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Winter Olympics 2018: what makes US figure skater Nathan Chen so dominant

The “Quad King,” explained.

2018 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships - Day 2 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Figure skating is a sport that exists in small margins. Skaters spend around seven minutes on the ice over two nights of events. The difference between silver and gold can come down to decimal points. When they jump, they cram three to four revolutions into less than two-thirds of a second.

It’s in these small spaces that American skater Nathan Chen has blown up the sport over the past couple of years.

At the 2017 US Figure Skating Championships, where Chen easily won gold, the second-place skater was a previously unheard-of 55 points behind him. Chen successfully landed five quadruple jumps during his free skate and set the skating world ablaze; no one had even been able to hit five quads in one program before.

That night, his fellow American skaters gave him standing ovations for his performance. But beneath this history-making, speech-stopping moment was something even more impressive: This unrivaled skate, as astounding as it was, offered just a glimpse of Chen’s potential.

Just over a year has passed since that jolting performance, and Chen’s career is no longer in the phase where he shocks or surprises with his brilliance. Now brilliance and dominance are expected.

In a sport that’s known for unpredictability, Chen has become a chilling constant. Here’s what makes the quad king so special.

Nathan Chen can utterly demolish his competition when he skates well. But he can often win even when he skates poorly.

To fully comprehend what makes Nathan Chen so good, you have to take a step back and look at the mildly boring side of figure skating — the numbers and the scoring.

The current figure skating scoring system is highly dependent on counting each and every technical element. For a thorough explanation of how it works, check out Vox’s explainer and video on all the nitty-gritty details. But essentially, what it comes down to is that the difficulty level of quadruple jumps makes them worth a whole lot of points, even if a skater doesn’t perform them that well. And that sometimes leads to situations where a skater who falls while performing a quadruple jump still outscores a skater who lands a perfect triple.

In plain English, quads landed cleanly can lead to super-high technical scores — especially if they’re performed during the second half of a free skate, when they’re eligible for a 10 percent bonus.

But what helps set Chen apart is not only his ability to successfully land quads in the first place, but his ability to successfully land several different types of quads.

That’s because of rules that not only limit the number of jumps a skater can do in a single program, but also prevent skaters from performing the same jumps over and over. In the free skate, for example, men are allowed a maximum of eight jumping passes (women are allowed seven), and skaters are not allowed to repeat a standalone triple or quadruple jump more than twice (more repetition is okay if the jumps are performed as part of a combination with other jumps).

Chen is the only skater competing today who can land five different types of quads. And since there are only six types, and no one has yet landed the quad axel, this is a major advantage. His variety and consistency of execution give him greater potential than almost any other skater to achieve a higher technical score than his competitors.

For example, Japanese skater Yuzuru Hanyu, one of Chen’s rivals and the reigning Olympic gold medalist in men’s figure skating, can also land several different quads — but so far, he’s maxed out at performing four of them. Which means Chen’s young history of packing five quads into one program is now the standard to beat (and going into the free skate in Pyeongchang, there were rumors that he was toying with putting a sixth quad into his program — a rumor he ultimately made good on in spectacular fashion).

Chen is also able to consistently land the highest-scoring quad of the moment, the quadruple lutz, a feat that not all of his rivals can claim. Chen usually places his quad lutz at the beginning of his programs, then tacks on a triple toe loop, as he did during the 2017 International Skating Union Grand Prix Final in December:

Nathan Chen performas a quadruple lutz and triple toe loop combination at the 2017 International Skating Union Grand Prix Final in Nagoya, Japan.
Nathan Chen performs a quadruple lutz and triple toe loop combination at the 2017 International Skating Union Grand Prix Final in Nagoya, Japan.
Olympic Channel

When assessing any jump, figuring skating judges look for full rotations, good height, a tight air position, and a clean entry and landing, among other details — and as seen in the GIF above, Chen’s quadruple lutz seems to check all those boxes. The judges at the Grand Prix agreed: A quad lutz–triple toe loop combination has a base value of 17.90 points, and in this particular instance, Chen’s execution of the combo earned him a grade of execution (GOE) score of 2.0 points (out of a high of 3.0), for a total of 19.90 points.

For context, a standalone triple axel where a skater earns a perfect 3.0 GOE is worth 11.5 points, and even difficult combinations where a triple axel is paired with another triple or double jump tend to top out around 16.5 points (including a 10 percent bonus) — so 19.90 points for a single jumping pass is astronomically high. But astronomically high base values are pretty routine for Chen, as he regularly crafts his programs in a way that maximizes his scoring potential. This strategy usually means that if he lands every jump cleanly, he’s essentially unbeatable. It also means that his base scores are often high enough that he still has a good chance of winning even when he doesn’t skate his best.

To better illustrate that, here are Chen and Hanyu’s scoresheets for their respective free skates during the 2017 International Skating Union Four Continents Championships, with the total base value of their respective technical elements circled in red. Chen’s elements boast a combined base value of 106.48 — more than 13 points higher than Hanyu’s 93.20:

Nathan Chen’s scoresheet from the International Skating Union Four Continents Championships in February 2017.
Nathan Chen’s scoresheet from the International Skating Union Four Continents Championships in February 2017.
International Skating Union
Yuzuru Hanyu’s scoresheet from the International Skating Union Four Continents Championships in February 2017.
Yuzuru Hanyu’s scoresheet from the International Skating Union Four Continents Championships in February 2017.
International Skating Union

And if you look at the two skaters’ GOE columns, you’ll see a few negative scores that add up to about 3.66 points in GOE deductions for Chen, compared to Hanyu’s total of 0.06 points in GOE deductions.

