Kwan to Chen: Passing the torch of representation

Nathan Chen often spoke of the motivational impact of growing up in Salt Lake City, where reminders of the 2002 Winter Games were widely seen throughout the city throughout his childhood. He started skating at the age of three, shortly after watching clips from NBC’s Olympic broadcasts.

What also captivated Chen was seeing – both at the Olympics and in later years – a skater who was not only a champion but someone who looked like him…and his four siblings… and her Chinese immigrant parents…and others in the Chinese-American community.

It was michelle kwanone of the most decorated and admired skaters in history, who won an Olympic bronze medal in 2002 – and, coincidentally, the third of her nine US titles in Salt Lake City three months before the birth of Chen in 1999.

In interviews after his Olympic triumph in Beijing on Thursday, the first gold medal for a Chinese-born singles skater, Chen acknowledged more than once how much Kwan had meant to his figure skating career.

“Growing up in Salt Lake City and having a face like Michelle Kwan is very inspiring,” he said. “Having an athlete who looks like you gives you hope that you can do the same. Michelle Kwan is definitely that for me. It comes down to the power of representation.

Chen expressed hope that he could be the same inspiration for other children.

“Of course, I will never reach the stature of Michelle Kwan,” 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 on the 2022 U.S. Olympic Team’s six singles skaters. Two, Vincent Zhu and Karen Chen, had also made the 2018 squad with him. The newcomer is Alysa Liuwho also cites Kwan as the influence that led her to the sport.

Fittingly, when Time magazine in 2019 chose Liu as one of its “Next 100 People” who could shape the future of fields such as business, entertainment, sports, politics and science, it asked Kwan to write the brief essay on the then 14-year-old. Liu, one year.

The two years since the start of the COVID pandemic have been a difficult time for Asian Americans in the United States, who have faced hate crimes and assaults, both physical and verbal, because of their ethnicity. During a Zoom media call shortly after winning a third consecutive world championship last March, Chen was sadly grateful to be asked about how he handled it as a top athlete.

“Thank you for bringing this up,” he said. “Of course, this affected me because I am disgusted by the amount of hatred and violence that has occurred against Asian Americans and Asians in general in the United States.

“It’s scary for me. I worry more about my parents than me. I don’t want them going out in the park to walk and getting beaten up or [have] that worse things happen to them.

Chen’s mother, Hetty Wang, grew up in Beijing. Her father, Zhidong Chen, met his future wife in the Chinese capital. When an Olympic bus Nathan was driving last week passed Beijing Zoo, he fondly recalled his parents taking him there on a family trip to see relatives in China at the age of 10 years.

SEE MORE: Watch all of Nathan Chen’s 2022 Olympic figure skating performances

“To think that my mother grew up there and I’m here in 2022, competing in the Olympics and skating like I did, 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 put more weight on Chen’s shoulders to be a “hero for America.”

That’s a lot to ask of a 22-year-old. Yet Chen prevailed with a spectacular short program and exceptional, if slightly flawed, free skating. There were undoubtedly millions of children around the world watching it. Some will no doubt see themselves in Nathan Chen, as 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.

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