GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Nathan Chen was an 11-year-old figure skating phenom when he came to work with Coach Rafael Arutyunyan. Adam Rippon, by contrast, enlisted Arutyunyan’s help at 22, wondering whether his best results were behind him as he struggled to reach the podium after winning back-to-back junior world championships as a teenager.
So it was difficult for Arutyunyan to convey the emotions he felt Wednesday as his two pupils — a decade apart in age, markedly different in their skating style yet so compatible as practice mates — stepped onto Olympic ice for the first time.
None of the four others in their practice group, American Vincent Zhou included, took advantage of the session, mindful that a second opportunity would follow in the afternoon. That afforded Chen and Rippon ample room to loosen their limbs, execute their jumps and run through select passages in their programs as Arutyunyan looked on from the boards.
It was simply a 40-minute practice session on the rink designated for that purpose, with a low ceiling and fluorescent lights, tucked just below Gangneung Ice Arena, where Chen and Rippon will make their Olympic debuts later this week in the team event.
“I brought up this young kid starting when he was 11,” said Arutyunyan, a native of the nation of Georgia who was schooled as a skater in the former Soviet system before moving to California in 1991. “I took Adam five years ago, when he was , couldn’t jump at all. Now they [are] both at Olympics. . . . I’m proud of them, proud of myself and proud of my team.”
Arutyunyan revealed that Chen will skate his short program in the team event, which gets underway Friday (8 p.m. Thursday Eastern time), while Rippon will skate the long program. A formal announcement is expected from U.S. Figure Skating on Thursday. The remaining U.S. team assignments will be announced later.
Chen, 18, is the United States’ best hope for gold in men’s singles, with fluency in five types of quadruple jumps. He closed the 2017-18 season by winning the Grand Prix championship in Nagoya, Japan, and followed last month by clinching a second consecutive U.S. championship by a staggering margin, performing seven quadruple jumps in the rout.
Defending Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan is regarded as Chen’s most formidable challenger at the 2018 Winter Games but is recovering from an ankle injury. Japanese officials recently announced that Hanyu won’t take part in the team event, fanning speculation about his readiness.
Chen demurred when asked Wednesday what he expected from Hanyu, saying simply, “I don’t know his situation.” He also dismissed a suggestion that he was being eyed as the gold medal favorite.
“Honestly, I try not to think about it. I don’t think about it,” Chen insisted. “I just want to come out of this competition proud of what I’ve done. That’s my goal.”
Rippon, 28, oozed all the excitement that Chen contained. The moment his blades touched the practice rink’s ice Wednesday, Rippon made a point of skating directly to the Olympic rings at the center and gliding over them, soaking up the significance of all it represented.
“I’m at the Olympics!” he gushed to reporters afterward, detailing the thrill of living in the Olympic Village and seeing the Olympic rings from his dorm-room window.
“It’s bomb-dot-com!” Rippon said. “It’s very cool! It’s everything I kind of thought it would be, but it’s so weird to be actually living in it.”
But on the practice ice, he was all business. Wearing a Team USA T-shirt and tights, he went through his short program, which ripples with sass and attitude. His spins were elegant, and his triple jumps exuded confidence.
Chen, who ran through his free skate, drew applause from several of the young Olympic volunteers in attendance who were dazzled by the amplitude of his jumps. He had a rough patch toward the end of the session, putting a hand down to steady himself after one shaky triple jump and falling on a do-over. But he was upbeat afterward.
“I still have a few practices to get the ice under me,” Chen said. “Ultimately everything feels good right now.”
Arutyunyan was no less pleased, pointing out that Wednesday was the first day of his skaters’ Olympic experience and plenty of time remained to round into form and decide which elements, if any, should be added or dropped to their programs.
In Chen’s case, that’s code for quadruple jumps. He typically fine-tunes his programs at the last minute, based on how his training is going, but said Wednesday that he plans to do two quads in his short program and four or five in his long program.
“It’s all about percentages and how I feel,” he explained.
Arutyunyan, 60, whose life has been devoted to figure skating, has a special saying about the Olympics — a competition that he believes exacts a physical and emotional toll unlike any other.
“After Olympics, you get four years older — right away. Next day,” Arutyunyan said. “That’s a problem. So you should play your game very secure. The advice I would give every Olympic athlete: Be very careful what he’s doing during Olympics and make sure he will execute everything he is planning.”