As Nathan Chen seeks a third consecutive World Figure Skating Championships title — something no American man has achieved since Scott Hamilton got his fourth in a row in 1984 — he has two major challenges in front of him.
One is two-time Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, whom Chen calls “the benchmark." The other is idleness in major competitions forced by the coronavirus pandemic.
When Chen, winner of the last five U.S. titles, skates in Stockholm this week, it will be the first significant international event for him since late 2019. A gold medalist in every competition since his last defeat at the 2018 Winter Olympics, the 21-year-old can't be sure that his recent dominance in the sport will carry into worlds, which were canceled a year ago.
“I think that not having competitions is actually kind of a loss just because you learn so much at competitions," he says. "In training, you come in every day and you’re a little bit more consistent with them, but you don’t necessarily have, like, weird variables thrown your way that you don’t really predict. Not having competitions makes you kind of forget that sort of rhythm.
“I think that having more competition helps get that. But on the flip side of that, yes, having more time to work the craft, more time to work basics, more time to talk about things that are not necessarily so program specific, that helps get you just a better foundation, I think, whether or not that’s necessarily directly seen in the skating. And I think it helps athletes feel a little bit more confident going into competitions.”
Chen has no reason to lack confidence in Stockholm. He has ratcheted up the difficulty of his components and is capable of landing every quadruple jump any skater attempts. His presentation marks have increased the last few years, as has his comfort level with training, particularly now that he is on leave from Yale.
He's even become a popular athlete for endorsers, recently joining Team Panasonic in its mission to empower youth.
But for all of his accomplishments thus far — since Hamilton's foursome, only Brian Boitano has matched Chen's two world crowns among American men — Chen is looking up at Hanyu on a few levels. That starts with Hanyu's worldwide popularity, but also includes his being the first man since Dick Button in 1952 to grab gold in consecutive Olympics.
Hanyu had trained in Canada with renowned coach Brian Orser, but earlier this year he returned to Japan for the national championships and to continue practicing.
“I know how difficult it is to not train with your traditional training base," Chen says, recalling his days in New Haven, Connecticut, while at college.
"For him to still look as sharp and as clean this ... it’s incredibly impressive. “I don’t think he’s lost anything. And if anything, he’s gotten even better, which is just a testament to how great he is.
"I’m excited to see him. I haven’t seen him in person in quite a long time. And just every time I get to get to compete against him, it’s always a great honor.”
The United States is sending a strong contingent in men's and ice dance. In addition to Chen, Vincent Zhou has a good chance of medaling; Zhou finished third in the most recent worlds two years ago.
Top American ice dancers Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue won their third national championship in January and own a silver and a bronze medal at worlds. Madison Chock and Evan Bates also are a dynamic couple who have two world medals and a pair of national titles.
Bradie Tennell won her second U.S. crown this year and could challenge for the podium, particularly with the dominant Russian women experiencing injury and training issues. But Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova have been dubbed “quad queens,” and Japan's women also will be formidable.
Alexa Knierim and new partner Brandon Frazier have made impressive progress in pairs but face a big climb to the medals stand. Two-time and reigning world champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong are the favorites.