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Chen showcases ability to overcome adversity

U.S. champion recovers from Olympic disappointment to win world title
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Despite struggling throughout his Olympic short program, Nathan Chen proved that he's an athlete of redemption, as he mustered up the courage to capture his first world championship just a few weeks later. -Getty Images

Icenetwork will announce its choice for 2017-18 Person of the Year later this month. Here's one of the nominations for that honor from icenetwork contributor Nick McCarvel.

The words of encouragement were pouring into Nathan Chen's phone via social media and the message apps he uses; dozens, maybe even hundreds of them. Honestly? He's not sure how many. He didn't read most.

It's mid-February and Chen had just turned in a second woeful short program at the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. The Internet is sure he'll bounce back, as are a slew of skating dignitaries, teammates and fellow Olympians who are sending their well wishes Chen's way.

But Chen couldn't bring himself to read most of said messages. The free skate was looming and he knew it was his only chance to salvage what had turned into a nightmare Olympics up to that point. And that free skate was up to only one person: Himself

"I really appreciated everyone reaching out, but at that point, it was kind of like, 'I'm going to leave these unread and do things my way,'" Chen told icenetwork in a recent phone interview, now months removed from the Games and weeks after his world championship win in Milan.

"I was just like, 'Screw it. I'll do whatever I can do.'"

It was the thread we hadn't seen play out yet in Chen's young-but-accomplished career: The Redemption Story. A week prior to that deluge of texts -- when he had turned in his first disappointing short program (in the team event) -- the through line was that Chen had pushed his Olympic jitters aside and the individual competition was where he'd shine.

Sports rarely play out the way we think they will.

Chen would ultimately rebound to win the Olympic free skate. Weeks later, he captured the world title. The Quad King could now be known as the Prince of Redemption.

Not According to Plan

Chen agrees with the thrust that he didn't plan his Olympics to go like that, either.

"I didn't want that to happen, but I definitely learned a lot from it. It prepared me really well for worlds," Chen says of his Olympic experience. "I got so wrapped up around medals and all the things that I couldn't control at the Olympics and I think that really held me back. In the middle of my short program, I was like, 'Oh my God, that just happened.' But it opened my mind."

Chen doesn't have a hard time explaining what happened: He was overwhelmed. Everywhere he looked, the Olympic rings leapt out at him. His jumping in practices leading into the Olympics at home in L.A. had been a bit off, and then it got worse in PyeongChang. He tried to calm himself down the days after the team event short program only to freak out even more.

When he walked off the ice and through the mixed zone interview after the individual short in PyeongChang, he was a ghost of himself. A zombie.

This wasn't going to plan.

"I had all this extra stress on me that I didn't need," he says. "I couldn't shake it."

That's when all the messages came in and Chen couldn't bring himself (particularly after the individual short program, which saw him sit in an unfathomable 17th place) to open them.

He chose a different approach for the free skate: Amp himself up as much as possible. It worked.

Prince of Redemption

We'll certainly get to the part of the story where Chen becomes world champion, but before he did that, he won the free skate at the Olympics, beating overall champion Yuzuru Hanyu and medalists Javier Fernández, Shoma Uno and the rest of the top men.

He'd launch himself from 17th to finish fifth overall.

"I'm pretty proud of myself for being able to come out of the short program the way that I did. I really dug myself into a hole," he recalls. "I was able to win the free skate. I know that's somewhat of a meaningless title, but it's cool to me and I can use that as confidence in the future."

Chen has no idea how he would have reacted if he had skated a clean short program in the individual event. Would he have been relieved, relaxed and suddenly freed? Would he be back to feeling the pressure he'd experienced leading into the team event?

He's unsure.

But his stirring performance the day of the free skate at the Gangneung Ice Arena spurred him to greater skating weeks later in Milan, and also gave him the gift of much more: the satisfaction of self (and for his family and training team); the understanding of how it feels to excel -- and fail -- at the Olympics; and of the motivation for the next Olympic cycle to come.

That's right: Nathan Chen wants further Olympic redemption in 2022.

