While 30 men took to the ice at Capital Indoor Stadium in Beijing on Feb. 8 for the men’s short program in figure skating, the focus was on the four skaters most likely to earn a spot on the Olympic podium.
When it comes to gold, however, there are only two: American Nathan Chen and Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu. Hanyu is the reigning Olympic champion, and Chen is hungry for the only hardware that he is missing from his collection of world and national championships after his fifth-place performance in Pyeongchang.
When the event was over, just one stood apart. Chen skated a nearly perfect program, full of technical prowess and emotion, which set a new world record and easily vaulted him to first place. Hanyu popped a planned quadruple jump and lost valuable points, which landed him in eighth overall.
Heading into the free program, Chen now finds himself in a very different place than he did in 2018. Four years ago, mistakes in his short program pushed him to 17th. This time, he has a comfortable 5.85 point cushion over his next competitor. Hanyu could still be a threat, but Chen has definitively established that he is the quad king at these Games.
Chen will lead the top 24 scoring skaters on to the free program, which will be held on Thursday.
The 22-year-old’s redemption narrative was certainly a draw for the event, as was the anticipated face-off between the two skaters widely regarded as among the best ever in men’s figure skating. Hanyu’s decision not to fly into Beijing until Feb. 6, two days before his competition, only increased the anticipation. Reporters crammed into the practice rink beginning at dawn the day after his arrival, eager to catch the first glimpse of the Japanese star training on Olympic ice.
But they—and figure skating fans all over the world—had to wait more than three hours for Hanyu, Chen and the other contenders to compete. When Hanyu finally skated to center ice, he crossed himself and held his hands in prayer, as he does before every routine. His program was set to “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso” by Camille Saint-Saens, a piano arrangement that he chose because it conveys happiness.
Hanyu misses quadruple Salchow
Hanyu’s first jump, a planned quadruple Salchow, was only a single, and he received no points for it. But, he landed his quadruple toeloop-triple toeloop jump combination. “When I took off, I was [over] some hole [in the ice] maybe from some other skater’s toe loop or flip [jump] or something,” he said in explaining the missed jump. Because the short program is a tightly designed routine that includes seven required elements, the missed jump cost him dearly, and he scored uncharacteristically under 100 points, which put him in eighth place heading into the free program. “I have one more chance. I have lots of time with the music and many jumps in there so I can be my best [in the free program],” he said about his strategy to move up after the free program.
Chen couldn’t help but notice, but forced himself to put it aside and focus on his own upcoming routine. “When I heard that, I thought, ‘Stick to [your] game plan, nothing changes. Focus on what [you] can do, try to do the best [you] can. Scores, competitors—all this stuff is out of [your] control.'”
Hanyu’s Japanese teammate Shoma Uno followed, and executed a quadruple flip and the same quadruple toeloop-triple toeloop that Hanyu performed, although he put his hand down for balance on the second jump. Still, Uno’s quadruple flip and high scores for execution were enough to surpass Hanyu and put him in third overall.
The final and youngest member of the Japanese men’s team, Yuma Kagiyama, 18, skated in the final group with Chen. Kagiyama impressed with his free program during the team event, and didn’t disappoint during this skate. He started out with a quadruple Salchow-triple toeloop combination, followed by a quadruple toeloop. His playfulness to Michael Bublé’s “When You’re Smiling” also earned him valuable program component scores, including a perfect 10.0 for performance from one judge, and vaulted him into first of all the skaters at that point, ahead of both his Japanese teammates and the rest of the pack.
Chen’s record-setting program
But Chen was next. His maturity and experience immediately set him apart from the talented, but young Kagiyama. Chen opted for a familiar program, which he skated in the 2019-2020 season, but did not get to compete at world championships because they were canceled due to COVID-19. His comfort with the choreography showed, and was rewarded by the judges with not just a high technical score, but an equally impressive components score, which incorporates more subjective elements like interpretation of the music, skating speed and flow between elements. Chen earned six 10.0s in these categories from four different judges.
His choreographer, Shae-Lynn Bourne, says the two worked together to create a program specifically to showcase Chen’s “romantic side, his passionate side.”
“We wanted to weave the jumps into the performance, so it’s like a dream almost, and you don’t make people think that any moment a jump is coming,” she told TIME before the Games. Chen accomplished just that, mesmerizing with his speed and flow, and effortless leaps.
He may have made it look easy for anyone watching, but those jumps earned the highest scores of the event. Chen was the only skater of the four top contenders to choose the more challenging quadruple Lutz-triple toeloop combination. He was also the only one to back-load his program by doing the combination in the second half of the routine, where it earns bonus points since it’s harder to land jumps cleanly on tired legs.
Chen showed no signs of fatigue, and propelled himself into the air for a perfectly executed combination that earned a whopping 21.21 points, the highest score of any jump in the competition. It was enough to put him in first, and help him set another world record for the highest short program score, at 113. 97, beating the previous one set by Hanyu, at 111.82, in 2020.
Pumping his fist into the air after his final pose, Chen looked both relieved and determined to have finally performed the way he, and everyone else, expected him to on Olympic ice. “I’d say it [was] pretty close to my best,” he said about his performance. “Obviously there are always things you can improve on, there are always things you can do a little bit better, but overall I’m very happy.”
American Jason Brown closed out the competition. And while Brown does not compete with a quadruple jump, which means his base scores are automatically lower than those of the top contenders, his presentation and interpretation of the music are always draws—and his passionate skate to Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” was enough to place him in sixth, ahead of Hanyu.
Zhou out after testing positive
Missing from the competition was the Team USA’s Vincent Zhou, who withdrew on Monday after testing positive for COVID-19. In an emotional video posted to his social media account, Zhou expressed both shock and sadness at having his Olympic journey come to such an abrupt end. “Hopefully I will have the opportunity to represent Team USA at the world championships, and I will be stronger then, I will be back better then,” he said. “This is not the end. This is a setup for a bigger comeback.”
Zhou is in an isolation hotel until he tests negative. His coach Tom Zakrajsek advised him that he should take a moment during the time he was scheduled to compete in the short program, play his music and visualize the short program he wanted to perform. “I was hoping that might be helpful to him,” Zakrajsek tells TIME. “He’s been killing it in practices here so I thought it might provide a tiny bit of closure.”
Zhou’s withdrawal was just another stark reminder of the enormous pressure facing all of the athletes competing in Beijing, in the middle of a pandemic. “It definitely brings people [on] edge, and I’m really, really upset for him,” Chen said. “We’ve been through so much together as competitors since we were very young, so to see that happen right before the short program is so tough.”
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