It was nearing the last minute of his four-minute program, a time when most figure skaters simply hold on to make it to the end of the routine. But at the U.S. national championships in January, Nathan Chen decided to make history instead. Already spent from whipping off four quadruple jumps—a leap with four full revolutions—he went for a fifth, record jump. And like the previous ones, he nailed it.
At 17, Chen, who trains in California and Michigan, became the first skater to successfully land five quadruple jumps in a single program, and he executed the highest-scoring programs this season. Having bested reigning Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan in a recent competitive event, he’s now a favorite to medal at the 2018 Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
But even more astounding is the fact that a hip injury a year ago kept him off the ice for five months. Chen credited the speed of his recovery to a willfulness he got from his upbringing. “As a family we are all intrinsically motivated,” says the youngest of five children. “My parents always wanted the very best for me, and pushed me further and further, so that stuck with me. I keep pushing myself and the sport.” That self-motivation was especially important for men’s skating in the U.S., which has not produced an Olympic medalist since 2010. Chen says his role models were mostly from abroad—Russia’s Evgeny Plushenko, and recently Hanyu and Javier Fernández of Spain. As he competed at international competitions, Chen realized the U.S. men’s skaters needed to hone their technical skills to compete on the world stage. “I was seeing all the younger skaters doing crazy things, and I realized we were a little far behind,” he says. “Knowing there were guys far ahead of me switched a light on in my head.”
Chen is already motivating even younger skaters globally, but especially in the U.S., who are following his lead in attempting what previously seemed impossible feats. Having watched the rest of the world set the bar, Chen is now ready to test the limits of his sport—and himself.