just one of the many protocols Skate America implemented this year in lieu of the coronavirus pandemic.

In addition, all participants are required to quarantine in their hotel rooms until their arrival COVID-19 screening comes back negative. From then on, they are enclosed in a “bubble” within the Orleans Hotel and Casino and the Orleans Arena. Everyone must also complete health screenings each day which include temperature checks.

With these protocols in place, this weekend’s event will be a unique experience for Chen. His goals, however, remain the same: continue to improve with each competition.

While his two world championships may suggest otherwise, Chen and his coach Rafael Arutyunyan do not believe Chen is an “elite skater” quite yet.

“I talked about this with Nathan and honestly said that I don’t like a lot of things in his skating,” Arutyunyan told Russian news outlet RT in an interview in May of this year.

Arutyunyan said that Chen responded in agreement.

While the Yale undergraduate and his coach looked towards even loftier goals, Wong commended Chen’s body of work thus far.

“Chen is … an incredible technician when it comes to the most difficult jumps being done by anyone in the world,” Wong said. “I probably take it for granted having watched him for so many years, but his jumps — and the consistency of those jumps given the difficulty — are absolutely spectacular.”

These spectacular jumps have helped propel Chen to the longest current winning streak in the sport among active skaters.

Chen’s mind, however, is not on keeping the streak alive.

“The more I start thinking about these win streaks and all that stuff, the worse it’ll be,” Chen said. “So right now I’ll just continue working on that mindset where I’m just thrilled, happy and willing to improve.”

2020 Skate America will run from Oct. 23 to Oct. 25 and can be watched on NBC and NBCSN.

Trisha Nguyen | trisha.nguyen@yale.edu

James Richardson | james.richardson@yale.edu