Nathan Chen: Any sport is a story about how to get better day by day
Elena Vaitsekhovskaya’s interview with Nathan Chen. After Grand Prix Skate America 2019.
by Elena Vaitsekhovskaya for rsport.ria.ru dd. October 24th, 2019
A year ago, you confessed in an interview that at a certain stage of your career you almost resigned that mastering a quadruple lutz and a quadruple flip was above your capabilities. Now you’re the first athlete in the world who successfully jumped all five quadruple jumps in the free program. But in Las Vegas you didn’t include quadruple lutz in the free program. Why?
– Because my physical shape isn’t yet good enough to do this. I had lutz in the short program, even if at competitions I didn’t manage to perform it in combination with a toe loop. As for the free program, everything is simple here: the combination lutz-toe loop (3 + 3) is the first of the jumping elements, and if I jump quad, but do not skate the program to the end, what’s the point?
A year ago, you have already said something like that. That there is no problem for you to jump a quadruple loop flawlessly, but this is not the same with including a jump into a program where there are already five quads.
– Exactly. In technical terms, I’m a perfectionist to some extent: until I feel that I’m ready to work out the elements on the ice 100%, there’s no sense in taking adventurous decisions.
Then one more jumping question, which excites the public quite strongly. Quad Axel. According to you, it’s not in your plans to master this element. According to your coach, you have already begun to work on this jump. Whom to believe? And does the thought that you can become the first man in history to master the quad axel boost your ego?
– Of course I think about it. On the one hand, it’s a cool feeling to know that there are things in sports that you haven’t done, but you can at least try. But the quad axel isn’t a goal in itself. And it’s definitely not the task I’m focusing on right now. While I see a lot of work that needs to be done to improve the quality the jumps I have. To clean the technique, to increase stability. It’s not so easy to realize all this when you have to work mostly alone. But I’m trying.
Before the first Grand Prix, you planned to come to Rafael Arutyunyan for training at least for a few days, but this didn’t work out because of the exams at the university. In Las Vegas, you mentioned that October is getting more free for you. Does this mean that you will have some time for joint training?
– Speaking about free time, I only meant that in October I had a free week. One. It gave me the opportunity to perform in Las Vegas. For the rest of the month I will be very busy with my studies again. In this regard, the beginning of October turned out to be especially tough, because the first competitions in Japan (Japan Open – ed.) was precisely at the period of intermediate and rather difficult for me exams at the university. Homework took a lot of time: in most cases, to complete everything, I needed the help of professors. Each task took from six to twelve hours, and sometimes only one thought remained in my head after class: “I must handle it!”
It happens quite often that people, having studied at the university for a year or two, came to the conclusion that the chosen profession is not at all what they would like to devote the rest of their lives to. What about you? Are you not disappointed that you chose Yale, and to some extent sacrificed the opportunity to focus completely on trainings?
– To be honest, it turned out much more difficult to study than I expected. Maybe I was wrong choosing such a life for myself, but I reasoned simply: if after sports I want to have a successful future, then, first of all, I have to get a good education. You can do figure skating for a long time, but it can’t last a lifetime. That is why I’m doing what I have to do now. It’s hard. This is a constant challenge, constant stress, and I can’t say that studying is easy for me: sometimes I have to force myself, exactly the same as in training. Every day I face a bunch of new problems, and I will lie if I say that I always know how to solve them. But I made such a choice for myself, and I really try to cope with everything.
I can be mistaken, but, I think it was Shoma Uno, who tried to train on his own and then said that sometimes it’s very important for an athlete, no matter how disciplined and independent he is, to feel that he is not alone. That there is a person nearby who can prompt, support, give advice. Since leaving California for New Haven have you had such thoughts?
– Sure. Rafael for me is not just a coach. He and his entire team are a big part of my life, my career, all my achievements. At first it was so unusual for me to come to a training session and not see a coach near the boards, that I wanted ti give up. On the other hand, since childhood, Raf in a certain sense have been teaching me independence. In training, in competition, in relation to what I do. He and my mother are the people who had the greatest influence on me and thanks to whom I developed as a skater. So now I even feel an additional responsibility if close people are not around.
Is this responsibility motivating and a positive factor, or something you have to learn to live with?
– Um … good question… I would still say that it motivates. Even when something doesn’t work out in a particular training session, deep down I know that I have already done some things, achieved something, which means I can at least repeat all this again, and then, starting from this level, try to take a step forward. Any sport, by and large, is a story about how to get better day by day. In this regard, responsibility for my own result for sure motivates me. This is partly comparable to how I prepare for exams. From the very beginning of the season, I realized that I have a certain number of competitions – Japan Open, then Skate America, the Grand Prix in France and, I hope, the Grand Prix Final in Turin. The realization that at each of these competitions I have to achieve certain goals, not only keeps motivation, but also gives energy thanks to properly arranged trainings.
Is the idea to take academic leave before the Olympics real? Or is there a chance that you may be denied?
– I really hope that this won’t happen. I have already discussed my sporting intentions with supervisors and the dean, they believe that closer to the Games I can take a break and return to California for a while to work with Rafael. And after the Olympics, return to study again.
Does it happen that depression start, and you don’t know how to cope with it?
