Skating after the two-time Olympic gold medalist, who some call figure skating’s Greatest of All Time, as the entire Saitama Super Arena shook for Yuzuru Hanyu and Winnie the Pooh bears rained on the ice from his Japanese admirers, Nathan Chen had every opportunity to lose his nerve.
Then the American delivered another performance of a lifetime.
Made to skate after Japan’s national hero, Chen channeled the arena’s euphoric energy into his own skate, successfully defending his world title and beating Hanyu for the first time since the fall of 2017, turning in a total score of 323.42, 22 points north of Hanyu’s 300.97.
The gold in Saitama caps a perfect season for Chen, which included three gold medals on the grand prix circuit, a third consecutive national title and this second straight world title.
Chen’s compatriot Vincent Zhou won his first world medal behind two brilliant skates, the 18-year-old joining Chen on the podium. It marks the first time that two U.S. men are on the podium at a world championships since 1996, when Todd Eldredge won and Rudy Galindo was third.
Jason Brown, second after the short program, suffered a fall on his opening quad Salchow attempt and then made a couple costly errors thereafter, placing 14th in the free skate. He would finish ninth overall.
Chen is the first U.S. man to successfully defend his world title since Scott Hamilton did so in 1983-84.
“I did not have the greatest skate in this arena earlier this season,” Chen said, a nod to the Japan Open event held in the same venue in October. “To be able to come back here and put out the skate that I did in front of this amazing crowd, it’s breathtaking to be here.”
Chen was fourth in the exhibition-style Japan Open almost six months ago but bookended his season on the same sheet of ice, and Saturday night created history with his technically gargantuan skate.
It was even that much more impressive coming after Hanyu, who for years has had support shown from fans by being showered with Pooh bears upon finishing his skates, the toy being a sentimental tie to his junior days of skating.
Chen wasn’t fazed.
“It’s always an honor to compete with Yuzuru Hanyu, and an even bigger honor to skate after him,” Chen told the in-arena crowd after he was named champion. “You guys were so loud, so amazing… I love that energy.”
Chen, 19, is in his freshman year at Yale and has used video chats and texting to maintain training sessions with his California-based coach, Rafael Arutunian.
Having admitted last year at worlds that he followed the live action on Twitter as he prepared to skate, he said he was doing so again before he took to the ice to skate, because, “I really like to know what's going on. It helps me prepare mentally for what I need to do.”
Once the Pooh bears were cleared and Chen was announced, he executed a breathless quadruple Lutz to open his chilling “Land of All” free skate. Then: A quad flip, a quad toe, a triple axel, a quad toe in combination and two more jumping passes, all given positive Grades of Execution (GOEs) by the judging panel.
While the roar from the crowd was not close to Hanyu level as he struck his final pose, it was clear: Chen would defend the title he won a year ago in Milan, which came weeks after his struggle at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, where he finished fifth after a botched short program.
It was because of that poor short performance that fans were robbed of any sort of true Hanyu-Chen showdown. We hadn’t seen one, in fact, since the Cup of Russia grand prix event in the fall of 2017, when Chen also topped the two-time Olympic champ. Hanyu missed worlds a year ago.
Zhou’s bronze is a rebound from 2018, when, after being third after the short program, he collapsed in the free to 19th, finishing 14th overall.
“I’m really proud of what I did today,” he told reporters.
This season has been one of focused improvement for the Colorado Springs, Colorado-based teen. After opening the year with a fifth-place finish at Skate America in a competition where he was marred with under-rotation calls on his quad jumps, Zhou took the judges’ notes and began to chip away, all the while working on improving his artistry.
He would place second behind Chen at the U.S. championships in late January, then third just a few weeks ago at Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, his first major medal as a senior on the international level.
Called for just two under-rotations on Saturday night, his quad Lutz-triple toe combo in the opening seconds of his free skate earned him nearly 20 points right off the bat.
“It felt incredible,” Zhou said. “Everything came together today. To have the opportunity to do that on such a big stage… I’m really proud of myself for staying in my own bubble.”
He added: “To end this experience like this is really incredible. I’m really honored to be competing in such a deep field.”
It was a deep field, indeed, with Chen and Hanyu leading the way, but also featuring Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno and former world medalists Mikhail Kolyada and Boyang Jin.
Uno, another home hope, fell twice in his free skate. He’d finish fourth.
Off the backs of strong free skates, China’s Jin would finish fifth and Kolyada, a Russian, sixth. Without a skater in the top 12, Canada, which hosts next year’s world championships, will have just a single representative in the men’s event.
Brown, a 2014 Olympian, missed last year’s worlds after finishing sixth at U.S. championships. He moved from Colorado to Toronto in the off-season to work with 1988 Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser and 1988 Olympic bronze medalist ice dancer Tracy Wilson (who also coach Hanyu and other top-level skaters).
It’s been a year of change for Brown, but his arrival in Saitama was reason enough to celebrate, then his surprise second-place performance in the short program vaulting him into the final group, in which he skated last.
After his fall on the quad Salchow – which was downgraded – he also singled a triple axel attempt in a shaky iteration of his spellbinding “Simon & Garfunkel” medley.
“I’m so proud of my growth this season,” Brown, 24, said. “This is not the performance I wanted to end on, but I’m really excited about the changes that I’m making… this is a glimpse of what’s to come.”
“I feel like I’m growing and adapting every day,” he continued. “That said, there is this excitement I have for what’s to come. I’ve seen glimpses of it… but I’m not near where I could be. I’m really excited.”
Brown gave a nod to the Team USA atmosphere in Saitama, particularly among the American men.
“I love these boys,” Brown said. “I’m really proud of them. It’s been incredible being with them. They push each other and they push me.”
Chen, who will return to class at Yale next week, said even he was unsure of what next season will hold. He will touch base with Arutunian and his team about plans moving forward, though said the Beijing Olympics are the ultimate goal, in 2022.
Hanyu – for one of the first times – also made a nod to 2022 and continuing to skate. Are we in for more head-to-head showdowns between the two greats?
“There are a lot of things I can improve on,” Chen said after Hanyu was asked about his quest for a quadruple Axel. “There's never going to be the perfect performance, but I would like to come as close to that as I can.”
He added: “I’m so proud of the U.S. for having two medalists. This competition was awesome.”
Awesome – a word which we can probably all view as an understatement from a now two-time world champion.