Nathan Chen’s Olympic gold path crosses the Irvine rink

The Irvine Rink, now a well-trodden path to the Olympics, seems frozen in time. The note cards wish good luck to Nathan Chen, a regular at the place, and the young skaters rotate in time with the instructions of their coaches.

Chen, 22, won a gold medal at the Beijing Olympics a day earlier, cementing his place as the best male figure skater in the world and the first American to win gold since 2010. It was a redemptive victory – Chen finished fifth. place at the Pyeongchang Olympics in 2018 – which many of his coaches and family members weren’t surprised at.

“At the last Olympics, he was already very technical, very good in the artistic part,” said Vera Arutyunyan, one of Chen’s coaches, at the Great Park Ice rink where she led a handful of young skaters at the Olympics. training Thursday.

“He’s different now,” she said. “He’s more mature, he’s a real artist on the ice.

Great Park Ice, a sprawling warehouse-like complex the length of two football fields houses four ice rinks and is home to five Olympians currently in the Olympics. The facility, which opened in 2019, is nestled between a residential neighborhood and the sprawling Great Park outdoor recreation area, not far from Irvine’s office towers and industrial parks.

Around the age of 12, Chen, then a dedicated ice skater who got into the sport watching his siblings play hockey, convinced his mother that they should move to Southern California from their family home in Salt Lake City. He wanted to boost his training by working with a renowned figure skating coach, Rafael Arutyunyan, now Chen’s head coach and Vera’s husband.

In addition to Chen, American female figure skater Mariah Bell, Czech male figure skater Michal Brezina, and American pair skaters Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier all train at the facility, under the tutelage of Rafael Arutyunyan and his team.

Vera Arutyunyan remembers meeting Chen when she was 10 years old. He was already a hard worker at the time, she said. She had no doubts about her performance ahead of the men’s long program on Thursday as she looked to another coach.

“He was ready,” she said Thursday, surrounded by students and other coaches outside the rink. “Everyone thought it must be good.”

Inside, the sound of slicing, scraping and pivoting looped, while classical and sometimes upbeat music blared over speakers.

Notes to Olympians line the doors of one of the rinks. Wishes for Chen are stuck on a glass plate from top to bottom: “I hope you win Nathan!” “I’m rooting for you!” Get the gold medal!” A note, adorned with a design of a crown and a rocket, reads “Go Rocket Man!”, a reference to the medley of Elton John songs that Chen skated to in its long program.

Coach Hov Mkrtchian, left, works with skater Zlata Tiurina, 11, right at Great Park Ice Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022 in Irvine.

(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

A handful of skaters who train with Arutyunyan’s team sped past as the coaches considered their arm placement, knelt down to watch the skate move, and replayed the opening notes of the music from a skater’s program.

Chen’s victory solidifies the facility as a place where young people can train to become elite athletes, said Art Trottier, vice president of The Rinks, which includes Great Park Ice. Media requests are pouring in to find out more about Chen’s training center or to catch up with him when he returns from the Olympics.

Within the chevrons, there is a specific tribute to Chen – a light blue banner with his name, representing his 2018 triumphs: US National Champion, World Champion and ISU Grand Prix Champion. After his turn at the 2018 Winter Olympics, Chen became nearly unstoppable, winning nearly every competition he entered.

A coach in a gray sweater held what looks like a fishing rod attached to a harness worn by a young skater who was attempting a three-toe loop. The Skating Pole Harness helps skaters feel more secure in their jumping techniques, as part of the constant pursuit to add revolutions to jumps.

Chen himself is known as the “Quad King” due to his mastery of quadruple jumps in his routines.

“Speed ​​up, speed up, speed up,” Vera Arutyunyan shouted at a young skater on the ice, as the skater headed for a jump.

A man grabs his leg and spins on the ice.

Nathan Chen competes in the men’s free skating program at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022, in Beijing.

(Natacha Pisarenko/Associated Press)

As Chen skated on the ice in Beijing on Thursday, her mother, Hetty Wang, was glued to the television screen at her daughter’s home in San Francisco. She hoped her son would “skate as best he could”.

He did.

“Of course, I’m very, very happy,” Wang said over the phone.

The family spoke with Chen after he finished skating and congratulated him, she said.

