Gold medalist Nathan Chen of the United States waves during the medal award ceremony for the men's free skating at the ISU Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in Gangneung, South Korea, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017.
Here's a figure skating rarity: An American man, Nathan Chen, is pushing the envelope on jumps with an assortment of quads that will have the rest of the world's top skaters needing to expand their repertoires.
Quadruple jumps rarely have been a staple of U.S. men's programs. While Russian, Japanese and Chinese skaters were loading up on the four-rotation point grabbers, the top Americans generally stuck to triples and artistry. Evan Lysacek won the 2010 Olympic gold medal with a brilliantly choreographed and versatile free skate that was devoid of quads. Evgeny Plushenko, the 2006 Olympic champion, pointed that out after finishing second to Lysacek.
Now comes Chen, 17, whose victory at Four Continents over the weekend was a huge step up from his win at nationals in January. In beating Sochi gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu, three-time world winner Patrick Chan and Chinese jumping jack Jin Boyang, Chen established himself as a force on the international scene.
He did so in Pyeonchang, South Korea, on the 2018 Olympic arena ice. He did so with a stunning program that included five quads; some American men would be happy to land that many in a season.
And he wasn't all that impressed with his performance, either.
"This is the first (international) championship event that I've won," Chen said Sunday. "I had a good lead coming out of the short program, which really benefited me in the long program. I tried five quads today and I landed three of the five solidly. The other two were a little shaky, so that's something that I need to improve on for worlds."
Chen finished second to Hanyu in the free skate. So, yes, there is plenty to work on before heading to the world championships in late March in Helsinki, where Spain's Javier Fernandez, the two-time defending champ, will compete.
Still, what Chen has done is somewhat groundbreaking in U.S. skating. His artistry isn't at Lysacek's level — no American man has come close to that since 2010 — but his technical skills have raised the bar not only for his often-reluctant countrymen, but for every member of the men's field.
"The amount of quads I put into a program in a particular season is relative to how my body is adapting to training, how my body's adapting to competition and what the other skaters are doing," Chen said. "Yuzu (Hanyu) definitely pushed everything in terms of figure skating: the jumps, the artistry, everything together as a whole package. He really kind of started that when we were all junior skaters, including Shoma (Uno) and Boyang.
"Boyang really started that huge quad craze when we were younger. We were all struggling to get all our triples and do triple-triples and he was out there doing four quads in a long (program). I think that really motivated all of us junior skaters to start working on these quads and putting them into the programs. It's really showing up now that we're senior skaters."
The fear, of course, is what all those quads in daily practices, let alone under the intense pressure of competition, can do to a body. His coach, Rafael Arutunian, believes Chen is only touching the limits of his ability, but he also notes that keeping any skater healthy under that physical pounding is difficult.
But it's virtually impossible to pull the reins in on a rising star, especially someone who wants to soar into uncharted air.
"Initially, a few weeks ago, that (five quads) wasn't the plan," Chen said matter-of-factly, as if two or three quads is something easy to do. "But as time progressed and I saw what the other guys were doing, I decided I didn't want to be held back by myself. It played out well for me ... so I'm glad that's the way things went. We'll see what happens at worlds."