One of the United States' top hopes for medaling at the Olympics this month has a secret weapon: a serious ballet background.
Figure skating champion Nathan Chen spent six years training at Ballet West as a kid. "The technique there was impeccable," the 18-year-old said in a media teleconference last week. "To have had that at a young age, it definitely helps a lot. I know where to put my arms, how to create the line, how to dance to music."
TV commentators often remark on his artistry, while dance lovers adore his elegant port de bras, épaulement and arabesque line.
Chen was a dedicated ballet student, taking six classes a week by age 7. He even performed alongside the company in Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker and Swan Lake. His Ballet West teachers say that he had a natural ability for turns like pirouettes and double tours.
"It was really nice to have a lot of other boys in classes—I didn't feel left out," Chen adds.
Although he initially signed up for ballet to help with his skating, he took the classes seriously. "I did ballet because I really enjoyed it," Chen told icenetwork.com. But he instinctively knew the value it could offer his skating: He brought his Ballet West teachers with him to the arena from time to time to coach him directly on the ice.
He says he still works with dancers on the ice to polish his routines, and dances a bit on the side as a form of cross-training. When preparing for his short program set to the music of Le Corsaire, he reportedly spent hours studying YouTube footage of Rudolf Nureyev performing the ballet.
All that work has paid off: Over the past year, Chen's won the Grand Prix Final in Japan, Rostelecom Cup in Russia and Skate America in New York. Last month, he won the U.S. National Championships for the second year in a row—this time with a 40-point victory.
And he's channeled his natural talent for turning into a world record: He's the first skater in history to pull off five types of quad jumps in one program.
But don't expect a total bunhead to appear on the ice in South Korea. Skating, the official publication of U.S. Figure Skating, wrote in its November 2017 cover story that Chen is channeling modern dance this season. "I really like the contemporary style," Chen told the magazine. His free skating routine is set to selections from the soundtrack from Mao's Last Dancer.
The men's figure skating competition takes place on February 16. The entire dance world will be wishing Chen "merde."