Nathan Chen has the attention of the figure-skating world with his four triples and seven double-jumps. His bag of tricks puts him on par with the other elite athletes of his sport. But what separates Nathan is that he's only 10.
"He is that young, he is that good," Nathan's coach, Genia Chernyshova, said. "It's not just what he's capable of, jumping-wise. But it's the quality of his skating overall."
Chernyshova said she has never seen so much raw talent at such a young age in all her years of coaching. "His body-mind connection is incredible," she said. "He's good at calculating; calculating his steps, calculating his timing, calculating all his points as he's skating."
His artistry is equally surprising, given his age. "There's so much grace and poise that you forget that he's 10," Chernyshova said.
Skating seems to be second-nature for the unassuming fifth-grader.
"For me, it doesn't feel that hard," he said. "It's just if I have enough speed and I have the right timing, it's pretty easy."
Nathan's parents first put him in skates at 3½ years old. He didn't like his teacher but he loved the ice, and quickly became serious about his training. By 5, he had already won his first competition, beating out around 20 other children in a local contest organized for Utah residents.
For the past two years, he's training two hours a day, six days a week in Salt Lake City. He also squeezes in gymnastics and ballet two or three times a week to complement his training on the ice. Meanwhile, he spends his spare time practicing piano and homework. The long days finally end around 10 pm.
"I don't know how he fits the skating into everything he does," his 5th grade teacher, Julie Anzelmo, said.
Unlike many professional-track figure skaters, Nathan still goes to public school, rather than being home-schooled. His friends know he skates but Nathan is not one to gloat about his accomplishments.
"He isn't very much of a braggart about all of the things that he's been able to do," Anzelmo said. "He just quietly goes about his business and takes care of things in a really diligent way."
Even Nathan's Family Awestruck
Coach Chernyshova credited Nathan's success to his intense work ethic. "He puts in a lot of hours, a lot of time, and a lot of sacrifices," she said. "It's not easy."
The rigorous routine leaves little time for typical fifth-grade boy favorites like video games. But Nathan's two older brothers, Tony, 15, and Colin, 13, make sure to remind Nathan he's just a kid. One of their favorite pastimes is playing basement hockey together and sharing a lot of good-natured brotherly ribbing.
"[My brothers] don't make fun of my skating but they tease me around," Nathan said. "It's my brothers' favorite thing to do."
The entire Chen family is awestruck by Nathan's ability on the ice.
"It's pretty amazing, and a lot of work," Tony said. "Stuff I probably wouldn't be able to do myself."
Watching Nathan perform at this year's Figure Skating Nationals was a thrilling experience for the family. Nathan won the gold medal in the novice division. He skated to the score of "Peter and the Wolf," choosing the music because he liked the cartoon.
But he is nothing less than a perfectionist. He stumbled twice during that performance, and that became Nathan's focus.
"Since I missed two jumps, I was pretty sad," he said.
Perfectionism may be his biggest weakness at this point, according to his coach. "Every single time he skates, he wants to be perfect and sometimes that gets in the way," Chernyshova said.
Instead of shrugging off the slip-ups and enjoying his first-place finish, Nathan did something almost unheard of: He skated his long-program again in the exhibition after the event. That time, the jumps were perfect.
"I was really happy that I could redo it," he said.
2018 Olympics Calling?
He does have some time. Nathan will still be too young to compete even in the next Olympics, in 2014, meaning he'll have to wait for his first chance at Olympic gold until 2018.
But time is often the enemy of young skaters. Nathan already has had a knee and pelvis injury, the latter taking a few months to heal. The inevitable adolescent growth spurt may also unhinge his jumps and spins.
Still, Chernyshova said she believes the sky is the limit for Nathan. "He's capable of a lot more," she said, "but we need to let him grow."