Gangneung, South Korea • Nathan Chen fell right asleep.
Exhausted and drained from a performance he feared would define himself and these Olympic Winter Games, Chen wrestled with the thoughts of how each jump went so awry. He spent the afternoon and evening after the short program struggles that went viral trying to figure out why, in less than three minutes, his Olympics were over with.
He steamed with anger.
“Screw it,” he told himself, recalling the night before he made figure skating history. “I have literally nothing to lose.”
So when the 18-year-old from Salt Lake City laid down, he closed his eyes to forget yesterday and win the next. The internal conversation was whether or not he dared do it, dared to go for six quadruple jumps, never before performed. He couldn’t allow himself to go down that road. Not last night. Not after a short program that featured no jumps landed, no flow, no semblance of Nathan Chen
He’d readjust in the morning. Morning practice on Saturday inside the Gangneung Ice Arena was so early he found himself still waking up, again holding the same discussion from the night prior.
“I had nothing to lose,” he said.
Chen didn’t even tell his coach, Rafael Arutunian, about the decision. Figure skating’s 21st-century pioneer went for it. Buried in 17th place entering Saturday’s men’s free skate program, he unshackled himself from the chains of pressure and let the world see.
“I honestly just didn’t care anymore,” Chen said.
And suddenly, there he was, the astounding, mesmerizing Nathan Chen. The free skate score of 215.08 was a new personal best, skyrocketing him from the depths to first place. After staying in striking distance of a medal for most of the day, the sport's top dogs eventually bounced Chen off a podium appearance that would've been the story of these Olympics. Chen finished fifth overall.
He landed his first quad, then his second. Had a brief step-out on his third, lowering his hand to the ice to retain balance. Then he rattled off three more in a fashion only Chen can. The tension that filled up the ice arena Friday was gone. For a split-second after he stuck his first of eventual six quads, even Chen himself seemed surprised.
It’d been such a nightmare start, two short programs, no clean landings, a cascade of expectations.
He’d kept his game-face on for so many months, through mixed zones after performances on different continents, but the teenager finally admitted in front of a group of reporters that the Olympics are a different beast.
“As much as I tried to deny it,” he said, “I think I did feel the pressure a lot before the short program, especially thinking about medals and placement and all of that, things that were completely out of my control.”
There’s the reason for why Chen was a shell of himself the first week here at the Olympics. He was tightened up by the suspense surrounding him, thrust into the spotlight as one of America’s breakout stars of Pyeongchang. He was skating with fear out on the ice. That, he said, is not a way to skate. He changed up his quad arrangement last minute in the short program, later admitting it was a mistake.
He let go of fear and score calculations and hope Saturday and turned in the sort of historic outing he is always capable of. Buried so low in the standings allowed him to forget and allowed him to “be myself.”
“I didn’t want to play it safe today,” he said. “If I made a couple mistakes, so be it.”
When he finally skated to a halt at center ice, Chen panted heavily, the crowd rising to its feet to celebrate the momentous moment. He placed his hands on his face, both proud of his historic bounce-back, but also of regret.
“Just a mix of emotions,” he said. “Immediately happy that I did what I did, and kind of upset I did what I did with such a bad short program, and it won’t balance out.”
Four long years now await, and for the next four years, Chen will be asked about how he managed to turn in such a breathtaking performance with the stakes suddenly lowered so low to the ground. Next is Beijing in 2022, where the NBC storyline will gain serious momentum as the son of Chinese immigrants — Chen’s mother, Hetty Wang, was born in Beijing.
“Who knows what’ll happen in four years,” he said when asked if he’d thought about the 2022 Games at all yet. “It would be cool to be able to go to that Olympics.”
The phenom was further groomed, in a sense, at these Olympics, where he learned that potentially the only way to tap into that unbeatable well of talent is to not minimize what’s in front of him. Instead, he turned and faced it, and with nowhere to go but up, picked his skates off the ice over and over and over again, transforming back into himself.