Column: Nathan Chen shows his graceful power with personal-best score at Olympics

Nathan Chen, of the United States, competes during the men's singles short program team event.
Nathan Chen competes during the men’s singles short program team event at the Beijing Olympics on Friday.
(David J. Phillip / Associated Press)

Nathan Chen allowed himself a small laugh, a rare indulgence that was four years in the making.

Having banished the dread that strangled him at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics and contributed to his glaring missteps in the short program phase of both the team and individual events, Chen was at his powerful, expressive best on Friday during his short program in the team event in Beijing. He was light but made a weighty statement by cleanly landing two quadruple jumps and compiling a personal-best score of 111.71 points. He was attentive to every detail in his performance to “La Boheme” at Capital Indoor Stadium but skated freely, fully present and enjoying each moment in ways he couldn’t enjoy them four years ago.

Chen, who trains at Great Park Ice in Irvine, had looked forward to this moment and was ready for it. That wasn’t true four years ago. The difference was apparent to no one more than Chen, the three-time world champion and six-time U.S. champion who was expected to boost the U.S. team’s hopes of exceeding its two bronze-medal finishes in the team event before he challenges two-time Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan for the men’s individual title.


“It feels great to have a short program that I actually skated well at an Olympic experience,” Chen said, allowing himself a chuckle. “I’ll take as much as I can from this experience and then take it day by day from here.”

It would be easy to say he had exorcised the demons that marred his first Olympic experience, when he stumbled in the team event and stood a dismal 17th after the short program of the men’s competition. Chen, always thoughtful, rejected that cliché.

“I think you learn the most from your mistakes and I certainly learned a lot from that competition,” he said. “And I don’t think I’d be able to be here, where I am now, without having had that experience.”

This will be the third Olympics for the team event, which takes place over three days. In the first phase, each of the 10 competing skating federations nominates one female singles skater, one male singles skater and one pair to perform their short program and one ice dance duo to perform their rhythm dance. Points are awarded based on rankings, with 10 points for first, nine for second, eight for third and so on.

The top five teams will advance to the final phase and will nominate one female singles skater, one male singles skater, one pair and one ice dance couple to perform their free skate program. The points each team earns will be added to their total from the first phase for the final score.

After the first day the U.S. led the team event with 28 points, to 26 for the Russian Olympic Committee and 21 for China. In addition to Chen’s win in the short program, U.S. ice dancers Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue earned 86.56 points for their rhythm dance to finish ahead of world champions Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov of the ROC, which is the name under which Russian athletes compete here because their country has been banned because of previous doping violations. Wenjing Sui and Cong Han of China got the top score of 82.83 for their pairs short program, but Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier helped the Americans’ cause and point total with a season-best performance that ranked them third and produced eight points.

The team event continues on Sunday with the women’s short program and men’s free skate. Medals will be awarded on Monday following the pairs free skate, ice dance free dance, and women’s free skate.

The team event is gimmicky but it’s also fun because it gives skaters a rare opportunity to feel camaraderie in a fiercely competitive sport. But there won’t be a showdown in the team event between Chen and Hanyu because Japan entered 2018 silver medalist Shoma Uno to compete in the short program and it’s unlikely Chen will also be chosen to perform his long program so that he can save himself for the individual competition. Uno, the 2018 Olympic silver medalist, also landed two quads in a brilliant effort on Friday and stood second to Chen with 105.46 points.


Recapping the news, results and highlights from The Times’ team of reporters who covered the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games.

Feb. 20, 2022

Hanyu has said he’s trying to up the ante in the men’s singles event — which begins on Tuesday here — by attempting a quadruple axel, a jump of 4½ revolutions. Chen wants to see him do it as much as any figure skating fan does.

“I’m honored to be alive at the same time as him. It’s pretty crazy, what he’s doing,” Chen said. “It’s been a really great adventure and journey for me to be able to have someone like him to share the ice with, and it certainly has been a great inspiration to me.”

Chen’s impressive performance Friday should boost his confidence for the men’s event. It certainly proved he has made the most of the painful lessons he learned in Pyeongchang. “I’m certainly happy that I had this opportunity to compete in the short program and put down a short program that I actually feel good about,” he said.