Gangneung, South Korea • Let Nathan Chen transport you inside the arena, on the ice with him. His skate cuts into the ice, leading to a launch point that draws gasps. Midflight, midspin, tucked together in the tightest of rotations, that’s where he hooks you. That fourth twirl, a daring endeavor every time he lifts his skate off the ice to attempt the move that’s forever changed international figure skating.
Nobody garners attention like a revolutionary.
He’s been highly marketed as the “King of Quads” entering these 2018 Winter Games in South Korea. In a United Airlines commercial leading up to these Olympics, he was fashioned as a normal youngster who can morph on command into this transcendent figure on the ice. A quadruple jump is four full rotations in the air. As on other jumps performed, there are variations of takeoff and landing points on his skates, some a much higher degree of difficulty than others.
“He puts a lot of pressure on himself to keep pushing and pushing the envelope,” said fellow American Olympian Adam Rippon, who trains full time with Chen near Long Beach, Calif. “He’s really incredible. He pushes himself really hard. Every single day.”
Chen will put that power on full display when he skates his men’s short program here Friday afternoon (Thursday night in the U.S.).
Quadruple jumps have been implemented sparsely here and there through the years, but none to the level that Chen can rise, twist and land. He’s set figure skating records in quads attempted and landed in programs (seven) in the past year. Such a newfangled approach to this sport has brought an onslaught of media attention and a skyrocketing number of die-hard fans. But this master of quads is under the microscope for bringing forth swift change to a sport rooted in history.
There is a battle for the ethos of figure skating, the gem of every Winter Games, a fight between grace and power.
At the forefront is the teenager from Utah, who grew up skating on the Olympic training ice at the Salt Lake City Sports Complex. Beyond this rare capacity to execute and land all these contrasting quad jumps, the reasoning isn’t complex.
Quads gain points. Lots and lots of points.
A certain quad attempt may be worth as many as 13 points. A triple axel can sit in the 8.5 range.
“I have gotten a lot of criticism over the past couple years for what I’m doing in sport,” Chen told The Salt Lake Tribune this week. “However, I still feel this is the best approach to medals and securing podium spots. Maybe in the future things will change, but this is the way that I’ve approached it, this is the way a lot of other skaters have approached it, and whoever comes out the cleanest is going to win right now.”
He’s not the only one, either.
Reigning Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan can throw down a five-quad routine when healthy. Chen said the top five or six skaters in the world have the capability to put a number of quads in their programs here to help them land a medal.
Figure skating royalty hasn’t shied away from voicing its displeasure with such a shift in the sport. Two-time Olympic gold medalist Dick Button, now 88, recently said he despises how the difficult maneuver has altered the landscape of performances and how they’re judged. Button said he doesn’t enjoy watching today’s skating, though he acknowledges that the skater who lands the most quads here inside the Gangneung Ice Arena will win gold.
Rippon, Chen’s training partner, has toed the line well in recent months, saying that while he respects the abilities of his American teammate and others, he fell in love with the sport for the artistry, the skating, not the acrobatics. He adored Michelle Kwan and Tara Lipinski. Rippon’s program component score is where he owns it, with his near-flawless presentations and organic connection with the audience.
“Of course, there’s always going to be talk about quads and stuff, and I think it’s amazing,” Rippon said. “I think it’s great to be pushing the envelope, but, you know, what I love about skating is I can go out there, perform, be an amazing athlete and help people be transcended to another place. That’s what I love about skating.”
So why is this move being met with such pushback? Chen said figure skating purists view the move as just too risky, which in turn takes away from a skater like him having a shot to put together a rock-solid program without a higher chance of not landing a quad lutz or toe or loop. It’s a desire to see him reach his full potential without upping the ante unnecessarily.
Some of it, too, is worry about injury.
“This kid is going to get hurt,” Chen recounts hearing, “he’s just trying to kill himself on the ice.”
He’s been called robotic, machinelike in his ability to skate cleanly and execute these quad jumps. Many fans and figure skating analysts want more from the component side of things, to see Chen lose himself in the music and execution of his programs. Skating, Chen agrees, is much more than quads.
Nobody gets more flustered when reading or hearing that Chen’s routines are lacking than Cati Snarr, his former teacher at Ballet West Academy in Salt Lake City. Snarr said Chen’s phenomenal 2017-18 season regularly featured high component scores, often on par with his technical score.
“There hasn’t been a skater with an artistic score that equals their technical score at an Olympic level,” she said.
If it all comes together for Chen this weekend, it will mean gold. That’s the level he’s at. His Olympic debut was a dud, a short program in the team event that saw two falls and no rhythm whatsoever. NBC analyst Johnny Weir, who was part of this hype train entering the Games, called it the “worst short program I’ve ever seen from Nathan Chen.”
He’s over it already.
This 5-foot-6, 135-pound teen is pure power on the ice, but there is more to his skating. The evidence is there. He went undefeated in the fall Grand Prix series and owned the U.S. championships for a second consecutive year. If his quads are in line, if his landings are there, Chen’s gold medal is within reach. The ifs are big, though.
Chen and Rippon have joked on their social media accounts about how often figure skating’s buzzword is brought up regularly in interviews, of how unavoidable it is, just like on the ice.
“Yeah,” Rippon chuckles, “like every day.”
HOW OLYMPIC FIGURE SKATING IS SCORED
Judges • The ISU Judging System focuses on evaluating the quality of each element performed in the technical score and the quality of the performance in the presentation score.
Technical score • Every move a skater executes has a base standard value. Every jump, spin or sequence can be awarded more points for nailing it or lose points for coming up short. When a skater performs an element, the technical panel identifies each element and determines its level of difficulty. Judges assign the element a grade of execution within a range of plus-3 to minus-3, which then is added to or deducted from the base value. Bonuses are added to base value of jumps executed during the second half of a performance, too. Finally, the sum of all elements with the grade of executions forms the official technical score.
Program component score • Points are awarded on a scale from 0 to 10 (increments of 0.25) for five program components to grade the overall presentation. They are: 1. Skating skills — skating quality, edge control, flow over ice; 2. Transitions and movement — Intricate footwork, plus entrances and exits of technical elements; 3. Performance and execution — Skates physically, emotionally and intellectually translating the music and choreography; 4. Choreography and composition — Intentional, original arrangement of moves in the program; 5. Interpretation — Personal and creative translation of the music of the program.