Beijing • For 10 agonizing seconds, Nathan Chen stood at the center of the ice at Capital Indoor Stadium while the opening strands of La Boheme played and the tension built.
The couple of minutes that would follow had the potential to spark something beautiful. Or, they could contain the seeds of disaster. Would Chen establish himself on the road to Olympic redemption. Or, would the pressures that cost him a medal in 2018 strike again?
Beauty won the day.
Chen looked lithe and graceful as he glided through the men’s short program portion of the team figure skating event, his first competition of the Beijing 2022 Olympics. Skating flawlessly, he recorded his best short-program score ever, a 111.71.
“It certainly feels good,” Chen, a Salt Lake City native, said of putting down a strong opening performance. “Anytime it’s to a good program, whether it’s in practice or competition, it feels good. So, you know, I’m pretty happy right now.”
The team event is the appetizer for what will be the main course of these Olympics: the men’s singles competition. That, of course, is where Chen will attempt to shake off the ghosts of the Pyeongchang Games — where he entered as the favorite but, following a cringe-worthy short program, failed to medal in that event — and claim the one medal that is glaringly absent from his proverbial trophy case.
Not that Chen is without an Olympic medal. The one he brought home from South Korea, a bronze, he earned in the team competition.
His teammates on Thursday included dancers Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue and the pair of Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier. The woman’s singles skater will be named prior to Friday’s competition.
Chen could also compete in the men’s free skate portion of the team event, which is scheduled for Sunday. Each team is allowed to swap out two skaters/pairs between the short program and free skate, however, so Team USA may instead be represented by Jason Brown or Vincent Zhou.
The men’s singles competition begins two days later, on Feb. 8 in Beijing, and the medalists will be finalized after the Feb. 10 free skate.
Chen said he didn’t feel as though he had exorcized any demons with his performance Thursday.
“I think you learn the most from your mistakes. And I certainly learned a lot from that competition, and I don’t think I would be able to be here where I am now without having had that experience,” Chen said of his 2018 short program. “So, you know, I think rather than that being a demon, and I think that was a very helpful learning experience.”
The man considered his main competition for the gold medal, Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, did not compete in the team program Thursday. Instead, Shoma Uno represented Japan. Uno positioned his country in second place with 105.46 points heading into the other portions of the competition.
Chen and Hanyu, the defending gold medalist, have been pushing each other for the past eight years as they added more and more quads to their repertoires. Hanyu has said his goal for these Winter Games is to be the first to perform a quad axel. Currently the quad lutz, which Chen effortlessly combined with a triple toe loop late in Thursday’s performance, is the most difficult jump in skating.
Chen said he appreciates having someone like Hanyu to push him.
“I’m honored to be alive at the same time with him. It’s pretty crazy what he’s doing,” Chen said. “And, you know, I’m looking forward to being able to see him again in person. You know, 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 certainly he has just been a great inspiration to me.”
Russia, which won the inaugural team event in 2014, is again expected to top the podium. Mark Kondratiuk had them in third following the men’s short program.