The 3-year-old son of a molecular biologist and medical interpreter who emigrated from China couldn’t wait to get on the ice at the Salt Lake City rink where his older brothers played hockey and his sisters skated recreationally.
The main idea was to be a goalie. Because, as he puts it now, the gear was “pretty sick” — modern teenage-ese for cool.
The first time he toddled out, though, he was so transfixed as to be virtually paralyzed.
According to family legend, he stood by the boards until the session ended … yet cried as the Zamboni came along and he had to leave.
Other than his sheer fascination with the surroundings, this is what might be considered an inauspicious skating debut.
And maybe what was to come was all the more improbable if you consider the family emphasis on education and well-roundedness: The reluctant skater would learn to play multiple instruments, for instance, and his siblings would become driven toward such adventures as interning for NASA and working toward Ph.D.s and journalism.
But 14 years later, here is the phenom of Nathan Chen, performing programs unprecedented among American skaters that he flashed in the men’s short program of the U.S. Figure Skating championships on Friday night at Sprint Center.
If you want to see the mesmerizing prospective U.S. Olympics medalist in person, tickets are available for Sunday’s free skate finale.
As a 16-year-old last year, Chen became the youngest U.S. male to earn a medal at nationals since 1973.
More to the point, it was in exhilarating style, too: He earned bronze as he became the first in this country to land two quadruple jumps in a short program. He dazzled all the more with a pioneering four in the free skate.
Suddenly, Chen became the prevailing U.S. men’s hope to end a barren spell in international competition.
Since Brian Boitano won the gold in Calgary in 1988, the sixth for U.S. men in 11 Olympics, Team USA has won just one (Evan Lysacek at Vancouver 2010) in seven Games since.
For that matter, since Paul Wylie won silver at Albertville 1992, U.S. men’s figure skaters have won just two of 18 possible overall Olympic medals.
Compounded by no U.S. man winning any of 21 possible medals at the World Championships since Lysacek’s gold in 2009, the program has become starved for international success.
Chen seems to embody the best near-term hope for alleviating that, a breakthrough that would have particular impact at the Olympic level as the 2018 PyeongChang Games loom in 13 months.
It’s a notion Chen appreciates even as he tries to reconcile what comes with it.
“Of course that adds pressure on me; it’s a little bit nerve-wracking,” Chen said in an interview with The Star on Thursday. “But at the same time, it’s something that I’ve always wanted (to be considered among the best in the world), so I don’t see why I should be afraid of it.”
In fact, Chen already has left an impression on the world stage.
In December, he became the youngest U.S. male skater to qualify for and medal (silver) in the Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final.
In setting an American record for highest score in a short program (92.85), he landed a quad lutz and a quad flip — reportedly the first time both had been successfully landed in a short program.
The breakthrough boosted Chen’s sense that he belongs in elite company.
And it reiterated something both about his precociousness and his resolve.
By the time he was competing in last year’s nationals in St. Paul, Minn., a nagging hip injury had morphed into such a constant issue that his real triumph in the competition perhaps was simply pain management.
Shortly thereafter, Chen was determined to have suffered an avulsion fracture, entailing what the scientifically inclined skater describes as “a piece of bone pulling off the main bone structure.”
Soon came surgery, and he was off the ice for nearly six months. In the process, he missed out on the 2016 world championships.
It was “super-weird” to get back on the ice, Chen says now, because, well, he was “super-sore” and “super-weak.”
Then again, he couldn’t have been any more immobilized than he was when he first stepped on the ice.
Once he stopped being spellbound and got started, he said, “I never really looked back.”
Both back then and as he recuperated from surgery, it started with one stride at a time and simply getting back up when he “ate it” and went down.
That’s the same ultimately daring mentality he has applied to the quantum leaps into the quad jumps as he ventures places no one in U.S. history has gone … and perhaps toward returning the program to a place that has been abandoned the last few years.