GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Out there on the ice at the Pyeongchang Olympics, with nearly 12,000 fans watching in the arena and millions tuning in on TV, Nathan Chen was finally alone.
Gone from his head were the marketers, reporters, coaches, publicists and fans who had labeled him America’s next Olympic star.
Gone, too, were the expectations for him to win a medal as the best American figure skater of his generation. A dreadful 17th-place finish in the short program had taken care of that.
Enough, already, he said to himself.
Enough of that noise.
“Honestly, I just didn’t care anymore,” Chen said on Saturday after his free skate. “I was like, all right, screw it.”
Chen, an 18-year-old from Salt Lake City, wiped from his brain his mistake-laden short program and the other terrible short program he skated — in the team event last week. And he set out to write a much better ending to his Olympic story.
Without telling his coach, Chen added another quadruple jump to his free skate and ended up landing six quads in total, five cleanly, more than anyone ever has in Olympic competition. At the end of the men’s competition, his unprecedented effort had launched him into fifth place over all.
Indeed, he won the free skate with a score of 215.08, about 9 points ahead of Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, who ended up with the gold medal. While Chen’s performance wasn’t enough to put him on the podium, his comeback stood for something deeper. It’s how Nathan Chen went from lost to found.
Shoma Uno, the silver medalist from Japan, said he was glad to see Chen bounce back.
“He’s very consistent at the practice, all the time,” Uno said. “In the free skate, Nathan was more like Nathan.”
Leading up to the Olympics, Chen was an amazing Nathan — the only international skater who was undefeated this season on the Grand Prix circuit. Known as the Quad King because he’s so good at the four-rotation jump, he was anointed as a medal contender long before the Olympics began. Even before he was named to the United States Olympic team in January, he was featured on boxes of cornflakes. He was one of the biggest names to watch for.
So when he stumbled so profoundly here, people noticed. His jumps went sour in both the men’s program and the team event, and he was dumbfounded as to what went wrong. Because for Chen, who is young enough to be applying to colleges, things had never gone so very wrong.
“I’ve never been in this position before,” he said before he took to the ice one last time for the free skate. “I don’t know what to do.”
He insisted that the pressure of the Olympics had not gotten to him. But on the inside, there was a battle ensuing.
He was trying to swat away negative thoughts, but they kept coming at him. He had worried about winning a medal at the Olympics and where he would place. He didn’t want to make a mistake — so he skated tentatively because of that and made mistakes because of that.
After the men’s short program, Chen didn’t even wait for the draw to find out when he would perform in the free skate. He headed back to his room and then his mother called to give him a pep talk.
“This isn’t who you are,” she said. “Tomorrow’s a new day.”
He crawled under his bed covers. There, all alone with his mind racing, he tried to determine what went wrong.
He had started skating when he was 3, when his mother would reward him with Swedish fish candy for doing things right. And he often did things right — for years and years, he did things right. And now he grew more and more angry with himself that he had let the Olympics overwhelm him.
“These kinds of things happen to every athlete eventually, but it’s nothing that Nathan is accustomed to,” the figure skating analyst and 1984 Olympic gold medalist Scott Hamilton said. “What I see is a highly tuned athlete who might have been thrown off a bit for one reason or another. Quads are extremely specific in their timing, aggression and in their intent. When things start to unravel just a little bit, it’s like, ‘Boom!’ ”
Boom — just like the revelation Chen had in bed on Friday night.
Forget about the expectations that everyone had placed on him to medal, he said to himself. Forget the mistakes in the team event and the mistakes in the short program.
Forget it all. Forget everyone.
He would try that sixth quad.
“I was, like, I’m not going to hold myself back and play it safe,” he said. “I had literally nothing to lose, so if I made a couple of mistakes, so be it.”
Before his free skate, Chen spent time on social media, where fans and friends were reaching out to him.
Dick Button, the two-time Olympic champion, posted back-to-back notes. First, he said, “Nathan Chen — it will be interesting to see how he handles the worst disaster in his skating life.”
Second, he said, “Hey Nathan Chen, Beyoncé fell off the stage at a concert and got right back up, so can you.”
Donovan Mitchell, the Utah Jazz guard, tweeted, “Stay positive.”
But Chen had already decided his plan.
On Saturday, in his redemption skate, he wore a simple black costume with a white collar, and he leapt and leapt — six times in all — to land his quads and make history.
Afterward, there were no tears. He just snacked on a PB&J sandwich while waiting to see if he would somehow end the day in the top three. Maybe, just maybe, he would finish that high. But it wasn’t meant to be.
There will always be the what-ifs — as in, what if he had cleared his head early enough in these Olympics to skate like the real Nathan Chen? He didn’t, until it was too late. For now, that will have to suffice.
“I’m happy that I did what I did in the end,” he said.
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