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Column: Nathan Chen’s fire still burns thanks to his mother and others who inspire him

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After Nathan Chen had impressed a panel of figure skating judges at the Beijing Olympics last February by performing a vibrant and challenging free skate program that lifted him above a formidable field and secured his long-awaited gold medal, he had to face his toughest judge:

His mother.

Beijing-born Hetty Chen, who cleaned houses and worked as a medical interpreter to finance his figure skating career and the pursuits of her four older kids, had advocated for him. Coached him. Protected him, too, though her thrifty purchase of white hockey skates instead of the standard black wasn’t a hit.

She also had a way of keeping him grounded that allowed him to soar, and he thought of her in the moments before he became the first Asian-American man to win an Olympic singles figure skating gold medal.

Skating to Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” Chen began his three-jump combination with a quadruple toe loop but didn’t have enough momentum to finish with a triple flip. Instead, he ended with a single flip. He recovered quickly, and soon realized he would win. Even so, as he said in his recent memoir, “One Jump at a Time,” he expected to hear about his misstep. “Ma is going to be upset about that toe-flip,” he wrote.

After he attended a news conference and underwent drug testing, he spoke to Hetty and his family. “Seconds into the call, she asked me, ‘What happened with the quad toe-triple flip? Why did you make that mistake?’ ” he wrote. “That was exactly her.”

He wouldn’t have it any other way. “No matter what I accomplish, if there’s things that can be better she’ll definitely make sure I know about it,” Chen said last week between classes at Yale, where he has a year and a half remaining on his path to a degree in statistics and data science.

Chen collaborated on the book with TIME writer Alice Park, typing his thoughts into a shared document between stops on the Stars on Ice tour last summer. He relied on Hetty, his siblings and his friends to confirm his memories and fill in some blanks about his childhood in Salt Lake City.

He remembers being inspired while skating in a rink that was a practice venue for the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. But he didn’t recall posing for a photo with his two brothers in front of Rice-Eccles Stadium, where the Olympic flame had burned, standing near a sign with the Games motto, “Light the fire within.” He wrote, “As I look back, this is probably where my Olympic journey really began.”

Hetty also told him about the day he stood near the door of his rink and sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” as he had seen swimmer Michael Phelps do during a medal ceremony at the 2004 Summer Olympics. It made perfect sense to 5-year-old Nathan. He was pretending he had won a gold medal and had to practice the anthem.

“She was definitely very involved in helping me write that book in terms of whether the stories were correct from her perspective as well,” Chen said. “It was kind of cool [to] look through all those bits and pieces and try to collect them into a cohesive story. It was a very reflective process for me.”

The book, which honors his heritage by introducing each chapter with a Chinese proverb, has a matter-of-fact tone. But it deserves high scores for honest insights from Chen, who delves into what it took for him to reach the top of the figure skating world and describes the sacrifices made by his family. He’s also frank about his implosion at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, where he felt paralyzed by grand expectations.

Nathan Chen, of the United States, competes in the men’s free skate program during the figure skating event at the 2022 Winter Olympics on Feb. 10, 2022, in Beijing.

(Natacha Pisarenko / Associated Press)

As a kid he competed in hockey and gymnastics and danced with a ballet company, but his figure skating talent stood above all. “I thrived on the feeling of power coming from zipping silently across a pristine, freshly cut sheet of ice,” he wrote. Recognizing his ability, his parents drove him to Lake Arrowhead, among other spots, for the best coaching and facilities. They found sponsors and benefited from grants from a foundation established by Michael Weiss, a former U.S. champion who helps fund skaters in a forbiddingly expensive sport.

Chen won his first U.S. title in 2010, at the novice level and won his first of six straight senior level championships in 2017. He and defending champion Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu were co-favorites at the 2018 Olympics, but Chen couldn’t control his nerves and dread. “I saw the rings and I froze,” he said of the Olympic symbol. He stumbled to 17th in the short program. Freed from pressure, he performed a lights-out free skate and climbed to fifth. He won the first of his three world championships in 2018.

He enrolled at Yale, planning to study and compete, but he had to adjust when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020. He was fortunate to practice at Great Park Ice in Irvine, where safety protocols were carefully maintained for him, coach Rafael Arutunian and other elite skaters. He expanded his team to add a mental coach, who taught him visualizing success would help him live it. A world-record score in the short program validated that at Beijing and set up his gold-medal triumph. “That monkey had been on my back for so long,” he wrote.

Chen has since collaborated on a picture book, “Wei Skates On,” due to be published next month. It’s about a fictional Chinese-American boy who finds inspiration in skating, with the help of his mother. “I wanted it to be someone else. But I obviously have pieces of myself in it,” he said.

The U.S. figure skating championships will be held this week in San Jose but Chen won’t be there; he has competed every year starting in 2010. “There’s things I really love and miss,” he said of competing.

He hasn’t closed the door on attempting a gold-medal repeat at the 2026 Cortina-Milano Olympics. “Nothing at all has been finalized. Nor do I think I really need to right now,” he said. “I have a lot of things that I’m engaged with but it’s not something that I’m like, ‘For sure, I don’t want to do that ever again.’ I want to maintain the option and just see how my body is doing, how my mind is doing, how my projects are doing.”

His fire still burns. Thank his mother — and him — for whatever that fire might inspire him to do.

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