Nathan Chen’s ‘One Jump at a Time’ reveals what it takes to be a champ￼
Special to the Daily
Whether or not you’re fortunate enough to hold a ticket to Vail Ice Spectacular on Dec. 23, Nathan Chen’s autobiography will give you a front-row seat to skating, as it shows what it takes to achieve such an elite level.
Written in a casual and easy-to-read style, “One Jump at a Time” reviews Chen’s career, from his first steps on the ice to his gold medal in February.
Born to Chinese immigrants as the youngest of five children, Chen’s family couldn’t afford the high costs of figure skating. But Chen’s parents, particularly his mother, Hetty Wang, did whatever it took to support her children.
Chen fell in love with skating at first sight: At age 3, he cried when he had to leave the ice for the Zamboni to smooth it, and by age 5, his mom found him standing in the rink (the same one that had hosted the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics) facing the flag and singing the national anthem, pretending he had won gold at the Games.
Of course, topping the podium at the most elite international competition isn’t as easy as pretending, and Chen makes that clear in his book. Fifteen years after he first stepped onto the ice, he competed at his first Winter Games, but when he saw the Olympic rings, he froze and skated two of his “most error-filled short programs,” making it the most challenging experience of his life, he wrote in the book. Yet, it was also an experience he’s grown and learned from the most, as both an athlete and a person.
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While “One Jump at a Time” doesn’t read like a literary memoir with descriptive scenes that paint pictures and take readers through the emotions but rather tells the story of his development competition by competition, coach by coach and injury by injury, the book provides a solid understanding of the ups and downs Chen has faced, as well as how he ultimately triumphed and became the 2022 Olympic champion.
The book begins factually, telling readers how he grew up, how his parents were raised in China (where education is viewed as the gateway to success) and how his mom acted as his coach, mostly to save money. She taught him to take one step at a time, building a strong foundation before adding new skills, which, along with expert coaches, led him to become the first skater to land five quads in a competition in 2017, as well as move on from disappointing results in 2018 to the 2022 Olympic win.
His mother gave up her dream of fashion design to support her children’s success, but it wasn’t always easy for her, or Chen. As the book evolves, it begins to reveal more of Chen’s emotional and mental struggles, including clashes in training style between him and his mom and how he dealt with them.
Surprisingly, Chen wasn’t always the leader of the pack when it came to landing difficult jumps. In the juvenile level, he couldn’t land a double axel like his peers, and as a novice he focused on artistry to gain an edge on his competitors, who were landing more advanced jumps (though he did have his triple Salchow and triple toe by then, so that’s saying a lot).
He hadn’t considered triple axels or quad jumps until he saw men landing them in international competitions when he was on the junior circuit. After that, he (at age 12) and his mom moved to Lake Arrowhead, California from Salt Lake City to work with the best jump technician he’s ever met, he said. However, the relationship wasn’t always easy; his coach, Raf, wanted Chen to take ownership for figuring out what to do in practice, but Chen sometimes interpreted that as being ignored.
Later Raf explained if he would’ve “inserted himself into those moments, I wouldn’t have learned how to manage my emotions and make the corrections on my own that I needed to in order to grow as an athlete,” Chen wrote.
A growth opportunity arose for Chen after dealing with so many serious injuries, from a hip problem that required surgery to ankle injuries and more. Chen and his mother believed pounding away, jump after jump, was the key to success. But, that kind of training, particularly where quads are involved, took a major toll on his body.
As skating took more and more time and energy and he suffered from injuries, Chen began to doubt his future in the sport and even considered quitting. But he realized that if he walked away, everything he and his parents had put into it would be wasted.
As he describes it, his first pair of skates, which happened to be white, were “the gateway to a career that would bring me the greatest joy and fulfillment, as well as some of the deepest frustration and heartache.”
During his training, sponsorships and scholarships kept him skating, along with his mom’s discipline and support.
Injuries and the anxiety he experienced in the 2018 Olympics ultimately caused him to change his mindset, from one of quantity to quality training, in addition to positive reframing and visualization.
Hip surgery gave him time to think more deeply about skating and the role he wanted it to play in his life; within the daily grind of training, he had lost sight of why he started skating in the first place, but his first few weeks back on the ice reminded him of how much he loved the sport and how much he could still accomplish.
Throughout the book, Chen reveals his struggles, accomplishments, fears during COVID-19 and what it was like at the Beijing Games, in the same city his parents had left. Readers finish “One Jump at a Time” with a greater understanding of Chen’s journey, as well an inspiring faith in the power of family, love and dedication.