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March 3, 2018

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Chinese-American figure skater wins praise for heroic efforts

TRUE maturity and sportsmanship doesn’t necessarily guarantee winning. It’s also about picking oneself up, finding the courage to face a daunting setback and rising like a phoenix from the ashes of defeat.

Chinese-American Nathan Chen, 18, was applauded, not only for his performance but also for his courage, in his birthplace, Salt Lake City, Utah, even though he missed the podium, ranking 5th in the Pyeongchang Olympic Winter Games that concluded on February 25.

During his team and short programs, which Chen himself admitted were “disastrous,” the gold medal contender crashed and burned on the ice in the event he had been expected to win, leaving him in an ignominious 17th place. But Chen proved he was a champion on or off the podium when he found it in himself to put aside his fears and failures to leap to greatness, becoming the first athlete ever to accomplish six quad spins — five of them executed cleanly — in Olympic competition.

In Salt Lake City, Desert News Opinion reported: “(Chen) chose to be bold and rewrote the ending of this trip to the Olympics. The worst that could happen wasn’t another fall, but failure to try. He didn’t win gold, silver or bronze. But I’d say he was perhaps the biggest winner on the ice during the 2018 Games.”

“Disappointments are not the end of a story unless you stop writing it. If you don’t believe it, ask Nathan Chen,” said Lois M. Collins, a newspaper columnist at the Games.

“Chen ... wiped from his brain his mistake-laden short program and the other terrible short program he skated — in the team event last week. And he set out to write a much better ending to his Olympic story,” The New York Times wrote.

The report also quoted Shoma Uno, the silver medalist from Japan, as saying: “He’s very consistent at practice all the time. In the free skate, Nathan was more like Nathan.”

Prior to the Olympics, Chen was the golden boy, America’s top hopeful for an Olympic gold medal in men’s figure skating and even a familiar face smiling out across the nation from Kellogg’s breakfast cereal boxes and in Super Bowl commercials viewed by millions.

Nicknamed the “Quad King” for his powerful quad spins, Chen was born in 1999 to a scientific researcher father and translator mother. He was undefeated on the Grand Prix circuit and, many thought, a guaranteed lock for the gold in Pyeongchang.

But, like many young athletes, Chen underestimated the pressures of the Olympics, and it cost him an individual medal.

“The pressure was pressing down on me,” Chen admitted. “I was so set on making the podium that I forgot to be present and be myself.”

Afraid of making a mistake, he reined himself in and decided to play it safe. But playing it safe was the mistake, leading to bobbles and falls in his short and team programs that left spectators and fans stunned and gasping.

“These kind of things happen to every athlete eventually, but it’s nothing that Nathan is accustomed to,” said 1984 Olympic gold medalist Scott Hamilton.

Chen then holed up in his room for an intense night of introspective soul-searching, talking only to his mom, who had been his rock since he began skating at age 3. She helped pull him back from the abyss.

“This isn’t who you are,” she consoled him. “Tomorrow’s a new day.”

And so it was.

Knowing he’d already blown his chance for a medal, the pressure was off. So Chen decided to do what he did best: Just skate with all his heart.

“I was like I’m not going to hold myself back and play it safe,” he said. “I had literally nothing to lose, so if I made a couple of mistakes, so be it.”

He chucked off the negative thoughts, threw caution to the wind, and took to the ice determined to let his love of the sport guide him. That decision launched him into Olympic history. No one had ever done five quads before. Chen did six, though one was marked down for not landing cleanly.

His boldness paid off. He won the free skating, scoring a whopping 215.08, nine full points ahead of his rival Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, who ultimately snapped up the gold for the highest aggregate score from his free form, team and short form programs combined.

Chen’s spectacular go-for-broke performance catapulted him from a lamentable 17th place to a respectable 5th. He may not have won a place on the podium this time around, but he won back his self-respect and the admiration of millions.

When asked where his inner strength came from, he said his mom Hetty Wang should get the praise. “She’s the one who raised me as a kid. She’s the one who spent all the time with me on the ice. She’s the one who really dedicated a lot of her time to help me grow as a skater.”

He added in a People interview: “I was so glad my family were there (at the Olympics) to see my lowest of lows and my highest of highs. Just having a fearless attitude is definitely something I can take away from this competition.”

Born and raised in Beijing, his mother became a medical translator, but managed to devote much of her time to her kids and Chen’s skating career.

His father came from rural China, then emigrated to Arizona in the American Southwest, obtained a PhD in Pharmaceutics & Pharmaceutical Chemistry from the University of Utah, and became president of his own pharmaceutical firm.

The Olympian Chen is justifiably proud of his parents’ achievements — and their sacrifices on his behalf — including moving the entire family from Utah to California so he would have access to the world-class coaches he’d need to pursue his Olympic dream.

He explained to ESPN that being both Chinese and American and having access to those cultural differences “helped me in a lot of ways, from an academic standpoint to an athletic standpoint.”

He and his mom were especially close. “I don’t know why I just put so much attention to him. He was the youngest and when I pulled,” she explained, “Nathan moved.”

His older sister, Alice Chen, recounted to People how the whole family would go every day to watch their youngest skate. “I just think of my mom and Nathan literally living at the rink,” she said. “That was our normal life.”


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