By the time Nathan Chen landed the fifth at final quad jump in the Olympic Games free skate Thursday the gold medal was no longer in dispute.
The only real question remaining is Chen the greatest of all-time in a sport he has revolutionized?
Chen, the son of a daughter of Beijing, completed a journey that began on practice rinks built for the Salt Lake City Games, coursed through a decade of training in Southern California and three World titles with the most dominant Olympic men’s victory in 16 years.
Skating to Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s “Rocket Man,” Chen, 22, took flight at the Capital Indoor Stadium with an almost flawless free skate for an Olympic record total score of 332.60, vanquishing a disappointing fifth place finish four years earlier at the PyeongChang Games.
“It had always been a dream of mine and it’s a pretty daunting mountain,” Chen said.
“”It’s a whirlwind right now. I had a blast out there.”
Indeed Thursday wasn’t so much a competition as a coronation four years in the making, a celebration of a once in a generation, perhaps once in a lifetime talent who has given flight to the Winter Olympic’s marquee sport.
“I knew when we came here, when we came to Beijing,” Rafael Arutyunyan, Chen’s longtime coach, said when asked when he thought Chen had won the gold medal.
“He’s better,” Arutyunyan said. “He’s definitely better.”
Chen, who trains at Great Park Ice in Irvine, was never really challenged on his way to becoming the seventh American to win the Olympic men’s title, the first since 2010.
Japan’s Yuma Kagiyama (310.05) and Shoma Uno (293.00) took the silver and bronze medals but were in reality never anything more than warm-up acts to Chen’s main event.
The competition marked the changing of the guard at the top of the sport, Chen’s triumph coinciding with what almost certainly was the final performance on Olympic ice by the man who started the day considered by man as the greatest male skater in history, Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, the 2014 and 2018 gold medalist.
Hanyu’s bid to become the first man to win three consecutive Olympic gold medals was derailed with an eighth place finish in the short program. Thursday he tried one final Hail Mary of sorts, opening with quad Axel, a so difficult it has never been successfully completed in competition. Hanyu fell on his attempt to finish with a total score of 283.21 and in fourth place.
Chen’s victory followed a familiar pattern set by the previous three U.S. men’s Olympic champions, Scott Hamilton (1984), Brian Boitano (1988) and Evan Lysacek (2010), who all won their gold medals in their second Games.
For all his success, Chen’s first Olympic experience, four years ago in South Korea, hounded him until this week.
Expected to challenge Hanyu for the gold medal, any hopes of making the podium were buried by a disastrous short program in the men’s singles competition. Chen staggered and stumbled through a routine to the music of “Mao’s Last Dancer.”82.27. His score of was 24 points off his personal best and left him in 17th place.
“No one wants to skate like that on Olympic ice,” Chen said.
He rebounded in the free skate, becoming the first person in Olympic history to attempt six quads and to land five cleanly. His free skate score of 215.08 was also the highest in Olympic history. But it wasn’t enough. Chen finished fifth overall.
Chen has been all but invincible since his 2018 Olympic stumble.
A month after the PyeongChang Games, he landed a record eight quads in winning the World Championships and then enrolled at Yale in the fall of 2018. Juggling a statistics major and data services major in New Haven and training at the school’s ice rink nicknamed “the Whale” for its hump backed shape, Chen added a second in World title in 2019 and then at the Grand Prix Final in Turin in December 2019, Chen posted world records for total score (335.30) and free skate (224.92).
After the 2020 Worlds were cancelled because of the pandemic, Chen won his third World title last March.
He continued to power through the 2020-21 season, winning a sixth consecutive U.S. title last month, a feat last accomplished by two-time Olympic champion Dick Button, 71 years ago.
By the time the free skate its final group competitors took the ice Thursday, only Uno had a enough potential technical points to challenge Chen for the gold. But Uno stumbled on a quad loop. His score of 293.00 gave him the lead with two skaters to go.
Kagiyma’s free skate featured only four quads and lost technical points early in the program.
All Chen had to do was skate a clean program.
He did, nailing quad after quad, his only blemish a slight mistake on a quad midway through the routine for a 219.63 free skate program score.
So now that he has stood on top of the Olympic medal podium where does he stand in history?
Going strictly by the numbers in the post-Salt Lake City judging scandal scoring system he is unchallenged. His combined score in Beijing is second only to his world record and gives him five of the top six total program scores of all time, seven of history’s 10 300-plus marks. He now owns the top four free skate programs.
And now he has filled the one hole in resume–the Olympic gold medal.
Chen and his mother Hetty Wang relocated to Southern California in December 2011 to train with Rafael Arutyunyan, who previously worked with five-time World champion Michelle Kwan, World champion Mao Asada of Japan and Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen.
“They were living in a car,” Arutyunyan said. “His mother would pay me and I gave it back to the boy.”
Arutyunyan agreed to coach Chen only after the boy passed an interview.
Arutyunyan asked Chen, then 12, what he wanted to do with his skating.
“I want to be Olympic champion,” Chen said.
“He passed the test,” Arutyunyan said later.
Rocket Man passed another Thursday.
In flying colors.