Even before the final beat of music in Nathan Chen’s short program, he knew he had done it.
After hitting two quadruple jumps — including one in a quadruple, triple jump combination — and dancing across the ice in his simple black tuxedo to “La Bohème” by Charles Aznavour, Chen finished first in the men’s short program at the Beijing Olympics on Tuesday. By a lot.
His score of 113.97 points set a world record and also set him up perfectly for a shot at the prize that has eluded him.
When he was done with his program, Chen, the 22-year-old American star, punched the air several times in a celebration, and had to catch himself.
“I almost never do something like that,” he said afterward. “I was like, ‘Why did I do that?’”
From the outside looking in, it was obvious.
At the 2018 Games, Chen twice skated terrible short programs — one in the team event, the other in the men’s singles event. He ended up in 17th place in the men’s event going into the free skate.
He decided he had nothing to lose in the free skate and landed six quadruple jumps, instead of the five he had planned. That bold and gutsy performance lifted him to fifth place, just out of the medals. Since that disappointment, he has owned the sport as a three-time world champion.
So after Chen showed off his skating skills on Tuesday — finally, at an Olympics with barely any errors — he said it was a relief. And, in another unusual revelation of his feelings, he said his performance made him happy.
But he won’t revel in his accomplishment for long, because there is still work to do.
The gold medal will be decided on Thursday after the free skate (Wednesday night in the United States), and Chen’s main competition will be two Japanese skaters: Yuma Kagiyama, an 18-year-old former child television and movie star who knows how to perform with flair, and Shoma Uno, 24, one of only two skaters who has beaten Chen since early 2018. Kagiyama was second in the short program, 5.85 points behind Chen, and Uno, the Olympic silver medalist in 2018, was third, 8.07 points back.
Competing in his first Olympics, Kagiyama got the mostly Chinese crowd to clap along to his entertaining performance to Michael Bublé’s “When You’re Smiling,” as he skated a high-power, high-energy program. Uno, who skated to classical music, was just as stunning. Even when he put his hand down on the second jump of his quadruple, triple combination, it didn’t hurt him much.
Afterward, Uno sent a warning to his competitors: “I will add more complicated and difficult jumps in my free skating.”
Conspicuously missing from those top competitors was the two-time defending Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, one of Chen’s top rivals and a star of the sport. Hanyu, in a sparkly outfit that surely depleted the Swarovski factory of its crystals, finished a distant eighth place on Tuesday, 18.82 points away from Chen. A hole in the ice was to blame, he said.
Hanyu opened his program by bailing out of a quadruple salchow and received zero points for it. The crowd gasped.
“That was some accident but it’s OK,” he said, explaining that there was a divot in the ice from what was perhaps another skater’s toe pick. “I have one more chance. I have lots of time with the music and many jumps in there, so I can be my best.”
Hanyu bounced back quickly to land a quadruple, triple jump combination and a triple axel during the kind of artistically beautiful performance he is known for, but the missed quad cost him. He is so far behind Chen and the other leaders that it will be a long shot for him to win any medal.
Jason Brown, the only other American in the men’s event after Vincent Zhou tested positive for the coronavirus on Monday and withdrew from the Games, doesn’t have much of a shot to win a medal, either, but he is not complaining about it. Close calls with people infected with the virus, including a coach last month and now Zhou, have made him appreciate every moment here. This is his second Olympics after finishing ninth at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.
Brown, 27, was the last to skate his short program, floating across and above the ice in a passionate, effortless performance to “Sinnerman” by Nina Simone that demanded the fans’ attention. He is one of few top male skaters who don’t have a quadruple jump in their repertoire, but he made up for that with his exquisite skating skills and musical interpretation to finish sixth on Tuesday.
“We so often get wrapped up in the technical, the technical,” he said. “It’s not going to stop me from pushing the artistic side. I want to create more art.”
While waiting to skate, he said, he heard cheers erupt after Chen’s performance and knew his teammate had nailed it.
Now Chen just has to do it all over again this Thursday. He’s not counting on it being easy.
“Whatever happens in the short program is not indicative of what will happen in the free program,” he said, perhaps reminding himself that the real feeling of relief — the one he has been waiting for since 2018 — is still a few days away, when he will walk away with the gold medal, finally. Or not.
Daniel Victor contributed reporting.