By Dave Skretta The Associated Press
GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Nathan Chen finally admitted the pressure of being the face of American figure skating got to him, winding him up so tight for his short program that it ended in what he described as a “disaster.”
All that pressure was gone for his free skate.
Out of medals contention and finally skating with a clear mind, the 18-year-old prodigy landed an unparalleled six quadruple jumps in a historic performance at the Pyeongchang Olympics. His personal-best score of 215.08 points Saturday was more than enough to win the free skate, and helped move up to fifth place.
Yuzuru Hanyu and Shoma Uno took the gold and the silver medals for Japan. Javier Fernandez of Spain won the bronze.
“As much as I tried to deny it, I think I did feel the pressure a lot, thinking about medals and placement and things like that, things that were entirely out of my control,” Chen said. “That just tightened me up, made me really cautious on the ice, and that‘s not the way to skate.”
Chen had been the best American hope for a figure skating gold medal at the Winter Games, becoming the face of not only U.S. Figure Skating but ad campaigns for numerous Olympic sponsors. His coy smile, youthful exuberance and uncanny ability to land the hardest four-revolution jumps in the sport made for an ideal marketing package of substance and charm.
That also put tremendous demands on his time.
Photo shoots. Interview requests. The constant attention and adoration that comes with the hopes of an entire nation resting on your shoulders. It all became a little much for him to handle.
That became evident when Chen struggled through his short program as part of the team event, which still helped the U.S. win the bronze medal. And it was on full display Friday, when he failed to land a single clean jump in the individual competition and fell to 17th out of the 24 skaters to advance.
Chen joked that he would have gone straight to the practice ice if there was any availability, but instead he retired to his room.
“I think after having such a disastrous short program and being so, so low in the ranking — lower than I usually ever am — it allowed me to completely forget the results and focus on enjoying myself out on the ice,” Chen said, “and getting rid of expectations helped a lot.”
Performing to “Mao‘s Last Dancer,” the two-time U.S. champion ripped off a quad lutz to start his program, then landed a quad flip-double toe combination before another quad flip.
That third one was originally supposed to be a triple loop.
After achieving level-four ratings on his spin and step sequence, the high-flying Chen landed a massive quad toe-triple toe combination before another quad toe and a quad salchow.
That‘s six quads in four variations, something never before accomplished in any competition.
“I had changed the short program, the second flip to a toe, and that was just a mistake,” Chen said, recalling his conservative approach to the start of his Olympic program. “I told myself I wasn‘t going to play it safe today and if I make a couple mistakes, so be it.”