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Nathan Chen says 'screw it' en route to Olympic history

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

GANGNEUNG, South Korea — He had fallen three times in the short program, blowing his Olympic hopes, crushing his dream for glory and embarrassing himself on the international stage. Nathan Chen had come here to seize a medal in individual men’s figure skating, maybe even gold.

After one day, he was dusting ice shavings off his costume and staring up at the standings from 17th place. It was hopeless. A nightmare. He laid down in bed, depressed.

“I didn’t care anymore,” Chen said.

So, he did what 18-year-olds are prone to do.

“Screw it,” he said.

He decided he would ramp up his long skate to historic level, pedal to the metal if there could be no medal. He would take the ice and attempt a routine never before attempted at the Olympics. It would feature six quads, a leap where the skater spins a full four times in the air. It’s the kind of breathtakingly difficult routine that no one still in contention would even fathom.

Chen figured if he was going down, it would be a blaze of glory.

“I literally had nothing to lose,” the Salt Lake City native said. “If I made a couple mistakes, so be it. I decided I was capable of doing it. Why not try it?”

He tried it. All six. He landed five. The other he needed to touch his hands to the ice. He was otherwise nearly flawless. The routine was astounding in the athletic ability it commanded and the courage it was based upon. This was the X Games coming to the skating hall.

The arena stood and roared. The judges scored it an absurd 215.08 — nine points higher than anyone in the free skate, including the eventual gold medalist. He astoundingly wound up finishing in fifth place, tops among Americans. Vincent Zhou finished sixth. Adam Rippon was 10th. It was a near impossible climb.

Yuzuru Hanyu took gold, making him just the first man since Dick Button (1948, 1952) to win back-to-back golds. Shoma Uno took silver — making it 1-2 for Japan. Spain’s Javier Fernandez took bronze.

Nathan Chen attempted six quads, landing five cleanly, in the men’s free skate at the Winter Olympics. (REUTERS)

For Nathan Chen, this was both salvation and something more. It was part shot across the bow to anyone who thinks he won’t live up to his potential. Yes, he’s still here and likely getting only stronger over the next few years and to go right into Beijing in 2022. By then, he won’t be a nervous, inexperienced teenager.

He’ll always live with the disappointment of that terrible short program, which followed a fall in the short skate portion of the team event, where Chen helped the U.S. win bronze.

It’s not that simple, though. Had he done better on Friday, he couldn’t have done what he did on Saturday. He would have been more conservative.

“As much as I tried to deny it, I did feel the pressure before the short programs thinking about medals and placement and things that were completely out of my control,” Chen said. “It tightened me up and made me really cautious out on the ice. And that is no way to skate.

“Being into such a low placement going into the long allowed myself to completely forget about expectations and allowed myself to be myself.”

As recently as last offseason, Chen scoffed at the idea of trying six quad jumps in a single long skate. While it can rack up massive amounts of points, each attempt requires immense energy and is fraught with danger. There are only a few skaters in the world who can land more than a couple in a routine. The brilliant Hanyu tried four quads on Saturday. America’s top finisher after the short program, Adam Rippon, didn’t attempt any.

Six?

Frustration and youthful gumption can be a heck of a thing, though. This performance was based on emotion, the emotion of failing in the short and the emotion of wanting to show everyone who he was and what he was capable of doing.

“It was sort of an anger thing,” he said.

Chen came here to contend, to skate in the fourth and final group with the best of the world. He had endorsements and hype and major expectations. Instead he found himself in the second group, playing off-Broadway. As way of comparison, in a sport where every tenth of a point matters, the guy who competed immediately after Chen’s 215.08 put up a 161.04. You just don’t see 54-point gaps in scoring from one skater to the next.

His score was so high, he remained in medal contention until the second-to-last skater performed. Yuzuru, the eventual champ, recorded only a 206.17 in his free skate.

Nathan Chen may never be able to forget what could have been here, the PyeongChang Games he wanted to dominate. At least there was this moment.

He picked himself up off the ice and decided that rather than cry and cower, he would dream bigger than anyone had previously dreamed.

Six quads? Screw it.

Redemption is a medal of its own.

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