Nathan Chen: Gifted and Pressured

My current obsession is Olympic ice skating. It’s a floor event. People gather in the lounge every evening and work on homework or socialize as the various events play out on NBC. Sometimes we get really into them, especially when the Americans are doing well (which is not particularly often, but still). But whenever ice skating is on, everyone is glued to the screen.

For good reason too. Ice skating is probably one of the most overly-hyped events. It’s practically a symbol of the entire games – the image of beautifully bedazzled people twirling and leaping across the ice. Plus, it lends itself well to big personalities. Adam Rippon’s reception thus far has been a great example of that.

So it makes sense that when promoting the Olympics, networks turn to notable ice skaters. Nathan Chen was one of those ice skaters.

Touted as Team USA’s best chance for a gold medal in figure skating, NBC announcers dubbed him the “Quad King” thanks to his seemingly inhuman ability to pull off quads, or jumps with 4 spins in the air. It’s currently the highest-scored jump in ice skating, and thanks to that the ice skating world is in a period of transition where all the most successful male skaters are more or less required to have one in their programs if they want to be competitive.

Nathan was also the winner of the 2017 Rostelecom Cup, beating out previous World and Olympic champion and expected winner Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, to the surprise of pretty much everyone.

All that being said, Nathan was hyped BIG TIME. And the fact that he’s only 18 years old and this is his first Olympics only added to his mystique.

So NBC announcers were shocked and appalled when Nathan didn’t live up to their sky-high expectations. He stumbled through his short program in the Team skate, falling on jumps he had repeatedly shown to be able to pull off flawlessly in previous competitions and practices. Then, in his big chance to redeem himself in the Individual Short Program skate, he stumbled once more, landing in 17th place.

Suddenly, the boy for whom Olympic gold was “his to lose” had lost. I watched his falls over and over again as the NBC commentators deeply analyzed what had gone wrong. But to me, it was exceedingly obvious what had happened to Nathan.

See, we as a culture love winners. I don’t think that’s a crazy statement to make, I mean, it’s the reason the Olympics even exists. Winners of all types – athletic, historic, and intellectual. But there’s something we love even more than a winner – a prodigy.

It combines so many of the things we celebrate in our society. Youth, achievement, success… if a young person is unusually good at their chosen craft, there’s a good chance you’ll hear about it on the news or on the Olympics. That’s basically the whole draw of the Olympics too – young, extremely talented athletes. Prodigies.

And Nathan Chen is the epitome of that prodigy. Barely an adult and already shaking up the skating world. 18 years old and USA’s biggest chance for gold in ice skating.

But as celebrated as it is, it’s not always easy to be young and talented. I can’t say I’ve ever been an Olympic athlete, but watching Nathan Chen stumble under the collective eye of his entire country, I related. I’m sure many people with a similar educational experience to me can attest – being a “gifted” kid is a strange and ultimately overwhelmingly negative experience.

Ignore the fact all of us gifted kids never got to develop our social skills along with our peers since we were all so driven to improve our mental skills, although that’s a topic for another post, and look instead to the expectations.

When you’re young and gifted, success is expected. It’s not earned. You’re good at things naturally, and you don’t need to work nearly as hard as your peers. I coasted through elementary and middle school barely studying. I did my homework, sure, but beyond that I relied on my natural talents for school. I expected that that would be enough, and those around me expected me to continue to succeed all throughout school.

It seems like a natural system, right up until you’re in high school and you realize that everyone else around you is just as smart as you are, and not only that, they’re talented in sports or social skills or leadership. Suddenly your excellent test-taking skills don’t matter as much in the mad rush into college, and then in college you’re no more special than anyone else. You start back at ground zero, and you don’t have the skills to claw your way back to the top because you’ve never had to do that.

And you still have those expectations. They don’t go away. You still expect to not only succeed but excel at everything you do, and though they don’t say so, so does everyone around you. Or even if they don’t, you feel like they do. And that natural school talent you had as a kid doesn’t save you from the weight of those expectations once you realize that you’re pretty average, and you’ve never learned how to fail.

Now, I’ll admit, that’s a little bit of a cynical view of it all. It ignores the fact that, at least in my experience, you get to continue to excel in the things you love doing the most. And it ignores the fact that at the very least you’re not alone (my entire Hutton Honors College floor probably has a similar experience). And I don’t want to imply that Nathan Chen didn’t put any work into his ice skating because he’s a prodigy or a natural. But, you can’t deny that the expectations placed on him were way too optimistic, and that nobody ever expected him to fail.

Because in reality, Nathan Chen wasn’t really a gold medal favorite. He could have won gold, but that would have relied on a lot of other skaters not doing as well as they usually do, including the very skater he beat in the Rostelecom Cup, Yuzuru Hanyu. That’s probably what happened in the Rostelecom Cup itself. As great as Nathan Chen is, and he is great, the gold was not “his to lose.” It was his to set himself up for well, but a lot more went into who would win gold that evening.

And I can’t help but feel that it was those very expectations that led to his surprising failures in the Team Skate and Individual Short Program. Just like a former gifted kid struggling to realize they’re average adults since everyone else around them is usually just as talented as they are in other ways, Nathan was among other fantastic skaters who also had great chances to win gold. The only difference was the expectations placed on his head were the most inflated, especially considering he was new to the scene and very young.

But that was not the end of Nathan Chen’s Olympic story. In 17th place, Nathan Chen entered the Men’s Free Skate as far from a gold medal contender as he could be. And without the pressure that had weighed on him before, Nathan put down a record-breaking skate. He became the first Olympic skater to attempt and land six quads, and the first to land five clean quads. He rocketed from 17th to 5th, and for a moment placed himself back in medalling range.

And as he exited the ice from that incredible skate, he said, “I just wanted to be able to leave here satisfied with what I’ve done.”

Picture me and the rest of the Olympics fans in the lounge at that moment screaming and crying at Nathan Chen’s triumph over adversity, not only because he’s an American athlete and a hardworking person who deserved it, but also because I think we all understood him. As I mentioned, everyone on my floor probably went through a similar experience of shouldering the heavy weight of expectation of others.

And everyone knew, or hoped we would someday know, the satisfaction of being able to succeed not by the terms of others’, but by our own terms.

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One thought on “Nathan Chen: Gifted and Pressured

  1. “When you’re young and gifted, success is expected”. What an insightful post! I don’t follow the Olympics, but this was thoroughly interesting to read. Probably relatable to any of us who plays a sport, musical instrument, or engages in any serious hobby.

    Liked by 1 person

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