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Before Nathan Chen steps out onto the ice, he has a few rituals. For one, the figure skater doesn’t watch his preceding competitor’s performance, only catching glimpses of his rivals when they skate off. And then there is the order in which he puts on his skates.
“I put the left one on first, then the right one. Then I tie left, then tie right,” he told NBC News.
“Once you land a jump, you put it straight in the program. That’s the way I’ve always been doing it. Once I landed the triple Salchow, I put it in the program. First landed triple toe, straight into the program. That’s what I did with my quad suite.”
It might be working. Heralded in the skating world as a tour de force in international men’s figure skating, Chen, 17, is known for his exceptional technical prowess on the ice and ability to land multiple complicated quadruple jumps.
In January 2016, Chen became the first male skater to land four quadruple jumps in competition at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
In December, he won a silver medal at the Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final in Marseilles, France, the second youngest skater ever to medal in the event’s history, according to NBC Sports. He’s also the first U.S. male figure skater to medal at the Grand Prix Final since Evan Lysacek and Johnny Weir in 2009.
His second-place finish dovetailed an earlier win at NHK Trophy in Sapporo, Japan. There, Chen earned a silver medal, making him the youngest U.S. men’s skater to medal at a grand prix event, according to the United States Olympic Committee.
It was a confidence-boosting end to an otherwise challenging year for Chen, his first as a senior skater. Following the U.S. championships last January, Chen suffered an avulsion injury in his left hip. Avulsion injuries occur when a piece of bone is ripped by muscle, not an uncommon injury for young athletes whose bodies are still developing.
Chen’s injury was made abundantly clear when he cut his performance short at an exhibition event; he left the ice, grimacing and clutching his left leg.
Shortly thereafter, Chen underwent surgery. The injury kept him off the ice for almost six months as he underwent rehabilitation at Olympic Training Centers in Chula Vista, California, and Colorado Springs, Colorado, causing him to miss the world championships.
Nowadays, Chen is acutely aware of anything “off” in his body when he trains and said that the injury was likely aggravated by his penchant for difficult jumps on the ice.
“These big jumps take a big toll on the body, especially a young body. So, it’s kind of risk or reward, I guess. I feel like at this level, it’s kind of necessary,” Chen said.
Born in Salt Lake City to a scientist father and medical translator mother — both immigrants from China, Chen first became interested in hitting the ice when he watched his older brothers play hockey. He started taking lessons at age 3 and made his national debut at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships at age 10.
On the competition circuit, Chen has made his presence known, racking up big wins (four-time U.S. national champion and the current top U.S. scorer in international figure skating competition history) and big air with his repertoire of jumps.
“Ever since I was a younger skater, I’ve been working my way to these big jumps,” he said. “Once you land a jump, you put it straight in the program. That’s the way I’ve always been doing it. Once I landed the triple Salchow, I put it in the program. First landed triple toe, straight into the program. That’s what I did with my quad suite.”
Off the ice, Chen balances attending school online and training with his coaches in Southern California and Michigan. He counts his skating rivals — like 2016 U.S. national champion Adam Rippon and 2014 Olympic silver medalist Patrick Chan — among his friends and mentors.
Like his older siblings, Chen plans to apply to and attend college, although it will have to wait until after his gap year which he’ll spend training for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
“At the moment, I feel like 2018 is more in my sight now. I feel like I have a better chance of making the team and, potentially, even placing,” he said.
But there’s still a full year before the Olympics, a fact not lost on Chen.
“I don’t want to set specific goals, at the moment,” Chen said. “It’s a little bit far away to say where exactly I’ll be during that period of time. But, of course, everyone’s goal is to podium at the Olympics.”
While his technical prowess has made him one of the buzziest skaters ahead of 2018, Chen said he needs to improve his artistry on the ice.
Chen is a favorite to podium at this month’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Kansas City — which is scheduled to take place from Jan. 14 to Jan. 22 — especially since Rippon will be out of the competition due to an injury. If Chen wins, he could be youngest U.S. men’s champion in over 50 years, according to NBC Sports.
But like with 2018, Chen is only cautiously optimistic.
“Of course, there are more quads that I can put in, whether it’s another quad loop or more of the same quad into the program. That’s kind of the next step, I suppose,” he said. “At the moment, I want to take it one competition at a time.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to Nathan Chen as a professional figure skater. He is an amateur figure skater.