The differences in Chen and Hanyu’s GOE scores indicate that Hanyu skated a cleaner program overall and Chen skated pretty poorly. That’s what allowed Hanyu to beat Chen’s free skate score by just over 2 points — note Hanyu’s “Total Segment Score” of 204.34, compared to Chan’s 206.67. But Chen ended up winning the overall competition because he beat Hanyu in the short program by about 6 points. His final score for the short program and free skate combined was 307.46, almost a full 4 points higher than Hanyu’s 303.71.

Essentially, because Chen is capable of landing so many quads in one routine, he’s really only beatable if his competitors skate at the absolute top of their game and he skates poorly in both his short program and his free skate.

How Nathan Chen became a frontrunner for winning gold in Pyeongchang

Chen has improved in two major ways since he burst onto the figure skating scene in 2016, with most of his progress taking place over the past year.

His first improvement was a strategic one, in that he started regularly clustering the jumps in his free skate so that they would largely fall within the second half of the program. This approach allows him to increase the base value of each “back half of the program” jump by 10 percent, because it takes advantage of a bonus that rewards skaters for continuing to complete difficult skills even as they grow more tired.

If you look at a typical figure skating scoresheet, jumps placed in the second half of a skater’s program are typically marked with an X. Here’s Chen’s scoresheet from the 2017 US Figure Skating Championships, which took place in January of that year:

Nathan Chen’s scoresheet from the 2017 US Figure Skating Championships.
International Skating Union

Note the four X’s to the right of the “Base Value” column, which show that Chen earned the 10 percent bonus for four different elements: his triple axel (“3A”), quadruple salchow (“4S”), triple lutz (“3Lz”), and triple flip–triple toe loop combination (“3F+3T”).

Now here’s his scoresheet from the 2017 International Skating Union Grand Prix Final, which took place at the end of the year, in December:

Nathan Chen’s scoresheet from the 2017 International Skating Union Grand Prix Final.
Nathan Chen’s scoresheet from the 2017 International Skating Union Grand Prix Final.
International Skating Union

Though a few negative GOE scores reveal that Chen didn’t skate particularly well, this time there are five X’s instead of just four; he earned the 10 percent bonus on a quadruple lutz (“4Lz”), a quadruple lutz–toe loop–double salchow combination sequence (“4T+1Lo+2S”), a quadruple toe loop (“4T”), a triple axel (“3A”), and a triple lutz (“3Lz”). Additionally, those five elements are more difficult — and thus have higher base values to begin with — than the four elements he earned the bonus on earlier in the year.

The result was that his December program was worth a lot more points from the get-go, no matter how well he skated.

The second improvement Chen has made to his skating over the past year concerns his “component” scores, which essentially measure a skater’s presentation and artistry.

By default, component scores are more subjective and arbitrary than technical scores. If a skater’s program looks “pretty,” they tend to earn higher component scores. That’s in contrast to technical scores, where elements are easier to assess more quantitatively because the number of revolutions in a jump, or a clean landing versus a messy one, is easier for judges to agree on.

In “component” categories like “interpretation of the music” and “performance,” the skaters who tend to score the highest are generally older, have been around a while, and/or are considered more seasoned. (With that said, they sometimes yield baffling results; at the 2014 Olympics, gold medalist Adelina Sotnikova earned a higher component score for a program in which she pantomimed pulling an imaginary rope and performed an Ice Capades-esque wave to the crowd than the program of a skater who more subtly and gracefully interpreted the rhythm and nuances of “Bolero.”)

But even though Chen is a relative newcomer, his component scores have been increasing. And he does appear more graceful on the ice than he used to be.

Here’s one of his footwork sequences from January 2017, at the US Figure Skating Championships:

Nathan Chen performs during the 2017 US Championships.
Nathan Chen performs during the 2017 US Championships.

And here he is performing a different footwork sequence at the 2017 International Skating Union Grand Prix Final this past December:

Nathan Chen performs at the 2017 International Skating Union Grand Prix Final.
Nathan Chen performs at the 2017 International Skating Union Grand Prix Final.
Olympic Channel

In the second performance, Chen’s face shows more expression. He extends his arms more emphatically, and he seems to be committed to smaller, slighter movements in a way that he previously wasn’t. Overall, he appears to be infusing his skating with more purpose and thoughtfulness. And his component scores for this performance reflected as much, coming in higher than his scores from earlier in the year.

That’s important because Chen’s component scores are where he’s most vulnerable. Though his high-scoring jumps and other technical elements have usually given him enough of a cushion that lower component scores don’t matter too much, if he continues to improve in the component categories, he could become an even more dominant skater.

Though winning gold in Pyeongchang didn’t happen for Chen, he has undeniably changed figure skating

The biggest testament to Nathan Chen’s extraordinary skating ability is that when he turns in a bad skate, it’s a complete shock. Skating rarely looks as easy as Chen makes it look; the sport is full of unpredictability, with the potential for a catastrophic fall always looming. The ease with which Chen typically lands his quads isn’t normal, but after watching him skate even a few times, it’s easy to take for granted.

His disaster of a short program during the team figure skating event in Pyeongchang — and even worse short program during the men’s individual event — are stark reminders that even the best skaters can have off days. Watching him flop through those routines was like watching Superman try to fly while carrying a suitcase full of kryptonite.

But that’s not because Chen is known for performing exceptionally flawless programs; as the New York Times points out, the fact that more and more skaters are now attempting quads has made clean programs a rarity. Rather, Chen is typically more consistent at landing his difficult jumps than his peers.

And given what he’s done over the past year, it was tough to bet on the gold medal in Pyeongchang ultimately going to anyone except Chen and his pocket full of quads. But even though he didn’t win, it’s impossible to deny that through his strategy and skill, he has lifted up the sport of figure skating.