GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Teenager Nathan Chen has been a champion at every stage of his brief but brilliant figure-skating career. He was a two-time U.S. novice champion at age 11, the U.S. junior champion at 13 and, in January, he became a two-time U.S. national champion at 18, routing the field to cap a season in which he won every international Grand Prix event he entered.
National magazines touted his medal prospects for the 2018 PyeongChang Games. And Coca-Cola latched on to ensure its logo’s proximity and prominence the moment Chen descended the medal stand to monetize his achievement.
But there is something different about the pressure of the Olympics — the global audience, the dreams that date to childhood, the aspiration and expectation of parents, coaches and supporters — that elevates some competitors while smothering others.
Chen fell into the latter category in the men’s short program Friday, falling victim to Olympic nerves, falling victim to Olympic pressure and falling catastrophically on his opening quadruple Lutz, then putting a hand down to avert another fall and stepping out of his final jumping pass.
“It was rough,” Chen said afterward. “Nothing really clicked together. I did all the right stuff going into it. It should have been different.”
His 17th-place finish, worst among the three first-time U.S. Olympians in the field, left him hopelessly out of medal contention when the competition concludes with Saturday’s longer free skate. Adam Rippon, 28, placed seventh (87.95); 17-year-old Vincent Zhou, 12th (84.53).
“I honestly have never been in this position before, so I don’t really know exactly what to do,” said Chen, who arrived in South Korea with the nickname “The Quad King” for his proficiency with quadruples jumps. “I’m going to talk to my team, figure out what the best approach is and try to move on from it.”
Defending Olympic and world champion Yuzuru Hanyu, 23, competing for the first time since badly injuring his right ankle in early November, set the standard, delivering a performance that was flawless to all but the most discerning eye to earn a top score (111.68) that was just off his world record.
Spain’s Javier Fernandez (107.58) stands second.
Chen’s error-strewn performance followed his wobbly debut in last week’s team event, in which he failed to complete one quadruple jump and fell on his triple Axel. He retreated afterward to a practice rink 40 miles from the Olympic compound to train in private with largely unfettered access to ice and said upon his return: “I put all the bad things out there (in the team competition) so now I can just go up from here.”
He regressed instead.
Wearing a snug gray top with a swipe of white extending up his left side and down his left arm, Chen took the ice looking like a stylish international spy. But things went wrong from the start. After the initial fall, he projected anxiety rather than command, and the errors piled up like a chain-reaction on a freeway. In addition to the obvious technical shortcomings, judges were unmoved by Chen’s artistry, as well, giving him component scores (a gauge of performance aspects, such as skating skill, transitions and interpretation of music) that ranked ninth.
Chen had the misfortune of following Hanyu on the program. Japanese flags dotted the stands, and the arena erupted in the high-pitched squeals of his young fans when Hanyu skated out to center ice. Skating to Chopin’s Ballade No. 1, he reminded the figure-skating world that he has few peers as a technician or artist, and none on this day. Hanyu was sheer fluidity in a lyrical program that opened with a quad Salchow and included a triple Axel and quad toe/triple toe combination, each difficult element unspooling to the next, as if a dance.
“I am not powerful. I catch cold. And I’m not that physically strong,” Hanyu said through an interpreter afterward. “But I was able to perform to my potential, and this is thanks to everybody’s encouragement and support. Also my will and desire to meet the expectations of my supporters.”
As is their custom, Hanyu’s fans littered the ice with stuffed Winnie the Poohs in tribute. The bear has been a good-luck charm for Hanyu since childhood. And although Olympic sponsorship rules prohibit him from using his (Disney-licensed) Winnie the Pooh tissue-cover at the Games, the Japanese champion said he patted the head of the stuffed Poo bear he keeps in his room at the athletes’ village for good luck.
Rippon has used his platform as an Olympian to speak frankly about being a proud, gay man in the hope it helps young people facing fear, prejudice and marginalization because of their own sexual identity. By competing as his “authentic self,” as Rippon has said, he has achieved a deeper joy and liberation as a person and artist. He also knows how to have fun, and that’s what his short program, set to the electronic dance hit “Let Me Think About It,” was about.
One of just nine competitors who didn’t plan or attempt a quad, which lies at the outer reach of his proficiency, Rippon aspired instead to a clean performance of less technical rigor. He delivered essentially that. Despite struggling to hang onto his triple Axel, he staged a crowd-pleasing, sassy show that ended with a series of gorgeous spins. When finished, he pumped his fist and fell back on the ice as a large segment of the 12,000-seat arena stood and applauded. And he cupped his hands to one ear to hear more.
Competing third, Zhou had some hiccups in a technically difficult program but earned a spot in the sport’s history as the first to land a clean quad Lutz at the Olympics. He followed with a quad flip, displaying maturity beyond his years.
Although Fernandez, the reigning European champion who stands in second, didn’t mention Chen by name, he spoke of the advantage he felt he enjoyed as a three-time Olympian.
“It makes a more mature skater — able to control better my emotions,” said Fernandez, 26. “It is experience.”
Three-time U.S. champion Michael Weiss, a two-time Olympian who helped support Chen’s development through a foundation he started to help aspiring young skaters defray the costs of their training, was among those who reached out to Chen via social media.
“This sport is absolutely brutal & unforgiving,” Weiss wrote on Twitter. “Hang in there @nathanwchen Your time will come.”
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