After sealing her spot in the top spot, Chen told the “Today Show” that “absolutely none of this would be remotely possible” without her mother’s support.

“From day one, at age 3, I walked on ice and she’s been by my side ever since,” he said.

Wang thought back to the long drives with Chen when he was a kid from Salt Lake City training at Lake Arrowhead with Arutyunyan, his trainer.

The family was under financial pressure due to frequent travel and training, she said, calling the effort to save time and money “very difficult”.

“We tried to drive overnight so we wouldn’t need to stay overnight and arrive in the morning so he could start skating,” she said. “He could sleep in the car. I drive and sometimes I would get tired, find a gas station and take a nap.

The couple would stay in Lake Arrowhead for days, sometimes weeks before the decision to move to Southern California was made.

It was not always clear to Wang that the boy who walked on the ice as a toddler would eventually become an Olympian. He wanted to try the sport from the age of 3, as he watched his siblings play hockey. He dreamed of being a goalkeeper.

After the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Chen was among approximately 480 people of varying ages who signed up to learn to skate at the Salt Lake City Sports Complex. A little Chen came in wearing a long, ankle-length jacket and oversized white skates, recalls Stephanee Grosscup, his first skating coach.

“He was shy,” Grosscup, 61, said. “He wouldn’t talk much but I would say, ‘Handstand with one foot’ and he would.”

Grosscup said Chen was the best child she had ever taught – a “prodigy”.

She knew he would eventually overtake her (“he’s destined for bigger pastures than I had to offer,” she said) and felt it was her duty to instill in him no only a solid foundation of basic skating skills, but to ensure that his love of the craft remained intact, a joy he could rely on.

During Chen’s program on Thursday, Grosscup watched a live broadcast on his home computer. She followed every jump and spin, and kept an eye on Chen’s facial expressions.

“Where I knew things were getting so unbelievable was when he landed that quad lutz and had the expression, ‘I’m going to drop it,'” she said. “Not only does he do that, but he enjoys every moment.”

After winning the gold, she cried.

Irvine’s fellow skaters and coaches said they were nervous for Chen ahead of his final routine. One of them said a prayer before Chen went on the ice. They described him as friendly and humble, someone who prefers when no one notices him and likes to concentrate on his work.

“He always manages to do well, he works really hard,” said Eric Sjoberg, 20, the 2020 U.S. junior silver medalist, who trained with Chen for a long time. “I wasn’t worried at all.”

Skater Melania Delis, 16, said she admired Chen’s work ethic. “I admire him a lot,” she said.

Inga-Nissa Lee-Eichenwald, 13, took lessons with Chen last summer, when he helped her learn a triple salchow jump. He is particularly good at demonstrating and explaining, she says, and gives them the meaning he relates to them.

The three-time world champion and six-time national champion is “really cool”, she said.

Like Chen, Lee-Eichenwald and her mother moved to Southern California from their home in Montana so she could train with Arutyunyan’s team. “It’s really inspiring for everyone, and it’s an example for everyone of how to work and how to grow,” she said.

Figure skaters skate on ice.

Gabriella Toth during practice at Great Park Ice on Thursday, February 10, 2022 in Irvine, Calif. Olympic figure skating champion Nathan Chen trains here.

(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

Life can change a bit after winning an Olympic gold medal. Just ask Evan Lysacek, the 2010 Olympic champion and the last American to win figure skating gold until Chen’s victory this week.

“He’ll just be able to diversify what he’s doing, going from the practice rink non-stop every minute of every day to now probably a lot of media attention and some really great deals,” Lysacek said. “I was a little private and enjoyed the attention and fun that came with winning, but then I was perfectly happy to have some privacy back.”

Lysacek has known Chen and his mother since Chen was young, when the two skaters trained at Lake Arrowhead. Lysacek’s life is now far removed from sport – he and his wife are developing residential properties together and have started a venture capital firm – but he has followed Chen’s career and spoken to him ahead of the Games.

After Chen’s performance, there was “so much excitement” in a panel chat Lysacek is in with other U.S. Olympic gold medalists, he said. As of Thursday afternoon California time, Chen was not yet on the chat channel, but he had definitely joined a “very exclusive club,” Lysacek said.

Los Angeles Times

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