To Milan, With Love

Chen maintains that the plan was always to go to Milan this season, Olympic podium or not. He's young -- he'd been to only one world championship prior -- and he doesn't know what's next in his career, at least if his body will hold up moving forward.

And, no Olympic rings anywhere in sight.

"I think coming right out of the Olympics…the Olympics was such a daunting experience," he says. "It was honestly super terrifying. For me, it was this feeling of going from nationals to regionals. It had that sort of same relationship (laughs). Obviously, it's worlds and is still a huge deal, but it felt that way. There was way less pressure. I felt ready for it."

Striking his iconic opening pose in his short program in Milan, were there flashbacks to what had happened in his previous two competition shorts?

"Third time's a charm I suppose," he says, laughing again. But then, Chen turns serious: "I gave myself the opportunity to mess up a bunch of times and I learned after each of them. I figured it out."

Chen said -- unlike his plan in PyeongChang -- that there would be no altering his jump plan, even if something did go wrong. It didn't.

He still lights up over the phone when I ask him what it feels like to be a world champion.

"It's incredible… still," he beams. "It's something that I wanted to achieve at some point in my career and honestly, I wasn't expecting it this early. That's huge. A lot of work had been put in for that: Myself, my family, Raf [coach Rafael Arutunian]. We were all very happy and proud of that moment. We're looking to the future for more of those."

And before we get to that part of the story (Yale, the next quad, 2022, etc.), it's worth stirring over what Chen accomplished in Milan, as he became the first men's world champion from the U.S. since Evan Lysacek in 2009. And he did so in a men's final group that fell apart -- quite literally.

"I knew what (the other guys in the final group) had done. That actually got me more motivated for some reason," he says. "I was like, 'Someone has to skate well in the final group.'"

And it was Chen. World champion weeks after two of his worst performances in his senior career. Not bad, kid.

Act II: A Seasoned Nathan

What might be more dangerous than the Quad King is a mature, experienced Nathan Chen. He doesn't flinch at all during our in-depth conversation over all that went wrong in PyeongChang, instead applying the learning curve to Milan and beyond.

He is excited for the next four years for a variety of reasons: For Yale; for opportunities to skate on the Grand Prix and world stages, and -- he hopes -- Beijing in 2022; for improved jump consistency and overall PCS execution; but mostly for skating. Just skating.

"I really love skating; it's something that has been a big part of my life," he explains. "At this point in my life, I'm not really ready to drop or lose that."

Chen is forthcoming about disappointment as a driving force. Or his quest for redemption… however you want to put it.

"I didn't do so well at the Olympics," he says bluntly. "Those short programs… I have a lot to learn in skating and there's a lot that I have to improve on. Those are things I'm excited to start working on."

He continues: "I want to see where the sport will progress. I know Yale will be another big change, but I'm very, very excited for the next four seasons so I can continue to challenge myself and learn new things."

And regardless of whether or not he goes back and ever reads those messages from PyeongChang, we've got one motivated, fearless skater on our hands. Oh -- and he's a world champion now, too.

More to a Season

It's unfair to Chen -- and the sport -- to discuss his Olympic and worlds experiences without noting what he had done prior: Cup of Russia champion; Skate America winner; Grand Prix Final champ; U.S. national champion.

He went 1-1-1-1 before PyeongChang. And when you think about it, he had five firsts and a fifth in the season overall. Epic.

"There are so many different emotions that apply to this season," he says, when asked to encapsulate the year in one word.

"But I'm honestly happy with the way that the season went. Obviously, the Olympics was the odd man out and … I think it gave me a better mindset going into worlds."

The wins. The ability to bounce back. The learning-as-I-go. Collectively, they make up my reasons for nominating Chen as icenetwork's Person of the Year. Because who doesn't love a comeback story?

Here was a skater that many thought could win the Olympic gold medal, and while that proved to be impossible after his rough short program, Chen still persevered. He brought his best out for that long program and then delivered an even better performance in Milan. That's hard to find among elite athletes. Even among Olympians.

And you know he's going to be back for more because of it. He didn't even need to read those messages: He figured it out for himself.

That is world-class stuff.