Nathan Chen reacts with teammates following his skate in the Men's Single Skating Short Program Team Event during the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on Feb. 4, 2022 in Beijing, China.
BEIJING — A cool, collected Nathan Chen kicked off his second Olympic Winter Games with a bang on Friday, performing his highest-scoring short program ever to help give the U.S. figure skating team an early lead in the Olympic team event.
Combined with strong showings from ice dancers Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue and the pairs team of Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, Team USA had 28 points to the Russian Olympic Committee’s 26 just shy of the midway point of the competition.
The team from China sits third with 21 points, while Japan is fourth with 20 points.
“It feels great to have a short program I actually skated well, at an Olympic experience,” Chen, 22, said with a small chuckle. “(I’ll) take as much as I can from this experience and take it day-by-day from here.”
Chen, along with every reporter in attendance, was thinking back to PyeongChang, where the skater botched all three of the jumps in his team short program, including a splat on a triple axel. Despite that disappointment, Team USA won bronze.
When asked whether Friday’s stellar routine exorcised a four-year-old demon, the three-time and reigning world champion demurred.
“I mean, you learn the most from your mistakes,” he said. “I certainly learned a lot from (PyeongChang). I don’t think I would be here where I am now, without having had that experience. So, you know, rather than that being a demon, I think it was a very helpful learning experience.”
Skating to the romantic “La Boheme” by the late French-Armenian singer Charles Aznavour, Chen looked slightly cautious to start, but quickly warmed to his choreography after landing his first jump, a quadruple flip.
After safely landing a triple axel, he executed the most difficult element in his arsenal — a quad lutz, triple toe loop combination — after the halfway point of the program, gaining bonus points.
Chen’s score, 111.71 points, eclipsed his previous high of 110.38, earned at the Grand Prix Final in 2019. His first place gave Team USA 10 points. In the team competition, countries earn points based on their rank order in the standings.
“Any time you skate a good program, whether it’s in practice or competition, it feels good, so I’m pretty happy right now,” Chen said, downplaying the significance of the occasion.
“I’ve certainly had a lot of competitions since (PyeongChang), so my routine hasn’t changed too much,” he added. “I didn’t change anything specifically for the Games, just stick to what feels good. Overall try to stay present, try to stay happy, try to enjoy this Games experience as much as I can.”
While Chen and other stars sizzled on the ice, the mood in Beijing’s Capital Arena was quiet and a bit somber, with more press and officials in attendance than spectators.
Skaters seated in the team boxes clapped along to their teammates’ performances but were a tad less raucous than at other team events. Due to COVID-19 precautions, organizers did not sell individual tickets, and the few fans in attendance could not shout or clap.
Two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan did not compete in the team short program. His compatriot, 2018 Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno, laid down a superb routine to earn 105.46 points for second place and nine points for Japan. Third place went to Mark Kondratiuk, who earned 95.81 points for his clean program and eight points for the ROC.
Want to follow Team USA athletes during the Paralympic Games Beijing 2022? Visit TeamUSA.org/Beijing-2022-Olympic-Games to view the medal table and results.
With ROC favored for gold, and Team USA and Japan expected to battle for silver, every placement is essential.
In ice dance, Hubbell and Donohue grabbed another 10 points for Team USA by edging ROC’s reigning world champions Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov, 86.56 points to 85.05, in the rhythm dance. Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri were third, earning eight points for Team Italy.
The three-time U.S. champions combined power and finesse in their program to Janet Jackson hits, gaining top marks for their lift and twizzles. Like Chen, their score is a new personal best.
Four years ago, in PyeongChang, Hubbell and Donohue arrived at the Olympics as U.S. champions but did not compete in the team event. That disappointment makes the opportunity in Beijing all the sweeter.
“We had a plan, we’ve been training exceptionally well, narrowing the focus and the margin of error for probably the last six weeks,” Hubbell, 30, said. “We knew to trust the training we did at home and not try to oversell it and convince anybody, just perform what we needed to perform and let it sell itself.”
“Over this past four years, we’ve really learned to believe in ourselves, regardless of how we are feeling or what the circumstances are with the ice, or audience, no audience,” Donohue, 31, added. “Opening up our Olympics this way is really an honor, and we’re pleased to take this kind of ownership of our partnership, our journey.”
The ice dance results are key to Team USA’s medal hopes. Japan’s team, Misato Komatsubara and Tim Koleto, placed seventh, earning four points.
Knierim and Frazier, too, rose to the occasion, skating a clean and fiery short to “House of the Rising Sun.” The 2021 U.S. pair champions opened with a powerful triple twist, landed their side-by-side triple toe loop jumps cleanly and smoothly executed a throw triple flip. Their 75 points was a new personal best, shattering their previous record of 70.15, and their third place added eight points to Team USA’s total.
Two pairs favored for individual medals in Beijing, Wenjing Sui and Han Cong of China, and the ROC’s Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov, placed first and second, respectively.
This is Knierim’s second time competing in the Olympic team event: in PyeongChang, she and husband Chris Knierim were members of the bronze-medal winning Team USA. After Chris retired in 2020, Alexa teamed up with Brandon Frazier, the 2017 U.S. champion with former partner Haven Denney.
“I have experience, but this Olympics is so different, and my partnership with Brandon is so different, and for me this is my first Olympics with Brandon, so everything feels authentic and new,” Alexa Knierim, 30, said. “Despite him not being at the last Olympics, he teaches me things to stay grounded and focused. It’s great to have that experience behind me, but we show up every day on our own path and journey, and it’s fresh for us.”
While ROC currently trails Team USA, the standings may change on Sunday when one of ROC’s dominant women take the ice for the short program. Japan, too, is strong in the women’s event.
Following the women’s short, the top five teams will compete in the men’s free skate, also on Sunday. The event concludes on Monday, with the five leaders taking part in women’s and pairs free skates, and the ice dance free dance.