Even before the final beat of music in Nathan Chen’s short program, he knew he had done it.
Four years after a mistake-laden short program cost him a chance at an Olympic gold medal, he had done it.
After hitting two quadruple jumps — including one in a quadruple, triple jump combination — and dancing across the ice in his simple black tuxedo and white shirt to “La Bohème” by Charles Aznavour, Chen finished first in the short program. By a lot. His score of 113.97 points set him up perfectly for a shot at the Olympic gold medal that has eluded him.
When he was done with his program, Chen, 22, punched the air several times in a celebration that has been a long time coming.
At the 2018 Games, Chen skated back-to-back terrible short programs — one in the team event, the other in the men’s singles event. After struggling through his program, he ended up in 17th in the men’s event going into the free skate.
In the free skate, he decided he had nothing to lose and landed six quadruple jumps, instead of the five he had planned. That bold and gutsy performance lifted him to fifth place, just out of the medals. Since then, he has owned the sport as a three-time world champion who has lost just once since early 2018.
The gold medal will be decided on Thursday after the free skate (Wednesday night in the United States), and Chen’s main competition will be two Japanese skaters: Yuma Kagiyama, a former child television and movie star, who scored 108.12 points in the short program and is in second place; and Shoma Uno, one of only two skaters who has beaten Chen since early 2018, who has 105.90 points and is in third.
Kagiyama had the mostly Chinese crowd clapping along to Michael Bublé’s “When You’re Smiling,” as he skated a high-power, high-energy program. Uno, who skated to classical music, was just as stunning, but in a different way. He put his hand down on the second jump of his quad, triple combination, but it didn’t hurt him much.
The one Japanese skater that came into the Olympics as Chen’s rival — Yuzuru Hanyu — did not wow the crowd with his performance, as he usually does. And it came as a huge surprise. Hanyu, the two-time defending Olympic champion, finished eighth after popping his first jump, which was supposed to be a quad; he rotated just once instead of four times.
In a sparkly outfit that surely depleted the Swarovski factory of its clear crystals, Hanyu bounced back quickly to land a quad, triple jump combination and a triple axel during his artistically beautiful performance, but the missed quad cost him. He received 95.15 points and was far behind Chen at the end.
So much for the rivalry. Chen remains the man to beat.