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For Team USA’s Nathan Chen, ‘blood, sweat, tears’ led to Olympic gold

<i>CNN</i><br/>Nathan Chen said his mother contributed to his Olympic gold medal win.
Nathan Chen said his mother contributed to his Olympic gold medal win.

By Coy Wire, Nectar Gan and Simone McCarthy, CNN

When Team USA’s Nathan Chen skated to his first Olympic gold medal in a flawless performance in Beijing on Thursday, it was the culmination of a years-long dream for the first-generation American and Salt Lake City native.

In an interview with CNN a day after his gold-winning performance at the Beijing Winter Games, Chen said it was “hard to put into words” how his win felt.

“A lot of years of work. A lot of people supporting me, a lot of — I know it’s cliche — but blood, sweat and tears, (over) just many, many years,” said the 22-year-old, whose energetic routine in the long program set him well above the competition.

Chen was quick to give credit for his success to his mother, thanking her in an Instagram post showing a photo of Chen as a small boy in his mother’s arms, clutching a golden medal with a red, white and blue ribbon.

In his interview with CNN, Chen called his mom, Hetty Wang, the “hardest working person I’ve ever met.” He said her support — including working through the family’s financial challenges — was what made his career possible.

He recalled how, when he was around 10 years old, she found a way for Chen to work with a coach in California, while the family was living hundreds of miles away in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“We weren’t really in a great financial place to be able to move to California…(and) ice time is significantly cheaper in Salt Lake than it is in California. But she still strapped together as many dollars as she could and would drive me from Utah to California, back to Utah from California, over and over and over,” Chen said.

“Any hour of the day, whether it’s 3 a.m., she was just chugging along in the car, getting me to my training sessions, and it was just, like, unreal,” he said.

Chen also credits his own work ethic and true love for his sport to his mother’s parenting style — which he said did not fall into the mold of the “tiger mom” stereotype.

“It was a mix of business and fun. She holds a very high standard for all of us. But within that standard, she wants us to enjoy what it is that we’re doing,” Chen said, referring to himself and his four siblings.

“I think having that balance allowed me to love the sport figure skating as much as I do now, but still be able to accomplish the goals that I set out for myself,” he said.

Chen told reporters Thursday that his win held special meaning because it took place in Beijing — the city where his mother grew up and where his parents met.

Chen’s victory was also a redemption after a disappointing finish in PyeongChang in the 2018 Winter Games, when he landed fifth in the individual competition and earned bronze in the team event.

Moving past that performance was a driver in these Olympic Games, Chen said.

“I definitely wanted to be able to get past that. I wanted to be able to have two short programs that I felt very proud of and fulfilled by, and I’m really glad that I was able to have that experience here. It’s been a dream of mine to make it to this stage and I never really thought that it would truly be possible,” he said.

In the four years since, Chen’s record has given him reason for confidence. He racked up three straight world championships and sealed a 6th consecutive US title to arrive in Beijing as a favorite.

But Chen still stressed that managing emotions — keeping himself “calm and collected” — was a key part of doing his best on the ice.

“I try not to get let emotions get the better of me, because I feel that I can control what I do on the ice the best when I’m in a cool, calm, collected state of mind,” he said.

“Of course I get emotional and I think that’s also part of sport too, sometimes you can let emotion get the better of you (and it) does actually help you, as long as you can figure out a way to get back into where you need to be.”

But Chen did not show any nerves as he glided over the ice on Thursday, as the US favorite to win gold after setting a new short program world record two days earlier. He ran a total of five quad jumps — a natural for a skater nicknamed the quad king — to a mix that included Elton’s John’s Rocket Man.

Chen later received a nod from the legendary British singer-songwriter, with John posting on Twitter his congratulations to the skater “for winning Gold skating to Rocket Man.”

Chen also opened up about missing the opportunity to stand on the Olympic podium after his team won silver in Monday’s figure skating event.

Team USA won silver in the event after being defeated by the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC), however the medal ceremony was delayed on Tuesday over a failed drugs test scandal involving Russian skater Kamila Valieva.

“The medal ceremony is definitely a very special part of the Olympics, and for those that should get a medal, I truly hope that they can. Whatever happens happens, but I do hope that we will have this opportunity to share that as a team,” Chen told CNN.

“There’s certainly a lot of variables that are coming to play, but at the end of the day, all I can really control is how much I can do. And certainly, as athletes, you want to be able to have as fair playing field as possible,” Chen said when asked about the case.

As for what’s next after reaching his Olympic dream, Chen said he is looking forward to returning to his undergraduate studies at Yale University, where he is pursuing a statistics and data science degree — a program he took a break from in order to prepare for the Games.

“Having had spent so much time of my life pursuing this passion of skating hasn’t really allowed me the opportunity to explore outside of the sport as much as I would like. I’m excited to go back to college and see what else the world has for me and try to find passions outside of skating,” he said.

And while he said his passion for skating remains, what he decides to do with his skating career “will be determined in the near future.”

“Right now I’m just happy in this moment,” he said.

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