BEIJING—He flew on the ice, floated through the air, defied the laws of physics with his leaps, and when the music finally stopped after four minutes of magnificent skating, Nathan Chen didn’t need to look at the scores to find out: He was the Olympic champion.
Chen delivered a ravishing free skate with five quadruple jumps here on Thursday to win the men’s individual gold medal for the United States, avenging his devastating spotty performance at the Olympics four years ago in the grandest way and reigniting a conversation about whether he is the greatest figure skater of his generation.
He looked down on the pressure of being America’s favorite to win Olympic gold with near-flawless skating that even allowed time for a dance break and flashes of the genuine joy that once eluded him. When the judging panel officially awarded him the highest score of the competition-destroying season, Chen appeared to beam under his N95 mask.
But his relief upon landing his jumps and subsequent joy from his technical elements was evident to everyone by the end of Chen’s skating. As he strutted across the ice near the end of his Elton John medley, something unexpected and wonderful happened: In the greatest moment of his career, he felt himself enjoying himself . “I really enjoyed myself,” Chen said.
He had every reason to rejoice. It was a crowning moment for the reigning three-time world champion that other figure skaters have seen coming for over a decade. Still, climbing to the top of the medal stand didn’t seem predestined to Chen.
“I never thought I would be able to make this happen,” he said.
But his coach Rafael Arutyunyan also acknowledged that many doubts about how Chen would handle his return to Olympic ice had been dispelled by his meticulous preparation for those Games. The work included careful drilling of the quadruple toe loop, salchow, flip and lutz range he delivered here. But it wasn’t limited to what he could do with skates.
Chen wasn’t battling Hanyu, Uno, or Kagiyama so much as he was competing against his own past in the Olympics. He built his own personal bubble inside Beijing’s strict closed loop, leaving his phone at home, resisting the urge to scroll through social media for hours and picking up his electric guitar instead.
To preserve his focus ahead of a competition unlike any other, Chen added a sports psychologist and ditched social media, placing himself in the psychological headspace and physiological zone to peak at the Olympics.
“I knew,” said a normally brusque and suddenly emotional Arutyunyan. “I knew when he came here.” Why? “Because he was better.”
His dominance of figure skating in the four years since his Olympic disappointment in Pyeongchang was so complete that Thursday’s fight here was always going to be Chen against himself. But with cathartic skating in the team event and a redeeming performance in the short program, it was clear that Nathan Chen looked like Nathan Chen again. Free skating was his crowning glory.
Chen still had to beat three fearsome Japanese skaters to move up the ranks. Booming teenager Yuma Kagiyama took silver, followed by bronze medalist Shoma Uno, a longtime contender in the quad race with Chen. Yuzuru Hanyu, the two-time Olympic champion, placed fourth on a day when he nearly landed a quadruple axel for the first time in history.
Chen’s victory puts him in the elite company of six other American men to win figure skating gold, including Dick Button (1948 and 1952), Scott Hamilton (1984), Brian Boitano (1988) and Evan Lysacek ( 2010), the only US Olympic champion in the lifetime of 22-year-old Chen.
But the man synonymous with quads is perhaps most dazzling of them all for his combination of artistic grace with incredible athleticism that pushes the boundaries of his sport.
Chen, a statistics and data scientist at Yale University who plays multiple musical instruments and has been known to stray from the group of skaters to watch NBA games, was born in Salt Lake City. as the youngest of five children of Chinese immigrants.
He moved to California with his mother to train with Arutyunyan, even as she struggled to raise the money to pay for his training. Arutyunyan, who has now been his coach for more than a decade, said he sometimes sends the money back to Chen after Chen’s mother pays for the lessons. Chen said he would then attempt to put the dollars in his trainer’s pocket and make a quick run.
“At one point he said, ‘I don’t really need this, I just want to help you and help you achieve whatever goals you want,'” Chen said.
Chen’s mother watched him closely at the rink, drawing criticism from others who saw his level of parental involvement as excessive, Chen said after winning gold in Beijing, where his mother spent her childhood and where his parents met.
“Even to think that my mother, when she was young, grew up there and that I’m here in 2022, competing in the Olympics and skating the way I did means a lot to me,” he said. -he adds.
Chen had been hailed as figure skating’s next big star ahead of the Olympics four years ago in Pyeongchang, but a disastrous short program left him in 17th place for the free skate, dashed his medal dreams and would have could mark it definitively. Even after pulling off a winning streak that lasted over three years, there were still questions about how he would fare in the one big event every four years.
They ended this week. Chen found himself in first place after his sublime performance on Tuesday which was as much a victory over his own competitive demons as anything. The short program brought Chen down four years ago in Pyeongchang. This propelled him to Beijing.
Chen’s main competition here was supposed to be Yuzuru Hanyu, the Japanese legend who won in 2014 and 2018. But while every Olympics crowns a gold medalist, the resplendent Hanyu has turned those Winter Games into his own experience of glorified lab, a chance to attempt something no one has ever done before: land a quadruple axel.
Hanyu’s daring obsession with the quadruple axel has sometimes made him more interested in landing figure skating’s dream jump at the Olympics than beating the rest of the field for a third consecutive Olympic title. His shot at the story turned into an underspinning drop – so close that Japanese reporters buried their heads in their hands and still not close enough.
As soon as Hanyu missed his first jumps in Tuesday’s short program and Thursday’s free skate, he essentially knocked himself off the top step of the podium. With the defending Olympic champion defeated about an hour before Chen took to the ice, the gold medal was his.
Chen arrived in Beijing determined not to let anyone or anything stand in his way – not his Japanese rivals, not his own nerves and especially not a virus. He’s been so obsessed with wearing a tightly sealed N95 mask in practice, at press conferences and even during warm-ups that the only time he shows his face in public is when he steps onto the ice to player.
By the time he took to the ice as the last skater on Thursday, he didn’t need to know the stakes. Four minutes of Elton John hits later, his four years of angst were over.
Nathan Chen was golden.
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