Column: Nathan Chen fulfills his Olympic dream by winning figure skating gold

Nathan Chen performs during his free skate program on his way to winning individual gold at the Beijing Olympics.
Nathan Chen performs during his free skate program on his way to winning individual gold at the Beijing Olympics on Thursday.
(Gary Ambrose / For the Times)
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Twenty years after a young Nathan Chen watched the figure skating competition at his hometown Salt Lake City Olympics and decided he wanted to be like them, a virtuoso Chen became an Olympic gold medalist.

Chen, who trains at Great Park Ice in Irvine, on Thursday blended the power and musicality that have made him a world champion three times and took them to the next level to become the seventh American man to win a figure skating singles gold medal. Chen retained the lead he had built with his short program by performing an animated and accomplished free skate to an Elton John medley, finishing with 332.60 points and living out the dream he had kept close to his heart since 2002.

That dream had eluded him four years ago in Pyeongchang, where a mistake-filled effort consigned him to 17th after the short program and only a superhuman free skate elevated him to fifth. This time, he was surefooted and unbeatable at Capital Indoor Stadium as he ended the reign of two-time Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan.


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“Everything is still a whirlwind. But I never thought I’d actually be able to make this happen, so to be able to just have this opportunity was amazing,” he said.

Why wouldn’t it happen? “It’s hard. I don’t know,” he said. “It’s always been a dream of mine of course but it’s a pretty daunting mountain.”

Afterward, Chen hugged coach Rafael Arutyunyan, whom he has followed from rink to rink for many years because he trusted that Arutyunyan could guide him toward the top of the skating world. Chen’s belief was as sure as his skating.

Teammate Jason Brown was effusive in his praise: “Oh my gosh, I’m just so proud of him. No one deserves it more. He just is like no one else.”

Hanyu, who stood eighth after the short program, put up a brave and admirable fight but finished fourth.

Hanyu kept his promise to attempt an unprecedented quadruple axel jump and nearly completed all 4½ revolutions before he fell on the landing. He also fell on his second jump, a quadruple salchow, but he landed two other quads in combinations and was otherwise his usual stirring and stellar self.

Hanyu, 27, bowed deeply toward every side of the rink and held his hand over his heart. He left the ice with a twirl and an arm extended toward the small but adoring crowd before moving to the kiss-and-cry area to hear his scores. With 188.06 points for his free skate he finished with 283.21 total points and held the lead with seven skaters to go. He was passed by Japanese countrymen Yuma Kagiyama, who finished second with 310.05 points, and Shoma Uno, who fell in his “Bolero” free skate but totaled 293.00 points to win the bronze medal.


“Coming into this, in my mind, I did not feel I was the favorite to win,” Chen said. “As soon as you hear the name ‘Yuzuru Hanyu,’ you’re like, ‘Well, this competition is going to be hard,’ as well as the two other Japanese men. Yuma’s been on an amazing hot trajectory and Shoma has been doing his thing quietly but making it hard on all the rest of the competitors. The rest of the field is super-deep as well so you couldn’t really count out anyone.”

Brown, who stood a happily surprising sixth after the short program, didn’t attempt any quads skating to “Schindler’s List.” He hasn’t mastered any quadruple jumps and so must let his artistry speak for him, which is tough in a judging system that rewards jumping so highly.

Nathan Chen performs during his free skate program at the Olympics on Thursday.
(Gary Ambrose / For the Times)

For Brown, who finished ninth at the 2014 Sochi Olympics but didn’t make the 2018 team for Pyeongchang, this Beijing experience was artistically pleasing, if not triumphant. He earned a season-best 184.00 points for his free skate and a total of 281.24 points to finish sixth.

All in all, it was a dazzling display that should have dominated the figure skating conversation at the Olympics, but the spotlight was deflected away by reports that 15-year-old Kamila Valieva had tested positive for a banned heart medication before she won the European championship, a month before she arrived in Beijing and led the Russian Olympic Committee to a gold medal in the team event.

The Russian newspaper RBC reported Valieva tested positive for Trimetazidine, which is used to treat angina. It is listed among the drugs prohibited by the World Anti-Doping Agency. According to many reports, she practiced on Thursday while the men’s finale was taking place. Because Valieva is younger than 16, she can’t be officially identified if she is guilty of a doping violation, according to the World Anti-Doping Code.


Valieva on Monday became the first woman to land a quadruple jump at the Olympics and landed two quads in her long program. Singles skater Mark Kondratiuk, pairs skaters Anastasia Mishina and Alexander Galliamov, and the ice dance duo of Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov also competed in the team event for the ROC.

Nathan Chen celebrates with an American flag after winning the gold medal.
Nathan Chen celebrates with an American flag after winning the gold medal in men’s individual figure skating at the Beijing Games on Thursday.
(Gary Ambrose / For the Times)

A medal ceremony scheduled for Tuesday was canceled without explanation. The U.S., led by Chen’s spectacular short program and two top-ranked ice dance performances, finished second and Japan finished third in the event. If the ROC is disqualified the other teams would move up, putting fourth-place finisher Canada into third.

Mark Adams, a spokesman for the International Olympic Committee, said Wednesday a “legal issue” was delaying the awarding of medals. Adams declined to answer questions Thursday, saying it was a “legal case.”

In happier news Donovan Carrillo of Mexico, who practices on an under-sized rink in Leon, battled to hold on to a few landings but hit a quadruple toe loop (putting his hand down) to earn 138.44 points for his performance and 218.13 overall. He finished 22nd among the 24 men who qualified for the free skate, but in his own way he was as much a winner as anyone else who graced the ice Thursday.