Friday, February 16, 2018

Pyeongchang Posts: What Happened to Nathan Chen?

Now that the dust ( or the ice chips?) from last night’s men’s short program have settled, I have some key takeaways about Nathan Chen’s failure to live up to his hype. First of all, the guy is human. Second of all, he is 18. Though Chen’s been a force on the senior circuit in the last two seasons, he’s actually had very little experience on a big, international stage. This is only his second full season as a senior ( his first senior season 2 years ago ended early in an injury that required surgery). He’s only been to one senior World Championship last March, where he finished 6th. It’s not an excuse, but Chen simply doesn’t have the experience of skating under a tremendous amount of pressure in a high stakes situation with intense competition.

To put things in perspective, Yuzuru Hanyu, 23, the reigning Olympic Champion, has been competing on the senior level since the 2010-2011 season and has medaled at the World Championships 5x. Javier Fernandez, who is currently in 2nd, is 26, competing in his third Olympics, and has two World titles under his belt. The other skaters rounding out the top four all have competed in multiple World Championships and have three World medals between them. When you look at it this way, you begin to see just how inexperienced Chen is. (To be fair, even Hanyu, who is one of the greatest skaters in history, fell twice in his gold-medal wining program in Sochi 4 years ago. It happens. The ice is slippery!)

The other factor in last night’s bomb, I believe, is that Chen has been inconsistent all season. Furthermore, each time he competes, he changes which jumps he performs, which is a problematic strategy because he hasn’t been able to get ample mileage on any one program. When on the Olympic stage, when the eyes of the entire world are on you, you can’t go out there without a consistent program that you can do in your sleep. Skaters rely on the ability to go into autopilot and let their muscle memory take over when the pressure is high. Olympic Champion Scott Hamilton always referred to this as the ability to “skate stupid. Don’t think, just do.” With so much program fluctuation, I don’t think Nathan had access to any auto-piloting of the sort!

Lastly, when interviewed after his skate, Nathan said that he didn’t know what happened and he’d have to talk to “his team” to figure it out. NBC commentator Johnny Weir pointed out that Nathan has to be able to figure it out himself. The ability to do this only comes with knowing oneself, which can only happen through time and experience. As unfortunate as last night was, this is the kind of experience that will make him stronger and wiser. Competitive nightmares translate to competitive grit!

All of this said, Chen is 22-points out of third place, and he can make up that difference in just a couple of jumping passes. It’s not over yet! He’s an amazing talent who has single-handedly injected excitement into U.S. men’s skating in the last two seasons and put us back in the conversation for medals for the first time in 8 years. We have not heard the last of Nathan Chen! I’m rooting for him to get Olympic redemption tonight! 💪🏅⛸

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