Don’t be deceived by the warm smile and understated sense of humor. There’s a fighter inside of Nathan Chen.
That part of Chen emerged in furious and spectacular fashion in the free skate segment of the men’s figure skating competition Saturday, a day after a disastrous short program that eliminated him from medal contention. The enraged 18-year-old U.S. champion decided that if he couldn’t win gold, silver or bronze, he would at least make history.
And he did, becoming the first competitor to ever cleanly land five quadruple jumps at the Olympics. He attempted and landed a sixth, but had to place his two hands on the ice to prevent a fall.
He earned 215.08 points for the program, the highest score of these, or any, Olympics. He leaped from 17th to fifth, finishing with a combined score of 297.35.
“I knew at that point that I literally had nothing to lose, so I decided just to try it,” said Chen, who trains at the Rinks- Lakewood Ice.
Chen immediately recognized the magnitude of what he accomplished, as did the crowd at the Gangneung Ice Arena.
Chen raised his hands to his face. The crowd roared.
“There was just a mix of emotions,” he said. “Just happy that I did what I did, and kind of upset that I did what I did with such a bad short program and it won’t balance out.”
The experience could prove transformative for Chen and U.S. figure skating. He learned his boundaries weren’t really boundaries, that his 5-foot-6 frame had more in it than he previously imagined, that he has to be bold and not cautious, and, perhaps most important, that he can recover from crushing disappointment.
“I’m glad I was able to show myself and show everyone else that I can bounce back from a bad performance,” Chen said.
If he was prematurely designated a gold medal contender for these Games because of his jumping ability, what Chen gained on this day should make him a legitimate one at the 2022 Beijing Games.
Once a medal factory, American men have scaled the podium only twice in the last seven Olympics: in 2010, when Evan Lysacek claimed gold, and in 2002, when Timothy Goebel won bronze.
The fact Chen won the free skate and failed to medal only underscored how terribly he skated in the short program Friday.
Chen fell on an attempted triple axel and scored only 82.27 points. Previously undefeated this season, he was 17th in a field of 30.
He won a bronze medal earlier in the week in the team competition, but was underwhelming there as well.
“I tried to think of it as any other competition,” he said. “As much as I tried to tell myself and try to tell you guys that, that’s not really the truth. It’s so much bigger than that. There’s a lot of stigma around it being the one competition that you’re dreaming your whole life to go to. And it really is that. I think that really added a lot of pressure to me.”
The decision to attempt six quadruple jumps in the long program was made that night.
“It was sort of an anger thing,” he said. “Screw it, I’m going to try it,” he recalled telling himself.
He slept on the idea. He woke up Saturday morning still determined to make history.
“She was sort of saying this isn’t who I am, so go for everything,” he said.
The program started with a quadruple lutz, which was followed by a quadruple lutz and double toeloop combination.
Chen skated to music from “Mao’s Last Dancer,” a film based on the autobiography of professional dancer Li Cunxin, who defected to the United States from China. For an instant, it looked as if this version of the story would end with the protagonist caught and thrown into a forced labor camp, as Chen nearly fell on his next jump, a quadruple flip. He kept himself upright by placing his hands flat on the ice.
Chen was dominant for the remainder of the program, landing three more quadruple jumps. History was made.
“Being in such a low placement and going into the longs allowed (me) to completely forget about expectations and allow (me) to be myself,” he said.
Right away, he started looking forward to the Beijing Games.
“Who knows what will happen in four years,” he said. “It would be cool to be able to go to that Olympics. My mom was born in Beijing, so it would be really cool to have her there.”
Even cooler will be to see how what Chen learned Saturday will appear on the ice in four years.
Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez