BEIJING —Nathan Chen has been tugging on figure skates nearly every day of his life since he was 3, and often dreaming about moments like this one, on a sheet of Olympic ice, with the world at his fingertips.
He has been training for them, ritualizing the quad jumps and toeloops that have made him the best figure skater in the world, dedicating 19 years to the few minutes that could crown him or devastate him.
On Thursday, those minutes arrived, and Chen delivered.
Two days after a redemptive, record-setting short program here at the Capital Indoor Stadium, Chen leapt and spun to Olympic gold with a brilliant long program. He earned a 218.63, for a total score of 332.60, topping Japan’s Yuma Kagiyama by a whopping 22 points.
Skating to Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” he landed every jump, arms pumping and flowing as he went. He glided energetically, claps and cheers crescendoing, as each of 12 elements left increasingly little doubt. At the conclusion of his program, Chen shut his eyes, and brought his hands to the back of his head, elated and relieved all at once, absorbing his golden moment.
— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) February 10, 2022
He became the sixth American man to win a singles figure skating title at the Games, but just the second since 1988.
Everybody around him had known it would arrive. Mariah Bell, his teammate and training partner, said she knew “before he started.” His coach, Rafael Arutyunyan, said: “When we came to Beijing, I knew it already.”
Chen, though, was still taken aback. “I never thought I'd actually be able to make this happen,” he said. “It's a pretty daunting mountain.”
He made it happen, and climbed the mountain, and conquered those defining minutes, by realizing that they don’t define him.
Skating isn't everything
Four years ago, it did. He was 18 and marketed as Team USA’s Next Big Thing. His face was on cereal boxes, billboards and television screens. Expectations were golden, and they weighed him down.
His obsessiveness amplified pressure and became his undoing at the PyeongChang Olympics. He fell on the first jump of his short program, then stumbled on the second and third. With the world watching, he finished 17th. Medal hopes disappeared. The experience became everything he’d dreaded.
And what he realized, as early as the following day, was that for skating to be everything he dreamed of, it couldn’t be everything.
“Skating, while it is incredibly important, and the thing that I have literally done every single day of my life since I was 3, also is something that is just a passion project for me,” he said in October. “Skating's important, and that is what I've been doing, and that is what my life has been. But there is a life outside of skating.”
He enrolled at Yale and escaped his skating bubble. He met peers, each brilliant in their own right, who didn’t even know he was an Olympian. He learned about society’s flaws. About what brings him happiness.
“He's a completely different person now,” Bell said.
And not coincidentally, he stopped losing. He won a world championship a month after the 2018 Games, then again in 2019 and 2021. (The 2020 event was canceled by COVID-19.) For three years, until Oct. 2021, he stood atop every podium he sought.
But he didn’t focus on those podiums. Each competition became an opportunity to express himself and find joy. “When I'm able to adopt that ideal, I'm able to skate a lot better,” he said. “Or at least put myself in a position where I feel a lot more relaxed.”
Focus on Beijing
Pressure, of course, still existed as he prepared for Beijing. But it didn’t consume him. He aced his short program in the team event, and one-upped himself with a 113.97 in his individual short, giving him a nearly six-point cushion heading into Thursday’s finale.
Then he had 48 hours to kill, and more pressure than ever before to avoid.
Four years on from failure, though, with his “biggest demon” vanquished, he was calm as ever.
“The people around him,” Bell said, “were more nervous than he was.”
A year ago, Chen began working with a sports psychologist, and he drew on the psych’s teachings this week. He swore off social media, and stayed “within my own mental bubble.” He honed in on skating specifics, on jumps and “spin levels,” and “once you're able to hone in on these details, I think a lot of the rest of the noise is just able to stay noise, rather than creep into your mind,” he said.
And when he talked to people like Bell in downtime, they didn’t talk about the size of the moment. “We talk about skating a lot. But not today,” Bell said Thursday. Instead, they tossed a football in an arena hallway, and Chen, she said, “seemed cool.”
He then watched backstage as his competitors faltered. Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, the two-time defending gold medalist, struggled in both the short program and the free skate. Japan’s Shoma Uno, who entered Thursday in third place, fell midway through his free skate.
Kagiyama was good, stumbling once but rebounding to claim the top spot as Chen took the ice.
Chen, though, was far better. Tuesday was emotional. Thursday was businesslike, almost a bit too businesslike. Midway through the skate, he had to remind himself: “You should probably smile a little more.”
This, after all, was why he had put himself through so much agonizing work, why he’d endured the pressure, why he and his mom would drive 11 hours to competitions, and sleep in cars, even when financial constraints made flights and hotels unfeasible. It’s why they’d pay Arutyunyan, Chen’s coach of 11 years, money they didn’t really have.
He did all that to get here, to his mom’s hometown, to skate to gold, and as he did, he realized something that he might not have felt four years earlier.
“It was fun,” he said.