GANGNEUNG, South Korea — A story of redemption was etched on the glistening Olympic ice Friday, as a succession of men’s figure skaters supplied chapters that were both brave and breathtakingly beautiful.
There was 18-year-old American Nathan Chen, impossibly in arrears after Friday’s disastrous short program, risking all to become the first in history to land six quadruple jumps in competition — and succeeding.
There was Javier Fernandez, 26, who after finishing fourth at the 2014 Sochi Games, delivered Spain’s first figure skating medal with a gorgeous bronze-medal performance set to music from “Man of La Mancha.”
And towering over all was Japan’s elfin Yuzuru Hanyu, whose redemption story was the most implausible and impossibly beautiful of all. In his first competition since badly injuring his right ankle in November, the 23-year-old Hanyu solidified his status as the sport’s greatest practitioner with a free skate that tapped the full range of his expressive power and tested the limits of his endurance.
Hanyu won gold by a commanding margin — 317.85 points, to the 306.90 of his countryman Shoma Uno, who clinched the silver medal. In doing so, Hanyu became the first male figure skater to repeat as Olympic champion since American Dick Button earned the second of his two consecutive gold medals at the 1952 Oslo Games.
Skating to dramatic music from the Japanese soundtrack “Seimei,” Hanyu was twice was forced to “save” jumps but did so without putting a hand to the ice, completing four quads in all. With incomparable poise, he skated on, not missing an interpretive flourish until the final note and the first of many bows to the audience of 12,000 at the Gangneung Ice Arena, where Japanese flags were held aloft, and Winnie-the-Pooh bears rained down in tribute.
“My injury was more severe than I thought,” Hanyu confessed afterward, speaking through a translator, with Fernandez, his training-partner in Montreal, seated to his left and Uno on his right.
The gold medal would have been impossible, Hanyu added, without the support of his fans, the help of his coach (Canada’s Brian Orser, a two-time Olympic silver medalist and 1987 world champion), skaters long since retired who continue to inspire him and Fernandez, in particular, who challenged and buoyed him throughout his painstaking recovery.
“Without Javier, the training would have been so hard,” Hanyu said, with a bow of his head to Fernandez. “I would not be able to bear it.”
Fernandez voiced a debt of his own.
“Yuzu [Hanyu’s nickname] is one of the skaters at the moment you can watch and learn (from),” said Fernandez, whose has said his third Olympics will be his last. “He is strong …. He knows how to (turn) a bad moment into a good moment. And he will never give up.”
But it was Uno, the youngest of the medalists, who spoke most poetically.
“Yuzuru Hanyu was my goal, and I work hard to be like him,” Uno said of his Hanyu, now a two-time Olympic gold medalist, as well as two-time world champion. “He will be my eternal goal — the eternal idol for me.”
It was Chen, however, the United States’ best hope of an individual figure-skating medal, who scored the highest marks for a free skate Saturday. But combined with his 17th-place finish in an error-strewn short program, his score of 215.08 could vault him no higher than fifth.
After the worst collapse of his brilliant career, Chen retreated to his room in the athletes’ village Friday and, for once, didn’t dissect his shortcomings in clinical detail. Nor did he torture himself for falling so terribly short and blowing any chance at an Olympic medal.
Chen put his head on a pillow and fell asleep.
The figure skater who awoke was unburdened by expectation. He felt no pressure. Meanwhile, past champions such as Button, Scott Hamilton and Michael Weiss sent encouraging messages via social media. Wrote Button, 88, live-tweeting the event: “Hey Nathan Chen Beyoncé fell off the stage at a concert and got right back up, so can you.”
Chen returned for Saturday’s free skate determined to make the statement he’d hoped to make in his Olympic debut. That’s when he decided to pack an unprecedented sixth quad in his program — a decision that he knew would stretch the limits of athleticism, endurance and precision in his sport.
“Having such a rough short program allowed me to just forget about expectation and allow myself to really enjoy myself,” said Chen, who more than lived up to his nickname, “Quad King,” while skating to music from the film, “Mao’s Last Dancer.”
Despite the heroics, it proved impossible to catch Hanyu.
“As much as I tried to deny it, I think I did feel the pressure a lot before the short program — especially thinking about medals and placement and all of that — things that were completely out of my control,” Chen acknowledged afterward. “That just tightened me up; made me really cautious out on the ice, and that’s not the right way to skate. And then, being in such a low place going into the long, I allowed myself to completely forget about expectations and just allowed myself to be myself.”
Chen’s U.S. teammates, Vincent Zhou and Adam Rippon, finished sixth and 10th, respectively.
In the field of 24, Rippon was one of just four skaters who didn’t plan or perform a quad. Instead, he stuck with the strategy that served him well in Friday’s short program — performing the jumps he does best, as beautifully as he can. Rippon’s spins and footwork, the artistic connective tissue between the high-value jumps, have long been world-class. And wearing a delicately beaded blue top that evoked a bird’s feathers, he made the ice his canvas in a thematic program set to Coldplay’s “O (Fly On),” about a bird with a broken wing taking flight. Light as a bird himself, Rippon hit every element with grace and, after taking his bow, put a hand to his heart.
“It has been surreal,” said Rippon, who took equal pride in the achievements of U.S. teammates he regards as his “sons.” “This whole entire Olympics experience has been more than I could have dreamed of.”
Zhou staged his own heroics with a five-quad program to music from the “Moulin Rouge” soundtrack. Zhou crushed his season’s best marks, earning 192.16 to finish one spot behind Chen.
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