PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — When Nathan Chen’s dream devolved into a nightmare, the extraordinary figure skater responded in very typical teenage fashion.
The 18-year-old Salt Lake native shunned everyone but his mom, locked himself in his room and wrestled with disappointment, frustration and anger until he fell asleep.
When he awoke, the boundary-pushing, gold-medal contender resolved that his first Olympic experience would not be defined by regret. So he went out on the ice at the packed Gangneung Arena and attempted what no other male figure skater has at the Olympic Games — six quadruple jumps.
“I was like, well, I’m not going to play it safe today,” he said after landing five of those cleanly and scoring a personal best by more than 11 points (215.08), a remarkable feat considering his disastrous short program performance just a day earlier. “I literally had nothing to lose, so if I made a couple of mistakes, so be it. But I decided, you know, I was capable of doing it, and I might as well just try it. … I definitely did want to redeem myself after the two short programs, and I think I did that here.”
Redemption did not come in the form of a medal, as Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu became the first male figure skater to earn back-to-back Olympic gold medals, since Dick Button in 1952, with a remarkable comeback from injury. His long program earned him 206.17 points for a combined 317.85 points. His teammate Shoma Uno finished with silver, earning a combined 306.90 points. Javier Fernandez, of Spain, claimed bronze with 305.24 points.
Finishing in fifth place didn’t concern Chen.
His battle wasn’t with the other competitors, judges or even critics who say the focus on quads is hurting the sport’s artistic quality.
His battle was with the weight of his own desire, and he won that by risking what no one else ever had in the Olympics — and doing it with just one small mistake.
“I’m really happy that I was able to end my Olympic experience like that, with that long program,” he said of the 127.64 free skate score, in what was the most relaxed interview he’s offered since arriving in South Korea. “I was really worried that it would just be like the short programs, but I think having such a rough short program allowed me to just forget about expectations and just allow myself to really enjoy myself.”
He said he didn’t consult with anyone, even his coaches, before deciding he’d add a sixth quad.
“It was something that was almost a game-time decision,” Chen said. “I knew that I literally had nothing to lose, so I decided to just try it. … I definitely did want to redeem myself after two short programs, and I think I did that here.”
Chen was partly motivated by a decision to try to simplify his short program, in which he fell and made several mistakes that left him in 17th place heading into Saturday’s free skate.
“I changed in the short program the second flip to a toe, and that was just a dumb mistake,” he said. “And I was like, ‘Well, I’m not going to try and play it safe today.’ I literally had nothing to lose, so if I made a couple of mistakes, so be it.”
The teen, whose entire stoic family watched from the stands, admitted that the pressure of skating for a dream was just too heavy a burden to bear.
“As much as I’ve tried to deny it, I think I did feel the pressure, a lot,” he said. “Before the short program, thinking about medals and placement and all of the things that are completely out of my control, that just tightened me up, and made me, you know, really cautious on the ice, and that’s not the right way to skate.”
He said Friday’s heartbreak offered him freedom.
“I just allowed myself to completely forget about expectations and just allow myself to be myself. I am glad I was able to show myself, and show everyone, that I can bounce back from a bad performance. And honestly, I am human. I make mistakes.”
Chen was in completely unfamiliar territory after his back-to-back mistake-ridden short programs — one in the team event and then Friday’s individual competition. He said he thought about talking to others for advice on how to deal with it, but admitted he actually only consulted with his mother.
“She just told me, you know, tomorrow is a new day,” he said. “Just attack everything and fight for everything. She’s sort of saying, this isn’t who I am. So just go for everything.”
Chen said he found social media full of messages of encouragement and support.
“It means a lot,” he said, admitting he wasn’t active as he trained for his Olympic moment, just “sort of lurking.”
His fearless comeback catapulted him to the top of the leaderboard by more than 40 points until the final group of competitors.
One by one, with the exception of Canada’s Patrick Chan, the skaters offered masterful, nearly flawless programs and bumped him off the podium.
But that was what Chen expected would happen, and, for once, he really wasn’t worried about what other competitors might do and how judges might compare their accomplishments with his.
From letting his teammates down to sabotaging himself, Chen said, he's learned a lot throughout his pursuit of Olympic glory.
"Just don’t give up,” he said. “I can’t decide the results, but I can still put my best foot forward and try the best I can.”
He said his Olympic experience is a mixture of unique, life-changing highs and devastating lows.
“I can’t even explain it,” he said when asked about it. “It’s not necessarily happiness. I’d say, I’m very satisfied and very fulfilled with this experience. I am glad that I was able to end it like this. I was really disappointed with the start.”