U.S. men’s figure skating champion Nathan Chen looked nothing like the jump master he became while enjoying an undefeated season, surprisingly falling twice during his short program Friday morning in the first phase of the Olympic team event.
Conversely, the American husband-and-wife duo of Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Chris Knierim, known for performing beautiful twists and lifts but struggling with side-by-side jumps, were nearly flawless in their short program and sealed it with a kiss at center ice at Gangneung Ice Arena.
Whether it was the earliness of the hour—the event started shortly after 10 a.m. local time—or the pressure of performing at the Olympics hitting home, a startling number of skaters stumbled through the first day of the team competition. Canada took the lead with 17 points, followed by the U.S. at 14 and a tie between Japan and the Olympic Athletes of Russia at 13 each. Israel, riding a stunning performance by Alexei Bychenko, was fourth with 11 points. A first-place finish is worth 10 points, second is worth nine points and so on down to 10th place earning one standings point.
Japan’s Shoma Uno, skating in place of teammate and defending Olympic men’s champion Yuzuru Hanyu, pulled off a quadruple toe loop-triple toe loop combination in compiling 103.25 points for his short program, but Chen (fourth at 80.61), 2014 Olympic silver medalist Patrick Chan (third with 81.66 points) and Mikhail Kolyada of the Olympic Athletes from Russia (eighth at 74.36 points) staggered. The Olympic Athletes from Russia, supported by a section of fans who wore shirts that spelled out the words “Russia in the heart,” got only three points from Kolyada but got 10 points from a technically strong and compelling performance by pair Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov.
Chen, a medal favorite in men’s singles, was unhappy with the early start but took a positive outlook on a disappointing effort. “Having a chance to do it once allows me to do it better the next time,” said Chen, who trains at The Rinks-Lakewood Ice. “I’m glad that I got the opportunity to at least come out here and put the programs down and learn from it. Right now all I can do is try to analyze what I did wrong and then just let it go and move on.”
He can’t run away from this fast enough. He was fortunate the Knierims came through with a season-best score of 69.75 that put them fourth and also earned seven standings points. “Going into nationals we were a little bit more nervous because you’re not officially on the team. Regardless of the body of work that you had you still need to skate well and it needs to be official,” said Chris Knierim, who still had seven stitches on his forehead from a training mishap the couple endured before leaving for Pyeongchang. “Once that happened, for me, it was a huge relief. Coming here, this is the cherry on top.”
Canada, the team silver medalist four years ago behind Russia and ahead of the U.S., got eight points from Chan and nine from the second-place pairs ranking of Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford. Chan stumbled on his opening quadruple toe loop and spent almost as much time sitting on the ice as skating on it. “We all got up probably around 5 a.m., 5:30 a.m., to come to the rink this morning to practice. So you’ve got to take that into account,” Chan said. “I didn’t do any quads this morning just because it is so early to activate and fire on all cylinders. That’s part of the challenge of being an Olympic athlete. You’ve got to adapt, and I think we’ll be ready for the future programs now.”
The early start didn’t rattle Uno. “Usually I would say it would be hard but today for some reason I felt good. My body was moving,” he said through a translator. “I was a little sleeping during the practice this morning but at the actual competition I felt good and my body felt good.”
He was aware of the blunders by Chen and Kolyada but didn’t duplicate them when he opened with a quadruple flip. “I had never seen them skate so poorly before. I was wondering if it’s too early in the morning or they’re nervous because this is a special event,” he said. “I felt I had a doubt in my mind that maybe I would make a mistake going into the flip but it turned out to be okay.”
The pair event will continue Sunday with the ice dance short dance, women’s short program—in which the U.S. is expected to enter Bradie Tennell—and the pairs free skate. As the only U.S. entry, the Knierims will compete again Sunday.
American Paul Wylie, the 1992 Olympic silver medalist, said he doesn’t expect Chen’s poor performance in the team event will carry over to the men’s competition next week. If anything, Wylie said, it will lead Chen to concentrate even harder. “And that concentration will likely serve Nathan well,” said Wylie, who’s working for Westwood One radio here. “I think it’s probably a great little dry run for him and this was not his priority.”