BEIJING (AP) — Nathan Chen completed his four-year journey to an elusive Olympic gold medal Thursday, building upon his record short program at the Beijing Games with a near-perfect free skate that left his longtime coach speechless and earned a standing ovation from the small crowd inside historic Capital Indoor Stadium.
The 22-year-old Yale student landed all five of his quads during his “Rocketman” program, set to the soaring film score by Elton John, and finished with 332.60 points — just three off his own world record — to becomethe first American champ since Evan Lysacek stood on the top of the podium in 2010 in Vancouver.
Chen’s score easily outdistanced his closest pursuers, Yuma Kagiyama and Shoma Uno of Japan, and put firmly in the past any lingering memories of his brutal disappointment of finishing out of the medals four years ago in Pyeongchang.
“He deserves it,” said Jason Brown, who finished in sixth place. “I’ve gotten to compete with him over the last four years — at all the world championships, every national championship, the Grand Prix. There is no one more deserving. He worked so hard. He’s so unbelievably talented. I’m so proud to be a teammate.”
The gold medal might not be the last Chen takes home, either.
The Americans, who earned silver behind Russia in the team event Monday, were awaiting confirmation from the IOC and International Skating Union that “legal issues” holding up the medal ceremony were related to reports of doping linked to their biggest star, Kamila Valieva. That could ultimately elevate the U.S. to the gold medal, a second for Chen.
The Salt Lake City native, born to Chinese immigrants, did his part for the American team with a winning short program last Friday. Vincent Zhou, who was forced to withdraw from the individual event due to a positive COVID-19 test, would also earn a gold medal for the U.S. after he performed his free skate on Sunday.
The suave, down-to-earth Chen and his Japanese pursuers separated themselves from the field during their short programs, when Chen shattered the world record with a flawless performance to “La Boheme.” And when they took to the ice for the free skate, Kagiyama and Uno made just enough mistakes to clear the way for Chen’s coronation.
Performing to “Bolero,” one of the most popular musical selections of the Beijing Games, Uno under-rotated a quad salchow and quad toe loop, then was dinged for his combination spin late in the program to finish with 293 points.
Then it was the 18-year-old Kagiyama, performing to music from the film “Gladiator,” who popped his triple toe loop and triple salchow. It was still enough to score 310.05 points and earn a fist pump in the kiss-and-cry area, but not enough to add any pressure on Chen, who was calmly skating across the placid ice as Kagiyama’s score was read.
With a socially distanced crowd watching Thursday afternoon in Beijing, and millions back home on late-night TV, Chen soared through his opening quad salchow. He landed four more effortless quads, his only slight bobble coming on a late combination sequence, and couldn’t wipe the grin from his face as he seemingly reached for the sky.
The lyrics to “Rocket Man” that played through the old home of ping-pong diplomacy — “And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time, ’til touchdown brings me ’round again” — seemed positively fitting for the moment.
Chen basked in the spotlight in the middle of the ice, then headed off to hear his scores, which by that point were a mere formality. Once they were read, Chen’s longtime coach, Rafael Arutyunyan, raised Chen’s arm like a triumphant boxer.
While the spotlight shined bright as ever on Chen, who will not return to his studies in statistics and data science, it seemed to fade away for his longtime hero and Japanese rival.
Yuzuru Hanyu arrived in Beijing aiming to become the first men’s skater since Gillis Grafstrom in 1928 to win a third straight Olympic gold medal. But after missing most of the past year to an ankle injury, the 27-year-old struggled through his short program on Tuesday, essentially taking him out of contention for a medal.
All that was left for Hanyu was a go-for-broke shot at the quad axel, a 4 1/2-revolution jump that has never been landed in competition. He came close, but couldn’t quite hold onto the landing, then fell again on his quad salchow before an emotional finish to what could be his final performance on Olympic ice.
His score left Hanyu in fourth, just out of the medals behind his two teammates.
And, of course, behind the new American champion.
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