Gangneung, South Korea • He bounced off the ice, only to briefly return, his palms suddenly gliding across the Olympic rink. The world’s grown accustomed to seeing him spin faster and longer than anyone else in the history of the sport. Spectators expect to see the pick of his skate return to the ice and see him skate out cleanly, arms wide as the applause grows.
But on Friday morning, hours before the official start of the 2018 Olympic Winter Games here in South Korea, Nathan Chen had to pick himself up after the Gangneung Ice Arena let out a collective sigh. The 18-year-old phenom figure skater and two-time U.S champion was wobbly in his Olympic introduction, finishing fourth in the men’s short program portion of the team event.
He barely held on during his quad flip attempt, and later abandoned his quad toe attempt before crashing down to the ice in a triple axel attempt. The result? An 80.61 score, nearly 24 points lower than his season high. When the music ended, Chen dropped his head and his shoulders, placed two hands atop his head knowing the debut went, well, not according to the pre-destined script.
Salt Lake’s skating star left the ice both hands on his hips, and it was not difficult to read his body language.
“It was more just disappointed, it wasn’t, like, shocked,” he said. “It was the fact that I didn’t do what I wanted to do. I’m not going to show that I’m happy and fake it if I’m generally not, so that’s definitely how I felt. Again, this is good experience.”
This near-impossible standard Chen has cultivated for himself is striking after seeing clusters of journalists from all over the world pivot toward one another inquiring how the gold-medal contender in the individual program couldn’t get out of his own way. This is what comes along with the sort of tantalizing, revolutionary change in sport.
“I just wasn’t thinking of the right technical things before the jumps,” Chen said in the mixed zone in front of a sea of reporters. “I was a little bit ahead of myself. Obviously not what I wanted to do on my first Olympic run, but also upset I sort of let the rest of the team down.”
The Quad King was nowhere to be found for the first time in a very long time. There weren’t nerves, he said. He expected to be more nervous, actually, before stepping out for his first Olympic skate. He thought there’d be more pressure.
“Felt comfortable, relaxed, ready to go,” he said.
Instead, he was ahead of himself the entire routine, not in the right frame of mind, admittedly a little “too excited” for a moment he later said “got the best of me.”
Try as he might to say it’s just another competition, the Olympics are a a different beast. Friday’s event served as a reminder. Chen referenced seeing the Olympic rings, the vibe around South Korea, knowing that it’s something he’s never experienced.
The team event short program, if nothing else, allowed him the experience of ensuring the same mistakes don’t repeat themselves when the individual event begins next week.
“I’m glad I got the opportunity to come out here, learn from it,” he said, “but right now, all I can do is analyze what I did wrong and then just let it go and just move on.”
Before Chen took the walk down the hallway lined with metal railings to discuss what went wrong with the press, Canada’s Patrick Chan shook his head when trying to plant himself in Chen’s boots. Chan, a two-time Olympic silver medalist, made his Olympic debut as a teenager on home ice at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. That, he said, was nothing compared to what Chen, a highly-marketed game-changing athlete, is facing here.
“I think that was a fraction of what type of pressure an American skater has,” Chan said. “At the level that he can skate, with all those quads, he’s handling it really well. So I hope he knows that it’s very normal to have not a very great skate. It’s part of the experience, it’s part of the Olympics.”
His last bit of advice?
“Cherish the moment,” he said, “even if it’s not the best one.”