The last four years were a quest for redemption for his shambolic short program in PyeongChang. Three consecutive world titles had proved his worth beyond dispute. But what Nathan Chen needed for fulfillment could only be achieved atop Olympus.
And so he closed the circle Thursday in Beijing, blowing away a trio of Japanese rivals, including Yuzuru Hanyu, the two-time defending champion, to win the gold medal that had eluded the American men for the last dozen years.
“It means the world,” said Chen after he’d beaten teenager Yuma Kagiyama by more than 22 points with a brilliant free skate featuring five quadruple jumps. “I’m just so happy.”
So now that he has checked the final box at 22 — what’s next? Does Chen continue for another quadrennium and go for a repeat in Milan? Or does he resume his studies at Yale, earn his diploma in statistics and data science, and move on to a world without salchows?
That was on his mind last fall, months before he made the US team for the second time. “There is a life outside of skating and at some point in time in the near future I will have to take a step away,” Chen said. “I won’t be able to skate for the rest of my life.”
What Chen learned during the last two years is that the most carefully crafted career plan can be upended by circumstance. The 2020 world championships were scuttled by the pandemic, as were the last two Grand Prix finals.
This season Chen and his teammates and rivals had to compete amid a global COVID surge and hope that they didn’t test positive en route to or at the Games as Vincent Zhou did after the team event and had to miss the men’s competition.
“Every single day is a new day, every opportunity is a new opportunity, every competition is going to be different,” Chen concluded.
What he most wanted was for this competition to be everything that the 2018 Games weren’t. His short program that year, which buried Chen in 17th place, was almost comically bad. His long program, which he won easily over Hanyu, was astounding and it pulled him up to fifth.
That was the last time that Chen lost an event until last autumn when Zhou beat him at Skate America, which was more a case of Chen beating himself with sloppiness. When he’s up to the mark, nobody is in his class.
“Nathan had a perfect performance,” said bronze medalist Shoma Uno after Chen won Tuesday’s short with a record score. “For any athlete, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to win over him. I am not there yet.”
Hanyu, who missed the entire international season with a cranky ankle, knew that he had to shoot the moon in the free skate after his flawed short dumped him into eighth. So he opened his program with the quadruple axel, which neither Hanyu nor anyone else has landed.
“No matter how hard, no matter how unimaginable, I want to push a little bit more for those who have expectations in me,” he said.
Hanyu splattered the axel then fell on his quad salchow. Uno messed up two quads. And Kagiyama stumbled out of his quad loop. All Chen had to do was remain upright, and he did much more than that, hitting all five quads including a spectacular lutz. His final choreographed sequence doubled as a victory lap.
“I never really felt I’d be able to make it this far in my career,” Chen said. “I’d always dream about making the Olympics and winning the Olympics. But I thought: That’s hard. I don’t know if I can make that happen.”
With the Olympic gold medal around his neck, Chen has nothing more to prove. He has won six national crowns, the most since Dick Button. He has claimed the last three world titles, which likely would have been four but for the COVID cancellation.
Does he want to go up against even younger men at a third Games? Is he game for taking on wonderboys like Kagiyama or Ilia Malinin, the skywalker who wasn’t chosen for the US team despite finishing second to Chen at nationals?
Hanyu is a cautionary tale about what can happen when a champion hangs on for an Olympiad too far. He could have called it a career after PyeongChang, but he still was making world podiums, still contending. And Hanyu’s still a god back home.
“No matter what he does in the future he will always be a true figure skating icon, one of the greatest ever, if not the greatest ever,” said Chen. “It’s been such an amazing honor to be alive at the same time as him and be able to witness what he’s been able to do on the ice.”
Chen now has become the icon, the gold standard. He has conquered the icy world that he first entered at 3. But there are other worlds that intrigue him, like the Gothic confines at Yale.
“It’s really cool being around people who are not skaters, people who have serious ambitions that are beyond my scope of understanding,” Chen said before the season. “It’s inspirational to see that.”
It may well be that he goes back to New Haven and never laces up again. If so, Chen will leave the sport with a full resume. His grade at Olympus is a straight A.