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Nathan Chen soars to “Rocketman,” landing five quads to win Olympic gold

By Lynn Rutherford | Feb. 10, 2022, 5:29 a.m. (ET)

Nathan Chen reacts during the Men Single Skating Free Skating at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on Feb. 10, 2022 in Beijing, China.

 

Nathan Chen took flight at Beijing’s Capital Indoor Stadium on Thursday with a majestic free skate to the soundtrack of the Elton John biopic “Rocketman,” commanding the ice from start to finish and touching down to land five quadruple jumps. 

The result was obvious far before his 332.60 total score, a new world record, appeared on the jumbotron. Chen is an Olympic champion at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022.

“Everything is still a whirlwind,” Chen said. “I never thought I actually would be able to make this happen …. It’s always been a dream of mine, of course, but it’s a pretty daunting mountain.”

 

 

The 22-year-old from Salt Lake City, Utah is the seventh U.S. man to claim Olympic gold, joining Richard Button (1948, 1952), Hayes Alan Jenkins (1956), David Jenkins (1960), Scott Hamilton (1984), Brian Boitano (1988) and Evan Lysacek (2010). 

“I didn’t know it was that few,” the reigning three-time world champion said. “I don’t have too many words. I’m so thrilled. I can’t believe this happened.”

Chen won with two of the finest performances of his long career: a recording-setting short program on Tuesday that earned 113.97 points, and Thursday’s inspired routine to “Rocketman” that notched 218.63.

Opening with a superb quad flip, triple toe loop combination, followed by another quad flip, the skater was in firm control of every aspect of the program, which he first performed during the 2019/2020 season.  

 

 

It wasn’t perfect. Chen wobbled slightly on the landing of a quad salchow and was unable to execute the second jump of a planned quad toe, triple flip sequence. But the performance reached a dramatic zenith when he hit his most difficult jump, a quad lutz, and ended with a spirited hip-hop step sequence to “Bennie and the Jets.” 

“Halfway through my footwork, I was like, ‘You should probably smile a little more,’” Chen said. “Once that started happening, I was kind of grooving a little bit more and enjoying the program. Of course, once you’re done with the jumps, it’s quite a relief and you can start enjoying the footwork …. I almost tripped on a step because of that, so I had to lock back in.”

The skater, who rarely displays heavy emotion, hugged longtime coach Rafael Arutunian in the kiss-and-cry after hearing his marks. 

“Raf has always shared with me how much he wants to coach someone to an Olympic title,” Chen said. “To be able to have this moment and share it with him was really special.” 

The Georgian-born Arutunian, who coached in Russia before moving to California about 20 years ago, has trained Chen for more than 10 years. At first, the skater and his mother, Hetty Wang, drove from Salt Lake to California three or four times a year for lessons. 

“I’m honest …. And he likes to work with someone who is honest,” Arutunian said. “Not (someone saying) ‘Good job.’ I hate those words.”

Around 2012, Chen and his mom relocated so Nathan could train under Arutunian full-time. They now live in Irvine, where Arutunian trains his pupils at Great Park Ice.

“I ran my last 100 yards, all my journey in figure skating, I did everything,” an emotional Arutunian said, referring to his work with Chen. “I can (exhale) and say, ‘That’s it, I’m done, I did it, I made it.’”

The coach, a renowned jump expert who also coaches U.S. women’s champion Mariah Bell, knew he had a special student in Chen when the youngster convinced his mother to move to California.

“An 11-year-old boy – then, I knew it was a chance (for Olympic gold),” he said. “When they were sleeping in a car and came to practice. Whenever his mom would give me money in this hand, and I would take it in (my) hand, and give it back to (Nathan), that means something. So, I knew it …. I knew he was a good boy.”

“I would always try to stick it (back) in his pocket,” Chen said.

After Tuesday’s short program, Chen entered the free skate with a lead, but one that Japan’s Yuma Kagiyama, 5.85 points back, and Shoma Uno, 8.07 points back, could overcome if he had faltered.

Both had solid skates but did not match Chen’s brilliance. Kagiyama, the reigning world silver medalist, won silver with 310.05 points. Uno, winner of the silver medal in PyeongChang 2018, took bronze with 293 points.

Bidding to become the first skater to land a quadruple axel, two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu landed the jump short of its four-and-a-half rotations and fell; he also fell on a quad salchow. Still, the rest of his program was strong, and he placed fourth.

Chen told reporters that while he was aware of his rivals’ difficulties, he did not allow the knowledge to impact his preparation.

“It’s okay, they did this, but I still need to do what I have to do, to the best of my abilities,” he said.

For the past year or so, Chen has worked with a sports psychologist, and has talked with him frequently during his time in Beijing. The skater credits it with helping him focus on the tasks at hand.

“When you prepare for competition, you try not to think of any variables,” he said, adding, “You think, ‘I have to land these jumps, I have to focus in on these details my choreographer tells me about, I have to think of spin levels …. The rest of the noise, stays noise.”

With that mental strength -- plus four years of additional international experience – Chen tossed aside the disappointment of PyeongChang 2018, where a 17th place short program took him out of the running for an individual medal. 

“In 2018, I just didn’t have any (senior international) experience,” Chen said. “I had only gone to one worlds (in 2017), and that worlds didn’t go well. (He placed sixth.) The only other experience I had internationally was (2017) Four Continents, and that went pretty well, but I think it elevated me to a point where I was, ‘Oh crap, I have a chance.’”

Staying loose before competing also helped: Chen and training partner Mariah Bell, the U.S. women’s champion, tossed a football back-and-forth in the warm-up area prior to Chen’s free skate.

“We didn’t say anything about skating, we were just talking about non-skating things,” Bell said. “We were talking about the football he had, it’s like a youth size, but it’s huge …. I don’t bring anything up. He tells me, what he tells me.”

“I probably throw a better spiral,” she added. 

Jason Brown skates during the Men Single Skating Free Skating at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on Feb. 10, 2022 in Beijing, China.

 

Sitting sixth after Tuesday’s short program, Jason Brown performed a subtle, mature free skate to music from “Schindler’s List.” The 2015 U.S. champion, seventh at the world championships last season, landed seven triple jumps, including two triple axels, but was one of only four of Thursday’s 24 competitors that did not try a quad.

Still, Brown’s strong program component scores – second only to Chen’s – helped earn him 184 points, a new personal best, and he finished sixth with 281.24 points. The 27-year-old from Highland Park, Illinois was ninth in the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014.

“Emotionally, I wanted to do (a quad) so badly,” Brown, who landed a quad salchow earlier this season, said. “But the numbers weren’t adding up, in terms of the amount I was landing, versus not landing. At the end of the day, it was one of those decisions.”

Instead, the skater and coaches Tracy Wilson and Brian Orser, who train him in Toronto, decided a clean performance showcasing the skater’s strengths – skating skills, choreography and transitions – would be more effective.

 

 

“For me, (sixth place) is as good as gold,” Brown said. “I couldn’t have asked for that. If someone had told me at the beginning that I could be top six, I would be, ‘That’s amazing, deal’…. And to get two new personal bests, it’s the cherry on top.”

The third member of Team USA, Vincent Zhou, was a member of the medal-winning team event squad but withdrew prior to the individual event due to a positive Covid test.

Lynn Rutherford

Lynn Rutherford is a sportswriter based out of New York. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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