Nathan Chen reacts following his free skate at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on Feb. 17, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea.
GANGNEUNG, South Korea – Six was not quite enough.
With a unprecedented – and very bold – six quadruple jumps, Nathan Chen shoved aside thoughts of “what might have been” and still made his mark on the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
Scoring an American and Olympic record of 215.08 points, the highest score Saturday in the men’s singles free skate, Chen pulled himself up from 17th after the short program to fifth at his first Olympic Games.
“I definitely did want to redeem myself after the two short programs, and I think I did here,” said Chen, who had come into Gangneung Ice Arena undefeated this season and as a medal favorite.
Chen, 18, had also struggled with his short program in the figure skating team event, in which Team USA won the bronze medal on Feb. 12.
“As much as I tried to deny it, I think I did feel the pressure a lot before the short program,” Chen said, “especially thinking about medals and placement and things that were completely out of my control. That just tightened me up and made me really cautious out on the ice and that’s not the right way to skate.
“Being in such a low placement going into the long, I just allowed myself to completely forget about expectations and just to be myself.”
Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan became the first men’s skater since Dick Button of Team USA in 1948 and 1952 to win back-to-back Olympic titles. Hanyu finished with an Olympic record of 317.85, followed by teammate Shoma Uno, who edged Javier Fernandez of Spain, 306.90 to 305.24.
Thanks to his record six jumps, Chen finished with 297.35 points. He scored almost nine points higher on his free skate than Hanyu, who landed four quads.
Vincent Zhou, the youngest member of Team USA at age 17, was sixth with 276.69 while 28-year-old Adam Rippon was 10th (259.36). All three Team USA skaters finished in the top-10 for the 15th time in Olympic history.
“It rocks,” Rippon said of his Olympic experience in which he skated three clean programs. “I feel so happy with what I did. I’m so proud. And you know, I’m so proud of my young teammates, too. They are the future. They are amazing young kids and I’m so inspired by them and so grateful to be on this team with them.
“I had the time of my life and this whole Olympic Games has been a wild ride.”
Chen, who last year became the first skater to land five quads in a program, had originally planned five for his free skate Saturday.
But after his two disastrous short programs, in which he made mistakes on almost all of his jumps and scored in the low 80s – about 20 points lower than expected – Chen decided he was going to show he truly was the “Quad King.”
“It was sort of an anger thing,” he said. “I was just like, ‘Oh screw it, I’m going to try it. At this point I have literally nothing to lose. I’ll just go for it.’ And then I was like, ‘Well I can’t think about that right now. I can’t dwell on it. I’ll readjust in the morning, rethink about it.’”
Chen said his morning practice was too early to try all the quads, so he didn’t show his hand. The sixth quad even came as a surprise to his coach, Rafael Arutunian.
“That was me,” Chen said. “I didn’t even tell him I was doing that.”
Five of the six quads were clean, as Chen put his hands down on the ice on a quad flip, his extra jump.
The sequence of quads in his program was quad lutz, quad flip/double toe combination, another quad flip, quad toe/triple toe combination (which garnered 17.63 points), another quad toe and a quad salchow.
Chen also was successful on his triple axel, which has given him trouble this season.
“I’m glad I was able to show myself and show everyone else that I can bounce back from a bad performance,” said Chen, who said he went straight back to bed after his short program trying to figure out what went wrong. “And honestly, I am human, I make mistakes. Unfortunately, I had been having a really bad time. But I’m really happy with what I did here.”
Chen said that he received encouragement via social media and as he began skating Saturday, he was greeted by shouts of “Go Nathan!” and cheering.
After he finished his performance to “Mao’s Last Dancer,” Chen squeezed his eyes shut at center ice.
He said he had mixed emotions. “Immediately I was just happy that I did what I did and then kind of upset that with such a bad short program it won’t balance out.”
It almost looked like he could sneak in for a medal.
After Chen skated in the second group of six, he was in the lead until the fourth group – composed of the top six – took the ice. Chen held onto the lead after Dmitri Aliev, an Olympic Athlete from Russia, skated, but then Jin Boyang of China, overtook him. Next up was three-time world champion Patrick Chan of Canada, and he had a supbar performance to drop below Chen.
But Hanyu, Fernandez and Uno skated true to form to capture the medals.
Before Chen could completely process what had happened, he was asked about the next Olympic Winter Games in Beijing in 2022.
“Who knows what will happen in four years?” he said. “It would be cool to be able to go to that Olympics. My mom was born in Beijing, so I think that’d be really cool to have her there. Right now I take it day by day.
“I’m glad that I was able to have this ending like this. I was really disappointed at the start, but being able to end it like this was really something.”
Zhou stayed right behind Chen in the final rankings, although he was more than 20 points behind.
Zhou, who became the first skater to land a quad lutz in Olympic competition in the short program a day earlier, attempted five quads and landed three for a score of 192.16. He pulled up from 12th to sixth.
“That was the best skate of my life in competition,” Zhou said. “I gave it everything I had and there’s nothing more I could have asked for myself.”
He said when he finished his program to music from the “Moulin Rouge” soundtrack, he felt “absolute elation. It’s such an incredible feeling when all of the time that I’ve spent putting effort into my dream and to go out there and skate like that, to go out and skate like that, it’s very emotional.”
“The weight of the world was on (Nathan),” Rippon said, “and Vincent, the future is out there for him.”
Although Rippon dropped from seventh in the short program to 10th overall and didn’t score as well as he did in the team skate, he was pleased with his performance to “Arrival of the Birds” by The Cinematic Orchestra and “O” by Coldplay.
“I think I’ve shown the world that I’m a fierce competitor, but I think I’ve shown them that I’m also a fierce human being,” he said.
As he skated off the ice, Rippon waved his arms to exhort the crowd to cheer more. American flags waved as well as a large rainbow flag.
“That was my friend Gus (Kenworthy) and his boyfriend,” Rippon said of the Team USA freestyle skier. “It was so nice that they came to the event and I’ll be cheering for Gus tomorrow. To have the support of my friends and family here in the audience, it means the world to me. I’m so glad that I’ve had this opportunity to share my story and share my skating and share who I am with the entire world.”
Rippon has been getting a lot of attention both in PyeongChang and back home, “I think just for being myself,” he said.
“One thing I want people to come away with from this competition is that I’m not like a gay icon or America’s gay sweetheart. I’m just America’s sweetheart and I’m just an icon.”
He’ll go home with his team bronze medal and recognition as one of the most famous members of Team USA.
“They usually say that after the Olympic Games, somebody’s life changes forever,” Rippon said. “And a lot of times it’s the gold medalist, but I have a feeling that my life has changed forever.”
And is that good? "Oh, yeah, it's good! It's great!"