Nathan Chen stood in the middle of the Olympic rink, folded his arm across his chest and bowed slightly to the judges, then quickly skated through his short program during the team competition at the Winter Games .
He might as well have said, “Aw, shucks. as different as an axel and a lutz.
He was perfect in Beijing: his huge opening quad flip to ”La Bohème” seemed almost to reach the rafters, his often awkward triple axel was flawless and the harrowing quad lutz-triple toe loop combination in the middle of the program is left him with the second-highest score ever in a short program in international competition.
He was anything but perfect in Pyeongchang, when a poor short program for the team event turned into a disastrous short program in the individual event, knocking Chen out of medal contention before he felt that he had arrived.
“It’s nice to be able to have runs like this,” Chen said after helping the Americans take a two-point lead over the heavily favored Russians after the first of three days of the team event. “Whatever you can take away from every practice, good or bad, you take with you, and it’s the same with competition.” He may have learned a lesson from bad South Korea, but it was fine in Beijing.
Chen has been nearly unbeatable since the Pyeongchang Games, winning three consecutive world championships, extending his national title streak to six and edging out his biggest rival, two-time reigning Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, each time they have walked on ice in the same competition.
In fact, Chen’s only loss came at Skate America last fall, when Olympic teammate Vincent Zhou edged him out for the gold medal. Chen rebounded by winning Skate Canada with the best score in the world for this season.
Chances are he can beat that mark in Beijing.
His short program in the team event looked flawless, but Chen is the first to admit things can always be a little better. He scored 111.71 points, six ahead of reigning Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno of Japan and just eleven hundredths off Hanyu’s world record, but was still well short of his own score at the national championships in January.
Chen’s short program actually topped 115 points, but it wasn’t a record because it wasn’t an international event.
The timing of his performance on Friday, however, was better. It propelled the Americans to first place in the team event, where they won bronze at the last two Olympics, and sent a charge through the rest of the American team.
“I watched Nathan kill him,” said American pair skater Alexa Knierim, “and on the contrary, it gave me a bit of excitement and calm because I felt that our country was collectively ready.” Knierim and his partner, Brandon Frazier, certainly were. Together they established the best short program of their careers, finishing just behind the world record of defending Olympic silver medalists Sui Wenjing and Han Cong of China and defending world champions Anastasia Mishina and Alexandr Galliamov of Russia.
Meanwhile, in the rhythm dance, Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue established themselves as medal contenders with a spectacular Janet Jackson-inspired performance that gave the Americans the maximum 10 points in their discipline.
“We have an incredibly strong team and everyone is the best prepared they’ve ever been,” said Madison Chock, who along with her ice dancing partner Evan Bates are captains of Team USA in Beijing. .
They are also expected to compete in the tag team event for Hubbell and Donohue at free dance time.
“Our team has great potential and it’s been shown,” Bates said. “I don’t necessarily think we’re surprised to be leading the team event. Looking at the roster, we know we have the potential to win gold.” Chen’s massive performance, coupled with their results in pairs and ice dance, leaves the Americans with 28 points going into Sunday’s women’s short program. The Russians are second with 26 points, while China (21), Japan (20) and Italy (18) are in position to challenge for the freestyle podium.
The top five countries after the women’s short program move on to the free skate, with the men kicking off with their program later on Sunday. The medals are handed out Monday after the ladies, pairs and ice dance.
The bigger question now is whether Chen will play in the team event again or the United States replace him – as they did in Pyeongchang – and place veteran Jason Brown or top flight Zhou in free skating.
Each advancing nation may make a maximum of two substitutions in its line-up.
“Anyway, it’s cool for me,” Chen said, dismissing any thoughts of resting before the individual competition, which begins immediately after the team event and where he will face Hanyu again. “We have a very strong team, so we have pieces to play with, and whatever piece is the strongest at that moment is the strongest piece at that moment.”
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