Nathan Chen insisted this was not about redemption. The world’s most dominant figure skater over the past 47 months has not spent much time dwelling on his catastrophic Olympic debut in 2018, saying that he is motivated not by the scoreboard but by treating every competition as an opportunity to showcase his hard work while trying to enjoy himself the best that he can.
But results do matter. And from the crisp opening quadruple flip of his short program in the Olympic figure skating team competition on Friday morning, it was clear the American’s struggles on the sport’s biggest stage are firmly in the past and his arc remains firmly on course for a storybook ending in next week’s main event.
The 22-year-old from southern California by way of Salt Lake City put down a flawless skate to open his second Olympics and finished with a personal-best score of 111.71 – the second-highest tally of all time and a scant .11 off the world record held by Yuzuru Hanyu, the Japanese superstar who is Chen’s primary rival in the men’s singles and did not compete on Friday.
The Americans are off to a flying start thanks to Chen in their chase for a third straight medal in the team competition, a lead that held up through the rhythm dance and the pairs’ short program.
“Any time you skate a good program whether it’s in practice or competition, it feels good,” Chen said afterward at the Capital Indoor Stadium. “It feels great to be able to have a short program that I actually skated well at an Olympics. I’ll take as much as I can from this experience and then take it day by day here.”
Chen, a junior at Yale who has taken a leave of absence from his studies to focus on the Olympics, has gently pushed back on the redemption narrative throughout the run-up to Beijing, preferring to frame his journey in terms of personal fulfillment. But there’s no question that Friday’s mesmerising performance to Charles Aznavour’s La Bohème, which included a gravity-flouting quad lutz-triple toe loop combination, will help turn the page on his greatest disappointment.
Four years ago, Chen arrived in Pyeongchang on a tailwind of hype as the joint-favorite with Hanyu. Inside, he was a ball of nervous energy. His error-prone performance in the team event – where he ultimately helped the Americans claim a bronze medal – presaged a nightmarish short program in the men’s singles where he tumbled to the ice on his opening quadruple lutz, failed to complete his required combination and was unable to land a single jump cleanly.
Not even a redemptive, personal-best long program that netted the highest free-skate score in the field could lift him into medal position. Instead, Chen settled for fifth overall while Hanyu became the first men’s skater to defend an Olympic gold in 66 years.
“I think you learn the most from your mistakes,” Chen said on Friday. “And I certainly learned a lot from that competition. I don’t think I’d be able to be here where I am now without having had that experience. So I think rather than that being a demon, it was a very helpful learning experience.”
Since then, Chen has dominated the circuit like few skaters in recent memory – topping the podium in three straight world championships, three head-to-head meetings with Hanyu and all but one of the 17 competitions he’s entered overall – while expanding his repertoire to push the sport’s outer technical limits.
Even on the rare occasions when the American has stumbled, he has roared back with ferocity and verve. When he fell in competition for the first time in two years on a quadruple lutz during his short program at last year’s worlds in Stockholm to fall into third place, Chen responded with a sublime free skate peppered with no fewer than five four-rotation jumps to win by more than eight points.
“As much as I can, I try to stay present,” Chen said. “Be within every second basically, try not to think too far in the future, don’t look too far into the past. Although that might be hard, it’s always good for everyone to sort of try to stay present.”
Having done his part for country in the team event – which continues on Sunday with the women’s short program and men’s free skate and concludes on Monday with the pairs, ice dance and women’s free skates – Chen’s focus will turn to next week’s showdown with Hanyu, who enters the Olympics under a cloud of uncertainty after missing the entire Grand Prix season due to an injury suffered in a November training fall.
But cast the 27-year-old Japanese star as an underdog at your peril: Hanyu’s knack for raising his level when the lights burn brightest makes the climax of their six-year rivalry – starting with Tuesday’s short program and ending with Thursday’s free skate – one of the must-watch events of the coming weeks.
“I’m honored to be alive at the same time as him,” Chen said of Hanyu. “It’s pretty crazy what he’s doing and I’m looking forward to being able to see him again in person. It’s been a really great adventure and journey for me to be able to have someone like him to share the ice with and certainly he’s just been a great inspiration to me.”