USA’s Nathan Chen redeems himself, but efforts not enough for a medal after learning experience at Pyeongchang Games

Chen’s comeback is good enough to secure fifth spot, with fellow American Vincent Zhou behind in sixth

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 February, 2018, 2:26pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 February, 2018, 2:26pm

Nathan Chen returned to his room in the Athletes Village after his Olympic short programme, plopped down on the bed and closed his eyes.

He was trying to figure out why he skated so poorly, why he fell.

Instead, he fell asleep.

He woke up a changed man, or at least a carefree one.

“Honestly, I didn’t care any more,” Chen said. “Just screw it.”

Chen learned that what figure skaters have known for decades, that it’s easier to perform without pressure than with it on five-ring ice – becoming the first person to land five quadruple jumps (and nearly a sixth) in an Olympics and posting a career-best score of 215.08 for a free programme.

It was nearly enough to pull off one of the great comebacks in Winter Games history, from 17th place to the podium, but Chen’s incredible climb ended in fifth place.

Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu became the first man to repeat since American Dick Button in 1952, scoring a two-programme total of 317.85 points. Countryman Shoma Uno was second at 306.90, followed by Spain’s Javier Fernandez (305.24) and China’s Jim Boyang (297.77). Chen was .42 points back in fifth.

American Vincent Zhou, just 17, finished sixth. Adam Rippon, among the most popular US athletes at these Games, skated yet another clean programme and was 10th.

The difference for them was they weren’t expected to win the gold medal, or any medal for that matter. Chen was.

“I skate with Nathan every day,” said Rippon, who shares a coach and Southern California training rink with him in Southern California, “and he has had such a rough, f’ing week. And he put that all behind him and skated so well today. I saw him before my warm-up, and I gave him a huge hug and said: ‘I am so proud of you.’ The weight of the world was on him.”

Chen bombed in the short programme of the team event last week, an ominous sign that proved prescient when he did it again in the short of the individual event, scoring 21.4 points below his personal best from earlier in the season.

“I tried to think of it as any other competition,” said Chen, 18. “But as much as I try to tell myself that and tell you guys (in the media) that, that’s not really the truth. It’s so much bigger than that. There’s a lot of stigma around it, that it’s the one competition you’ve been dreaming your whole life to go to. It really is that.

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“I mean, as much as I tried to deny it, I think I did feel the pressure a lot before the short programme, thinking about medals and placement and all that – things that were completely out of my control. That just tightened me up, made me really cautious out on the ice. And that’s not the way to skate.”

The difference in the free?

He was the Padres, 20 games out of first place, sweeping a series from the Dodgers in late August.

“Being in such a low place going into the long,” Chen said, “I allowed myself to completely forget about expectations and just allow myself to be myself.”

Just screw it.

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Chen had changed a quad flip to an easy quad toe in the short programme. He did the opposite in the free, adding a sixth planned quad and upgrading the difficulty of a combination jump (without telling coach Rafael Arutyunan). He landed two quad toes, a quad Salchow, a quad flip and an opening quad Lutz. He touched down on a second quad flip but maintained his balance.

The score of 215.08 was 10-plus points above his personal best and the highest of the day, nearly nine better than the next best from Hanyu. But because he was so far behind from the short, it didn’t matter.

Chen’s music stopped, and he thrust his head back in triumph. Then he leaned forward and buried it in his hands.

“Sort of a mix of emotions,” Chen said. “Immediately happy that I did what I did, and then kind of upset that I did what I did with such a bad short programme and it won’t balance out.”