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Nathan Chen starts shaking off 2018 disaster with a brilliant skate in team short program

American Nathan Chen delivers a sharp program in team event, hitting all his jumps and posting a score of 111.71. (David J. Phillip/AP)

BEIJING — On Friday morning, U.S. figure skating star Nathan Chen came into Capital Indoor Stadium with four years of burden and expectation on his shoulders. His disastrous 2018 Olympics were followed by four years of international dominance, raising expectations — and tension — for these Olympics.

But instead of stumbling as he did in PyeongChang as a wide-eyed teenager, the 22-year-old Chen skated with confidence, nailing each element in his short program to open the team competition with a first-place score of 111.71. It was the start of a huge day for the United States, as ice dancers Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue also placed first in the rhythm dance and Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier finished third in pairs.

That left the Americans team in first place with 28 points after the first day of the three-day event. The athletes representing the Russian Olympic Committee were second with 26 and China third, with five more events over the remaining two days of the competition.

Dressed in a slim black suit over a white T-shirt, Chen moved with a cool that was the opposite of the two error-riddled short programs he managed in 2018. His performance Friday also put the United States in excellent shape to improve upon the bronze medal it won in the team event in 2018.

“I’m happy with the way I skated,” Chen said. “It was great to be able to have a short program that I skated well at the Olympics. Take as much as I can from the experience and take it day by day from here.”

Chen has a fraught history at the Olympics. In his only other Games, he appeared in the same position — leading the United States in the team event’s short program — and made three uncharacteristic mistakes that seemed to foreshadow his collapse in the men’s short program. Then he failed to complete almost all of his jumps and finished 17th, leading to his eventual fifth-place finish in South Korea.

He has recently said he was not prepared for the size and power of the Olympics back then, when he was 18. In the years since, he has tried to look at the Olympics as just another competition, choosing to focus on the joy of skating instead of putting pressure on himself to be perfect.

“You learn the most from your mistakes, and I certainly learned a lot from that competition and I don’t think I would be able to be here where I am now without having had that experience,” he said Friday when asked whether his skate had “exorcised a demon.” “So rather than that being a demon, I think that was a very helpful learning experience.”

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His comfort was clear from the start Friday, even before landing his first jump, a quad flip. His program was filled with many of his most challenging jumps, including a quad Lutz triple toe loop, but he hit them all as if he were floating across the ice.

“Nathan certainly set the bar high,” Hubbell later said.

She and Donahue had arrived at the arena right after Chen’s skate and immediately felt a buzz from the other skaters. “Walking into the rink wearing your Team USA gear, everyone turns their head like he just laid it down. It’s inspiring.”

Knierim later laughed that she had been asked several times whether she and Frazier had been inspired by Chen.

“I see it every day,” said Knierim, who shares a coach with Chen.

She and Frazier seemed thrilled with their performance, given that Frazier missed the finals of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships after “getting really sick with covid.”

“That was probably the hardest obstacle we’ve had to face since we teamed up,” Frazier said.

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The Olympic team event debuted in 2014, and the United States has finished third both times. But the Americans never had a first day like Friday’s. In 2018, it didn’t win a single discipline. Now it already has won two.

Hubbell was asked if the U.S. team members had talked about winning since arriving here.

“Of course Team USA talked about winning gold!” she exclaimed.

“There’s Team USA; there’s a medal on the line; that’s one of our goals,” Donahue added. “It would be so silly to count ourselves out and plan for silver or bronze, you know? We’ve all trained to do our very best, and gold is what we are going for.”

In the first hour of the first day of Olympic skating, Nathan Chen landed just fine And everything felt as good for U.S. figure skating as it has in years.