Courtesy of Jeff Adeff/U.S. Figure Skating

In the spring of 2017, Nathan Chen ’23 went to his first World Figure Skating Championships with the goal of earning a spot on the U.S. National Team for the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Four years later, even with two world championships added to his resume, his mindset has not changed.

“I still need to prove that I deserve a spot [on the U.S. National Team],” Chen said. “I can’t just assume that I have that spot. I still have to work for it.”

Chen heads to Stockholm, Sweden this week to compete in the 2021 World Figure Skating Championships, two months after he won his fifth consecutive U.S. championship. The Salt Lake City native will look to take gold in his third consecutive Worlds and secure his place on the 2022 U.S. Olympic team. 

Chen finished atop the podium for his first world championship in 2018, and again in 2019 as a first-year at Yale. In 2020, Chen was poised to head to Montreal and become the first American man since Scott Hamilton — who won four straight world titles from 1981 to 1984 — to win three consecutive world championships.

Instead, the 2020 World Figure Skating Championships were canceled due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, giving Chen something he lacked while juggling an Olympic athletic career with Yale academics: time.

Over the past year, Chen has spent time on the ice working on “the basics” — time that he would have normally used up during an action-packed skating season. Off the ice, Chen, who is on a leave of absence until after the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, said he has spent a lot of time by himself — situations that can lead to anxiety and stress.

To make sure he can stay as “resilient and robust” as possible — both in skating and in life — Chen has dedicated time to learning mindfulness and other techniques to improve his mental health.

“I think that’s something that I’ve found very useful,” Chen said. “It gives me more peace and helps me sort of relax and decompress at the end of each day.”

Courtesy of Jay Adeff/ U.S. Figure Skating

While concerns in regards to COVID-19 are still very real, the International Skating Union has set up a “bubble” environment for the competition with strict health and safety protocols — including extensive testing. Though it will certainly look different than previous years, the most important thing to the skaters and fans is obvious: that Worlds is back. 

Reigning U.S. ladies’ champion Bradie Tennell said in a teleconference last week that the one-year anniversary of the cancelation of the 2019 World Championships brought back a lot of emotions and she now feels “really ready” heading into this year’s iteration of the event.

“We’re excited to be given the shot to go to the World Championships,” Brandon Frazier, who alongside Alexa Knierim is the U.S. pairs’ champion, said in a separate teleconference.  “Especially with everything that’s going on.” 

Chen noted that one of the big differences will be the lack of fans in the stands. While it is an environment he has dealt with both at the U.S. Championships and at 2020 Skate America this past October, the impact that the energy of a live crowd has is unquantifiable. 

But while the seats may be empty in the Ericsson Globe Arena this week, there will be no lack of competition for Chen, as he will be joined in Stockholm by 2014 and 2018 Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan. 

“It’s always just a big honor for me to compete against an idol that I watched while I was growing up,” Chen said of Hanyu. “He’s really like the benchmark or the standard of what skating looks like.”

Hanyu, the 2019-20 ISU Most Valuable Skater, has spent the season training away from his traditional training base, a difficult situation for which Chen expressed empathy.

Even so, in Chen’s eyes, Hanyu has “gotten even better” throughout the season. 

“[It is] a testament to how great he is,” Chen explained.

With each carrying a long list of accolades, whenever Chen and Hanyu share the ice, it is a live look at figure skating history being written — one quad jump at a time. 

The Ericsson Globe Arena in Stockholm, with a diameter of 110 meters, is currently the largest spherical building in the world.

James Richardson | james.richardson@yale.edu