Nathan Chen, the 18-year-old figure-skating phenom out of Utah, deserves every bit of the hype that surrounds his gold medal chances at the 2018 Winter Games because he will attempt one of the most challenging routines ever performed at the Olympics.
At 10 years old, he became the youngest winner of the U.S. novice championship. Two years later, Chen broke the all-time scoring record at the U.S. junior championships. At the 2017 national championships, he made history again, becoming the first man in international skating history to land five quadruple jumps in one 4 1/2-minute program. He also executed two quads in his short program. Then Chen did it again to win the 2018 nationals as well as qualify for the Olympics. In PyeongChang, he has his sights set on becoming the first — and currently the only — figure skater competing with five different types of quadruple jumps: the loop, toe loop, Salchow, flip and Lutz.
“The idea is to go out there and do everything you can do,” Chen told Barry Wilner of NBC Connecticut. “It’s more than the jumps, more than the quads. It’s the entire package. But the quads are an important part of that.”
It’s important because of the rule changes in 2004, a response to accusations of cheating during the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. Since then, skaters are rewarded for taking risks, with more difficult, well-executed routines receiving higher scores than those that are more conservative. Chen’s routine is jam-packed with risky jumps, which gives him a significant mathematical edge, even if he doesn’t flawlessly execute each element.
Dubbed the New Judging System (NJS), or Code of Points, by the International Skating Union, the new system is points based, and each skater receives two numbers for each routine. The first is an overall technical score for the performance, with more difficult elements starting with a higher base score. A quad toe loop, for example, has a base value of 10.3. Anything less, and the skater’s base value would be downgraded, perhaps to that of a triple toe loop instead, carrying a base value 4.1.
The second score evaluates the quality of execution of the elements in the routine on a scale of -3 to +3. For instance, a skater could receive up to three points if the jump was flawless, with elements including a difficult entry, good height and distance, and good extension on the landing. A skater could lose up to three points if the jump was done poorly — exhibiting poor speed, a weak landing or, in a worst-case scenario, resulting in a fall.
Add both scores together and you get a skater’s composite score, with the highest total composite score from all judges determining the winner. It’s here where Chen’s degree of difficulty gets rewarded.
During the 2018 U.S. championships, Chen’s average base value of his free-skating program was 7.4, with a high of 16.6 after the execution of the quad Lutz with a triple toe loop. The second-place finisher, Ross Miner, had an average base value of 6.4, with a high of 12.0 after successfully completing a triple Lutz/single loop/triple Salchow combination. With 13 elements in each free-skate program, Chen’s added degree of difficulty effectively gives him a 13.3-point advantage, assuming each skater flawlessly executes his routine. That’s roughly the base value of a quad Lutz, the second-highest-rated maneuver in the sport. So, should Chen land all his jumps, he basically gets another high-value jump added to his score, a huge advantage over the competition that not only raises his potential for a high score but also serves as a buffer for any missteps.
|2018 U.S. championships, free-skate program||Average base value||Highest base value||Final score|
|Nathan Chen, 1st||7.4||16.6||210.8|
|Ross Miner, 2nd||6.4||12.0||185.6|
As if the degree of planned difficulty wasn’t high enough in his nationals performance, Chen was supposed to execute a triple axel (base value of 8.5) and instead went with a perfectly executed quad Salchow (base value 10.5), pushing his point total even higher.
The short program of the 2018 U.S. championships was more of the same. Chen planned two elements that carried double-digit base values — a quad flip/triple toe loop combination and a quad Lutz — whereas Adam Rippon, the second-place finisher in the short program, had none. Here we can see where the added difficulty gives Chen some breathing room if he feels he can’t execute some of the harder jumps — he ditched the quad lutz and executed a quad toe loop instead, a slightly easier maneuver earning him a composite score of 13.2 for that particular move.
|2018 U.S. championships, short program||Average base value||Highest base value||Final score|
|Norman Chen, 1st||7.3||16.6||104.5|
|Adam Rippon, 2nd||5.5||9.6||96.5|
But that aggressive program, and the buffer it creates, has limits. And that’s particularly true when facing the world-class skaters in the Olympics.
Chen’s biggest rival, Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, the 2014 gold medal winner at Sochi and the world record holder for the highest short-program, free-skating and combined total scores, landed four quadruple jumps in a flawless free-skate routine during the 2017 world championships. He had an average base value of 8.0 during that free-skate routine, with five of his executed jumps receiving credit for highlight distribution because he executed them later in the program, increasing the base value by 10 percent. That puts him very close to the same degree of difficulty as Chen, whose average base value in that same event was 8.7. Then it mainly comes down to execution, and at the world championships, Chen didn’t execute.
Chen didn’t medal, finishing sixth, after a fall on two of his jumps and negative grades of execution on two others. However, there were some significant mitigating circumstances there. While his level of difficulty was sufficiently high — he attempted a record total of eight quadruple jumps, two in the short program and six in the long program — his skates literally fell apart, requiring duct tape and hockey laces to hold them together.
If Chen would have executed his maneuvers as well as Hanyu, it would have given Chen an edge of at least eight points in the free-skating portion of the event, enough to bridge the gap between him and the comparative veteran, 23. And that’s the true benefit of creating such a difficult program: It puts the 18-year-old in position to topple some of the best figure skaters on the planet. This could be particularly true because Hanyu must cope with ligament damage to his right ankle sustained in November as he seeks to become the first figure skater in 66 years to win consecutive Olympic gold medals.
Chen’s degree of difficulty edge is more clear when viewed against another top competitor: Spain’s Javier Fernandez, the 2015 and 2016 world champion. Fernandez had an average base value of 7.0 during the free-skating portion of the 2017 world championships and was even more conservative in the free skate (6.5) and short program (6.7) at the 2018 European championships.
While Chen will still need to execute his aggressive routine, simply taking the risk of all those quadruple jumps pushes him closer to the goal of a gold medal.