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For Nathan Chen, the journey to redemption is complete

Figure skater Nathan Chen, 22, said after his win on Feb. 10 that he “never imagined” being an Olympic champion. (Video: AP)
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BEIJING — The ending was so decisive that when Nathan Chen finally won his Olympic gold medal Thursday afternoon, the victory felt almost anticlimactic. He had landed all his free skate jumps. His greatest rival, Japan’s two-time gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu, had skated out of contention for the most part two days earlier. No serious challenge loomed from the scoreboard above Capital Indoor Stadium.

The revelation that his final score of 332.60 would be more than 22 points ahead of anyone else was simply a formality to anyone inside the building. He raised his arms above his head, then looked unsure what else there was for him to do.

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It was almost out of obligation that he skated a victory lap around the ice, holding an American flag behind his head, doing the traditional smiles for the photographers gathered at rink’s edge.

“Nathan!” shouted a photographer near the top of the stands trying to get a picture from up high. Chen nodded and gave a half-smile.

“I’m still processing it,” he later said of the gold. He shrugged. He didn’t have much more to add.

Sometimes you can want something so much that when it finally happens the moment is drained of emotion. For four years, the 22-year-old Chen has tried to distance himself from the disaster of his first Olympic Games, never able to forget a horrific short program in which he failed to fully land any of his jumps and was never in contention for a medal he had seemed sure to win in PyeongChang. He has rebounded with a fierce, focused, almost robotic zeal, winning all but one of his events since his 2018 failure.

If there was anything for him to prove, it had come two days before, in this same arena, when he delivered a dazzling short program that got a world record score of 113.97. “Redemption” for 2018, he said then. He punctuated that ending with a delirious pump of his fist. Whatever emotion boiled inside was spent then.

“Today was business,” he said Thursday.

Asked why, he hesitated for a moment before blurting the answer that has been rolling through his mind the past four years.

“I think 2018,” he said. “That was a tough skate, and so in my mind I was like, ‘Okay, got over that hurdle and just try to see where it goes.’ ”

He was calm in the hours before the biggest skate of his life. That’s what everyone around him noticed. He glided through the early-morning warmups, landing his jumps and dancing with ease to the music that boomed down from the ceiling. He wore black warmup pants and a long-sleeved blue warmup shirt, a contrast to the men skating around him already in glittering costumes.

“I think the people around him were more nervous,” said Mariah Bell, a U.S. teammate who is one of Chen’s best friends.

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As the day wore on, building up to his performance, which was scheduled last, Chen stood with Bell beneath the stands. Often, in such instances, they talk about skating. This time, Chen said almost nothing about the sport. Bell didn’t try to change the topic, letting the conversations go wherever Chen wanted — which, it turned out, involved how to throw a football.

He pulled out a youth-sized football, one of the many things he had brought on this trip to burn any nervous energy. He showed Bell how to throw it, telling her where to put her hands on the laces. For a long time, they tossed it around, in a room filled with costumed skaters.

Bell tried to measure Chen’s emotions, but he showed little.

“He’ll be fine,” she said she later decided. “His energy was good.”

Once the competition began, Chen could see the threats to his gold disappearing. The biggest, Hanyu, the two-time gold medalist, tumbled to the ice attempting a quadruple axel that even Chen cannot land. Hanyu, defeated and almost sure not to win a medal, bowed deeply to the small crowd of spectators and delegations from a few countries scattered around the stands before skating off the ice, turning to give one final bow as a farewell.

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Hanyu’s fellow Japanese skaters, Yuma Kagiyama and Shoma Uno, would win the silver and bronze.

Then, at 1:14 p.m. in Beijing, Chen began his business, first landing a quadruple flip and triple toeloop, then a quadruple flip, quadruple Salchow as Elton John’s “Rocket Man” filled the arena. The music climbed as he rolled into his final leaps, landed with relief.

In the skaters’ bench next to the ice, Bell and coach Rafael Arutyunyan paced circles. Their faces wrenched with angst. Arutyunyan, who has coached Chen since the skater was 11, has dearly wanted an Olympic champion. On the verge of that dream, he couldn’t bear to watch.

But on the ice, Chen was calm, skating a program he loves to music he adores. At one point, he reminded himself to smile. The fight was over. The gold was his. All he had to do was hit a few more steps, spread his arms, throw back his head and laugh into the lights.

Afterward, he said he never thought he would win a gold and was asked why.

“It’s hard,” he said.

On Thursday, though, he had made it look easy. He was the seventh American man to win an Olympic individual figure skating gold. And that realization left him standing in an emptying Capital Indoor Stadium holding an American flag and having little to say other than, “I can’t believe this happened, honestly,” as the photographers clicked their cameras and shouted his name.