– It happens with everyone sometimes, and it may be completely unrelated to whether you work with a coach or alone. If I feel completely alone, I call Raf on the facetime, send him a video of my training, that is, you can say that we are constantly in touch. And, of course, I use every opportunity to work with him when we met at competitions.
That is why you, having just flown to Las Vegas, went to the city skating rink for a public skating session?
– Yes. We expected to get to the ice, where skaters of a higher level than beginners skate, but in fact, a fairly large number of children turned out to be on the ice, not only figure skaters, but also those who play hockey. It was unusual, especially since the ice that we managed to found turned out to be smaller than the NHL hockey rink. The rink where I trained when I left California was also public, with lots of people on the ice. But it’s Olympic size. This need to constantly maneuver between young children at first reminded me of the times when I just started to skate in Salt Lake City. I got a separate ice only after I got into Raf’s elite group in California. But I can train in any conditions, this is definitely not the biggest problem.
Of the two competitions that are already behind, which are you more satisfied with?
– In Japan, I skated only a free program, popped the last triple axel and did a single flip after quad toe loop. The Grand Prix in Las Vegas was for me, in fact, the first full-fledged competitions of the season. There were also mistakes, but I’m satisfied with the scores. It is clear that there are many things that can be improved, but if to treat the first competitions as a kind of starting point, then everything suits me.
On the other hand, the performance at Japan Open gave me a feeling of a better skate. Perhaps the whole point is that the Japanese public is always very much involved in the process, react very actively. This helps the skater to be in the program from the very beginning. I definitely felt a surge of energy. Especially on the step sequence.
Perhaps it just seemed, but when you started the step sequence in Las Vegas, something happened with the music. There was a feeling that the more actively you move, the quieter it becomes.
– I myself didn’t notice this, but Nadia and Vera (Nadezhda Kanaeva and Vera Arutyunyan – ed.) told me exactly the same thing, it should not be so. In the original version, the music, on the contrary, is gaining additional power in this part of the program. Perhaps someone just muffled the sound, finding it too loud.
How difficult was it to learn new choreography and to perform it in a program with four quadruple jumps?
– Hip-hop always has been interesting for me, so I gladly seized the idea, despite the fact that I had never tried anything like this on ice. The Marie-France’s team has a really cool hip hop dancer – Sam Chouinard, who does a lot of extra choreography for dancers from Dubreuil – Lauzon group. I was lucky: when I came to Mari-France to do a free program, Sam was in Montreal and found the time to work with me. All these little things at the end of the program are entirely his work.
At first I was a little skeptical, as there are not many successful attempts to interpret hip-hop in figure skating. But Sam made a completely killing argument, asking: “What are we risking when it comes to the last thirty seconds of the program?” Moreover, this is not some random piece of rap music, this is the same composition of “Benny and the Jets.” In my opinion, it turned out fun. Already after performing in Japan, Marie-France admitted that to a certain extent she risked offering me this music.
– Because originally it was a choice for dancers. But it so happened that this music didn’t fit any of those who train with Marie-France and Patrice. And then I appeared. Everything happened according to the principle: Oh! Here is Nathan. And here’s the program for him! Basically, the idea was good. All the music is taken from Elton John’s biographical movie “Rocketman,” it is really very popular now, it is very different from what I skated last year, and in this I saw the main advantage for myself. Every year we try to experiment with music, with style and everything else, and to be honest, I like this process. Of course, during the season I will polish the choreography, and I hope that this will help viewers to feel the program better. Although even at the first competitions in Japan, the audience reacted very well.
Have you already managed to feel like Elton John?
– I don’t think it’s possible, but there was no such task. It is unlikely that anyone can be like Elton John – he is too unique. But when it comes to music, this always leaves the performer with the right to interpret it in his own way. If you watch the movie “Rocketman”, it’s easy to see that the authors of the movie were not too intent to interpret the musical material. It just sounds there. I mean that everyone is free to interpret any music as they hear it. I think Marie-France did an excellent job.
When you consider the ideas of new programs, are you taking into account a potential audience at least to some extent?
– Of course. I won’t say that I specifically explore the tastes of a fan audience and the trends of musical fashion, but figure skating is a sport where the human factor is very important. How viewers react to the program definitely influences how judges score it. So my answer is yes. I really thought about all this before agreeing to this music. I knew that some of the guys intend to include hip-hop fragments in their programs, try it, so I definitely won’t become a unique hip-hop artist on ice. At the same time, I was almost sure that none of the top-six would take hip-hop.
There is another thing: despite these 20-30 seconds at the end of my program, hip-hop is not the dominant part. Everything is very well balanced. At least, it seems to me so.
Did you choose a costume for the free program yourself?
– My mother sewed it, all this happened, as they say, at the last minute. We went to the manufactory store, saw one of the samples of shirt fabric and thought: “Oh, that would be cool!” In fact, this is not the final version of the costume, we continue to discuss options. The same goes for the glove on the left hand.
Are you going to make any changes in the programs before the next the Grand Prix?
– I don’t have much time for this. There is only two weeks between competitions in Las Vegas and Grenoble. Given that the road from Las Vegas to Connecticut will take some time and recovery, I will have about five days of real training. So time is really short. Right now, the main task is to recover as quickly as possible, correct the mistakes that were made in the competitions, and try to maximize the program. Well, there we’ll see if I still have time to change something.