Nathan Chen has talked frequently about the motivational impact of growing up in Salt Lake City, where reminders of the 2002 Winter Games were widely visible around town throughout his childhood. He began skating at age three, not long after watching snippets of NBC’s Olympic broadcasts.
What captivated Chen equally was seeing -- both at the Olympics and in the following years -- a skater who was not only a champion but also a person who looked like him ... and his four siblings ... and his Chinese immigrant parents ... and others in the Chinese-American community.
That was Michelle Kwan, one of the most decorated and most admired skaters in history, who won an Olympic bronze medal in 2002 -- and, coincidentally, the third of her nine U.S. titles in Salt Lake City three months before Chen was born in 1999.
In interviews following his Olympic triumph Thursday in Beijing, the first gold medal by a singles skater of Chinese ethnicity, Chen acknowledged more than once how much Kwan had meant to his career as a figure skater.
"Growing up in Salt Lake City and having a face like Michelle Kwan is very inspirational," he said. "Having an athlete that looks like you gives you the hope you can do the same. Michelle Kwan is certainly that for me. That goes back to the power of representation."
Chen expressed hope he could be the same inspiration for other children.
"Of course, I’ll never reach Michelle Kwan stature," he said.
Kwan, a two-time Olympic medalist and five-time world champion, was moved by Chen’s words.
"I was so touched to hear that from Nathan," she said in a text message Thursday.
Chen is one of four Chinese-Americans among the six singles skaters on the 2022 U.S. Olympic team. Two, Vincent Zhou and Karen Chen, had also been on the 2018 team with him. The newcomer is Alysa Liu, who also cites Kwan as the influence that led her to the sport.
Fittingly, when Time magazine in 2019 chose Liu as one of its "100 Next" people who could shape the future of fields including business, entertainment, sports, politics, and science, it asked Kwan to write the brief essay about the then 14-year-old Liu.
The two years since the start of the COVID pandemic have been a fraught time for Asian-Americans in the United States, who have been subject to hate crimes and aggressions, both physical and verbal, as a result of their ethnicity. In a media Zoom call soon after he won a third straight World Championship last March, Chen was sadly grateful to be asked about how he dealt with that situation as a high-profile athlete.
"Thank you for bringing that up," he said. "Of course it has impacted me because I am disgusted by the amount of hate and violence that has occurred upon Asian-Americans and Asians in general in the U.S.
"It’s scary for me. I worry about my parents more so than myself. I don’t want them to go out in the park to walk and then get beat up or [have] worse things to happen to them."
Chen’s mother, Hetty Wang, grew up in Beijing. His father, Zhidong Chen, met his future wife in the Chinese capital. When an Olympic bus Nathan was riding last week passed the Beijing Zoo, he fondly recalled his parents taking him there on a family trip to see relatives in China as a 10-year-old.
"To think that my mom grew up in this location and now I’m here in 2022, competing in the Olympics and skating the way I did, it certainly means the world to me," Chen said Thursday.
Evan Lysacek, the 2010 Olympic champion, noted that Chen’s victory amid global tension added significance to its historical context. Lysacek said it had put more weight on Chen’s shoulders to be a "hero for America."
That is a lot to ask of a 22-year-old. Yet Chen carried it off with a spectacular short program and an exceptional if mildly flawed free skate. There were undoubtedly millions of kids around the world watching him. Some undoubtedly will see themselves in Nathan Chen, the way he saw himself in Michelle Kwan.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCOlympics.com.