NEW HAVEN — Nathan Chen’s morning had been hectic, but now he finally had a moment to relax. He flipped open his laptop and started scanning the headlines of The Yale Daily News as his fellow classmates filled the 400-seat auditorium for an abnormal psychology lecture.
Chen’s gaze settled on an article about a classmate, Sophie Ascheim, the executive producer of “Period. End of Sentence,” which three days earlier had won an Oscar in the documentary short category. Ascheim, a member of Chen’s residential college, was already back on campus; he had seen her that morning as they were rushing off to class.
“People do crazy impressive things here,” Chen said. “Then they come back and they’re normal.”
Chen, 19, is engaged in his own juggling act, balancing Ivy League course work and an elite figure skating career — two worlds spinning on his index fingers. In January, Chen aced his first major skating test since entering college — he traveled to Detroit and captured his third consecutive national men’s singles title. This week, while the Yale student body is on spring break, he will travel to Japan to defend his world title, putting to the test the theory that being well rounded and pursuing a life off the ice might ultimately make him better at skating.
“I can’t imagine training by myself day after day,” Paul Wylie, a Harvard graduate who won a silver medal at the 1992 Olympics, said in a recent interview about Chen. Wylie marveled at Chen’s progress. “His skating is better than ever.”
A bronze medalist in the team event last year in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Chen isn’t the first Olympian to be a full-time student and a fully engaged skater. In bygone eras, when there were fewer competitions and fame and fortune weren’t the main metrics of success, Dick Button, Tenley Albright, Debi Thomas and Wylie all managed the duality of elite athletics and elite academics.
More recently, Sarah Hughes enrolled at Yale after winning women’s singles at the 2002 Olympics, and took time off from school to take part in an ice tour.
But as perhaps befits the man who last year became the first skater to land six jumps of four revolutions apiece in a competitive free program, Chen has raised the degree of difficulty. He is approaching skating as if it were an independent study project, training by himself while checking in regularly with Rafael Arutyunyan, his longtime coach.
Chen recognizes that for the next two years, skating judges will not be the only ones carefully monitoring his every move. “There’s a lot of people who said, ‘There’s no way he’s going to be able to manage this,’” he said. “It is difficult, and I totally get that if I do poorly that might not be the greatest look.”
For Chen, the risk was worth the reward of expanding his mind and his social circle. When he returned to campus after his victory at nationals, Chen’s suite mates greeted him with a box of doughnuts to celebrate. He then gleaned a palatable life lesson: One doughnut won’t bring him down.
He cherishes the friends he has made and the deep conversations he has had with fellow high achievers — but also those with students who have challenged his long-held assumptions. Chen, whose childhood was as carefully choreographed as one of his skating programs, said, “I’ve learned that there is literally no right or wrong answer to what to do with your life.”
And Chen has found, in his study groups, a collaborative closeness that is hard to cultivate in a sport as individualized, and insular, as skating, where, as he said, “It’s not customary for other athletes to make sure you’re succeeding at the same rate.”
Chen zips around campus on a motorized skateboard, potentially sacrificing safety for sleep.
“I can get up at 9:15 and make it to my 9:30 class,” he said.
The abnormal psychology lecture, delivered by a guest speaker and centered on the biological component of psychiatric illnesses, was Chen’s third class of the day, after calculus and statistics. He stacked his schedule in the mornings so he could have his afternoons free to skate.
After absorbing a 75-minute lecture on the role of brain chemistry in depressive disorders, during which he tapped notes into his laptop, Chen returned to his residential college for a hot lunch. Over a plate of stew with carrots and a side of quinoa, Chen explained the appeal of college.
It is a veritable smorgasbord compared with the strict fare of skating, where every day is spent around the same people with the same singular focus on performance.
“With the Olympic experience I had, it has just given me a different perspective of skating,” Chen said.
A year ago, he entered the Pyeongchang men’s singles competition as a gold medal contender. After a disastrous short program, he sat in 17th place, then vaulted into fifth on the strength of his go-for-broke, quad-fueled free skate.
Now he thinks about his once all-consuming pursuit in a different way.
“Even if you win a gold medal, you have that moment of glory, but after that what happens?” Chen said. “There’s so many moments that will happen after that that are more important.”
Chen, who started high school in regular classes but reluctantly finished with online studies to accommodate the availability of ice time, accepted admission to Yale because he felt it afforded him the best of both worlds. He is interested in studying medicine, though he is keeping his options open. A college degree is de rigueur in his family; Chen’s mother is a medical translator and his father is a scientist, and he has four older siblings who are employed in the tech, aerospace and finance industries.
Yale officials accommodated his training needs by offering an afternoon window of ice time at Ingalls Rink, the on-campus home of the men’s and women’s hockey teams. He also has the use of the weight room used by the athletic teams, where he follows a program implemented by a United States Olympic Committee strength and conditioning trainer.
If his studies provide him with an escape from skating, his skating provides him with a needed escape from his studies.
“I go on the ice and I can distract myself from school,” he said. “And it gives me a dopamine kick.”
For most of his post-lunch, hourlong practice at Ingalls, Chen had the facility to himself, except for a women’s hockey player who ran up and down the arena steps. He skated over to the boards at regular intervals to manage the music on his phone. Upon finishing, he grabbed a bucket of ice shavings and repaired the divots in the ice that he had created with his toe pick when he pushed off for his jumps.
The serenity of the setting suits Chen, who said these solo sessions have allowed him to renew his relationship with the ice and deepen his connection to his music.
“I kind of feel like when no one’s watching I feel the most attuned to my skating,” he said.
When Chen finished skating at Ingalls, he changed quickly and hopped into his sport utility vehicle for the 30-minute commute to Champions Skating Center in Cromwell, Conn., for additional practice.
He couldn’t dawdle; he had to get his work done and return to campus in time for his 8 p.m. music class. For the next hour, Chen reeled off quads while maneuvering around more than a dozen skaters, including a little girl in hot pink skates and a youngster who was practicing her forward to backward transitions. He was struggling with one of his jumps, so he had one of the coaches at the facility take videos, which Chen planned to forward to Arutyunyan to critique.
Arutyunyan said the arrangement worked because he coached Chen not to need him. In an email, he wrote, “I always prepare the athletes so they can cope with any problems that may occur in their career, figuratively speaking like a good parent who brings up his child with the understanding that one day he will have to solve all problems on his own.”
In a subsequent telephone interview, Arutyunyan suggested that those who wonder if Chen can straddle the hypercompetitive world of sport and the hypercompetitive world of an Ivy League college are missing the point.
“I know Olympic champions whose gold medal didn’t help their lives,” said Arutyunyan, which is why, in his mind, there’s only one question worth asking: How can Chen not try?