“Give yourself time to be a person.”
Nathan Chen, an Olympic figure skater and student at Yale University, has over 17 years of skating experience on the ice rink. From the onset of his athlete-driven career, he has dominated competitions and championships, setting records and gaining a reputation as the “Quad King”. Despite his young age, his big dreams of competing at the Olympics is manifested in his tremendous passion, grit and appreciation for the sport. All the while, Nathan is balancing a normal life as an undergraduate student. The Penn Innovators in Business asked him to share his valuable advice and experience throughout his career journey…
What is the timeline of your preparation in a competitive season?
“I compete in men’s singles, so we don’t have a set genre or piece that we have to skate to. It’s very free for all. When you start selecting music, you want to see what has been the general trend of music over the past couple years and where you think the genres are going to go in the next couple of years. I sit down with my choreographer around June and have conversations about, ‘What do you think the skaters are doing? What was interesting in the past year that sparked interest?’ We typically use those examples as things to piggyback off of.”
“Before the Olympic season, everyone was doing very classical pieces. The introduction of lyrics was very new. They just implemented the legality to perform lyrical pieces and that opened up another avenue for skaters to venture into. By having a variety of music options and greater performance options, you can now tell a story versus using a soundtrack to help carry a story.”
“We select the music in May / June and we start playing with movement in July. We go to a dance studio or we’ll bring in professionals in that specific field (i.e. tango, ballet) to structure the program. In August we start bringing it onto the ice, putting in where the elements are going to be. It’s research–playing around with different patterns and different elements–and we’re figuring out what exactly are the best performances and the best stories from the technical side.”
“After September we start getting into the early season. At this point, not many skaters are at their peak. They’re just starting to build and develop. The officials determine what they like and don’t like, and we start processing what they’re telling us. In December we have the Grand Prix Final, and the two months leading into the final is the period of time when [figure skaters] start modifying so that they’re peaking at the Grand Prix. After that we have a month to completely de-load, recover, relax, repair ourselves for the second half of the season. We go into nationals in late January, and in February we have a competition called Four Continents. End of March we have the World Championships and in April, we start traveling around and doing shows for fun.”
How do you establish partnerships with external brands?
“In 2016 I signed with an agent who works for a company called IMG. She was the one who networked and found companies and people to get in touch with so that I could be put in the best position to get these deals. Most companies that we would look for are companies that sponsor the Olympics or the Olympic movement (i.e. Bridgestone, Kellogg, Nike, etc.). Before I start beginning a partnership with a company, we always have preliminary calls with the marketing team. That’s the point where I research the company and ask, ‘how do I bring my story and my narrative into their narratives?’ From there [establishing partnerships], they start tracking Instagram metrics. The companies really care about you as a person and ask you questions that they would never use for marketing purposes, but to build that camaraderie and that friendship between the members. I think that’s really important.”
How do you sustain your passion for figure skating?
“The effect of teamwork is incredibly important. In the past, skating predominantly in the U.S has been a very individual sport, but as you start competing at more competitions, you start realizing that you have tons of new people in your team. You have to have your head coach, who basically oversees the entire operation, and they’re the ones who move all teammates around to make sure everything is running smoothly. We also have a physical therapist to make sure my body’s intact; ‘how can we implement certain strength activities or stability activities to make sure I don’t get injured?’ Psychologists make sure that you’re mentally healthy and prepared to battle high stresses of competitions and whatever media throws your way. On top of that, you have your family and your friends. When it comes down to it, you have to have your ultimate goal. For me, the Olympics is what drives me forward every single day.”
What is the worst advice you’ve ever received?
“Hard work gets you results. Yes, you need to push through whenever things are getting tough, but you can’t do that all the time. Your body, your mind, your everything is going to break down at some point and you’re just going to exhaust yourself. I think strategizing your time and your efforts is really important. The best advice that I’ve received was to give yourself time to be a person, and to not be so working goal-oriented all the time. Enjoy yourself! My trainer always makes sure to partition a specific time throughout the year where skating is not at all in the docket. Having times of ‘not being a skater’ is really helpful.”
Any changes you would make to the figure skating industry in the future?
“I think that there are some issues with the judging program; we need to quantify and computerize the way that things are judged a little bit better because everything is very subjective in skating and judging. For instance, we have issues with rotations where if a skater hits the ice at a certain moment before finishing the full rotation, they should in theory be knocked down points, but a lot of times it’s walking to the side. As a score, there should be some fairness, so I would love to see if we can implement that into the judging system. And of course, there’s other things: majority of skaters are pulled into homeschooling very, very young. That’s the time when kids learn to socialize and learn things that are taught in school that are just not taught at the rink. I think it’d be really helpful to be able to have better implementations of skating programs within our national school systems so that skaters don’t necessarily have to feel the need to be pulled out of school to focus on skating.”
Written by Grace Wu