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Nathan Chen struggles in short program, defending Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu makes a triumphant return

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Nathan Chen knew the Olympics would require the ability to deal with unique challenges.

The 18-year-old Salt Lake native just never suspected that one of the issues he'd be grappling with is how to come from the middle of the pack after another abysmal short program performance that left him in 17th place.

Though he repeatedly said he hoped to treat his first Olympic competition just like any other contest, it became clear after his two worst short programs of the season that hasn't been possible for the teen.

Chen struggled mightily in his short program Friday at the Gangneung Ice Arena , scoring 82.27, well below his season’s best.

In fact, his two short programs at the Pyeongchang Games are the lowest scores he’s earned in his senior international career.

"It was rough again," Chen said. "I still need some time to think about it. It happens and I guess I try to move on from here. ... I made as many mistakes as I possibly could have. Everything seemed right but there were little mistakes here and there."

Olympic schedule and results

As his short program ended, his fellow skaters took to Twitter to express heartbreak for Chen, who is well-liked and well-known for his relentless work ethic. Making his abysmal performance even more unbearable was the triumphant return of his Japanese rival when it comes to quads — defending Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu.

The 23-year-old suffered a severe ankle injury in November and it was uncertain whether he’d be healthy enough to compete in South Korea.

In a post-practice press conference earlier this week, Hanyu said it had been extremely painful to recover, but added that he felt confident he could defend his 2014 Olympic gold.

“I am confident that if I skate cleanly, I will definitely win,” he said.

No man has earned back-to-back Olympic gold medals since American icon Dick Button did in 1952, but Hanyu certainly looked capable Friday.

As his competitors perfected their programs in competitions, he had to watch from the sideline, hoping his ankle would heal enough to allow him to throw the quads for which he’s become known.

“That was really painful,” he said of not being able to compete. “There were two months where I couldn’t skate at all, and that was tough. I actually did kind of wonder if it would get better.”

Hanyu nearly equaled his season’s best, scoring a 111.68, easily taking first place. The top American was Adam Rippon, who didn’t attempt any quads, and finished with a score of 87.95, good enough for seventh place.

"I can’t explain,” Rippon said of his consistency. “I just feel like I am coming into my own. I am confident in who I am and in what I am doing. I am just having a great time, a great time.”

Rippon had a disastrous free skate at the U.S. championships and had to rely on U.S. figure skating officials to earn his spot on his first Olympic team. He had better international finishes than any other U.S. skater, except Chen, who went undefeated in the pre-Olympic season.

"I am just so excited that I have been able to skate so well these Olympic Games,” Rippon said after his short program. “To be here is like a dream come true and to come out here and perform and put on some of my best performances makes it even sweeter and even better."

California native and the youngest member of Team USA’s male figure skaters Vincent Zhou, 17, landed the first quad lutz in Olympic history in his Olympic debut. He also achieved a personal best, ensuring he would compete in Saturday’s free skate, as he finished in 12th place with a score of 84.53.

Zhou said making history wasn’t what motivated the inclusion of the jump.

"Part of it was just my starting order,” he said, acknowledging that other skaters will attempt the quad lutz in the competition. “But at the same time it's pretty cool to have that title. The quad Lutz is the most difficult quad currently achievable in our sport."

How to watch the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang

Zhou said he’s been focused on the competition, working very hard even while in Pyeongchang, to ensure he takes advantage of the opportunity his family has sacrificed to make possible.

"I am an ambitious person,” he said. “I've been training it very well. I have been adjusting and adapting to my new environments and experiences, and I have been working on all aspects of my skating.”

He earned a career best score, and said he still felt he had room to improve.

"I felt that it went pretty well and there were some things that were tight and a little bit stiff, because I was really nervous. Overall I skated well. I feel l performed well and did the best that I could.”

He promised that all of the American men would deliver a fight during Saturday's free skate.

Said Chen of moving on:

"I'll just talk to my team. I am not sure exactly what to do. I think I will just recover and try to do my best for the free. I thought I did everything right going into this, things just didn't click together."

Graphic: Utah natives competing in the Pyeongchang Games