Beijing • Nathan Chen swiveled his way across the ice, a swirl of motion amid swirls of red light.
His tuxedoed performance at Sunday’s figure skating gala, set to the festive “Caravan,” didn’t steal the show among a “Rocky”-themed number and the graceful interpretation of “Ave Maria” by women’s gold medalist Anna Shcherbakova of Russia.
But it didn’t have to.
By the time he skated in the traditional lighthearted Winter Games wrap-up, Chen had already ensured himself a place of honor in his sport.
How high has he climbed? None other than Yuzuru Hanyu, the Japanese skater who won the previous two gold medals and is one of Chen’s biggest rivals and a close friend, put the Salt Lake City skater on a pedestal.
“He is such an amazing figure skater,” Hanyu, who finished fourth in Beijing, said Sunday through an interpreter. “I cannot put into words how good he is.
“I think he has all the good qualities that can be ascribed to a figure skater. I admire him because he can do a high, perfect jump all the time and it’s difficult for me to finish as perfectly as he does. I appreciate him more than anyone in the world, and I am eager to congratulate him on his success.”
Chen entered these Olympics with all eyes on him — and not just because he seemed to be on the TV during every commercial break. Figure skating fans wondered which skater would show up at Capital Indoor Stadium: the one who stumbled through his short program during the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang to tumble from favorite to 17th, or the one whose long program that same year was such a show stopper that it brought him back to the cusp of an Olympic medal.
They got a little of both. Made hungry by his shortcoming and confident by his comeback, Chen’s performances across the team event and through the men’s singles were sensational, even record-setting. And when it was all over, he had secured the gold medal, the one piece of jewelry missing from his trophy case.
He even earned praise from Sir Elton John, whose song “Rocket Man” was the soundtrack for Chen’s freeskate.
“I’ve mostly accomplished all the goals that I’ve wanted to accomplish in skating,” Chen told The Salt Lake Tribune a day after his golden triumph. “And I’m already very happy and satisfied with my career. So. It’s hard to say whether or not I will want to continue going.”
To be clear, Chen has not said he plans to retire. However, after he finishes the Stars on Ice exhibition tour, he plans to return to Yale in the fall. He took two years off of school to prepare for the Olympics and he told The Salt Lake Tribune he does not plan to train while he is there.
So, if this is the end, the question must be asked: What will Chen’s legacy be?
He said he hadn’t given too much thought. “I’m really proud of what I’ve accomplished already,” the 22-year-old said. “I’m glad that I’ve been able to have these opportunities and, you know, really appreciative of all the support I received to get these opportunities and to try to do my best with these opportunities, and I think that’s all that’s really important to me.”
Chen won two medals in Beijing, but he will only be leaving with one. The International Olympic Committee said it will not allow a medals ceremony for the team figure skating event to take place until the case of Kamila Valieva has been resolved. The 15-year-old now famously returned a positive doping test the day after she helped the Russian team win gold.
The American team, including Chen, filed a protest against the IOC’s decision not to hold a ceremony. On Sunday, the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled against that request. It is unclear when they will receive their medals or if they will be silver or gold.
“Of course we’re disappointed with that,” Chen said of the CAS decision. “And having had the opportunity to watch it with teammates and also having had the podium for myself, I know how special that moment is. So it, you know, hurts me to know that they won’t be able to have that here. But we’re hoping that this will be resolved.”
A team ceremony had been scheduled for Feb. 8 at the medals plaza but did not take place. The IOC later disclosed that Valieva had tested positive on Dec. 25 for the banned substance trimetazidine, which improves blood flow to the heart. The positive test was revealed the day after the end of the team skate and she immediately received a provisional suspension from the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA). That suspension was overturned a day later by that organization’s Disciplinary Anti-Doping Committee. CAS then allowed Valieva to continue to compete despite complaints from the IOC, the World Anti-Doping Agency and the International Skating Union.
She finished fourth in the women’s individual event, eliminating any controversy over a medals ceremony for that competition.
Chen said he feels a mixture of anger and inequity at the U.S. team being denied its celebration.
“I wanted to do my part to support the team, and everyone just skated so phenomenally. We all held our ground, we all did what we needed to do,” he said. “Coming here, competing here, obviously, but also everything leading up to the Olympics. And so certainly there’s a lot of frustration and disappointment with the decision.”