BEIJING (AP) — Scott Hamilton and Brian Boitano have been waiting more than a decade for someone to join them in one of the most exclusive clubs in American figure skating: Olympic champions.
The wait could be down to a day.
With one clean performance in Thursday's free skate, Nathan Chen will finish a four-year journey of redemption by winning his elusive Olympic gold medal at the Beijing Games. In doing so, he will become the seventh American men's skater to step atop the podium and the first since Evan Lysacek at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
“With his lead after his record-breaking short program, he doesn't even need to do what he normally does in his long program,” said Hamilton, the 1984 Sarajevo gold medalist. “But I'm hoping and depending on the fact that he will. He has to be himself in the free program, not worrying about anyone else in the competition.”
The reality for Chen? There isn't much competition, and there hasn't been for a while.
The 22-year-old Yale student has lost just once, last year at Skate America, since a poor short program at the Pyeongchang Games dashed his medal chances there. Chen has won three straight world titles since, his sixth national championship last month and, as if offended by that lone defeat, came back the next week to win Skate Canada.
It was on the brilliantly white ice of Capital Indoor Stadium, though, where Chen delivered the performance of his life.
On Tuesday morning in Beijing, and with millions watching on prime-time television back home, Chen skated off to the opening chords of “La Bohème” by the French-Armenian musician Charles Aznavour. For the next 2 minutes, 40 seconds, he soared through a pair of quadruple jumps, showcased uncanny nimbleness and grace on his step sequence and spins, and ultimately punctuated the performance with an uncharacteristic punch of the air when it ended.
“I have no idea what came over me,” he said almost sheepishly. “I don't generally do stuff like that.”
Indeed, nobody has done what Chen did during that short program: His colossal score of 113.97 points eclipsed the world record set by longtime Japanese rival Yuzuru Hanyu by more than two points, and left him nearly six ahead of his closest challenger, Yuma Kagiyama, heading into the free skate.
Where, by the way, Chen already holds the world record for his 2020 program at the Grand Prix Final.
“The thing I love about Nathan is that he's so humble about all of it,” Boitano, the 1988 Olympic champion, told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “He's not only like, the greatest skater of his generation, but he's such a great person and so appreciative of his opportunities. And it's funny, because I appreciate so much how amazing he is and how he's so great, but I don't know why I can't get past the humility he has and the way he appreciates his fellow competitors.”
That was evident hours after his historic performance in Beijing, when Chen was asked about a rare stumble by Hanyu that took the two-time defending Olympic champion out of medal contention.
“No matter what he does in the future, he will always, always be a true figure skating icon, one of the greatest ever, if not the greatest ever,” Chen said. “It’s been such an amazing honor to be alive at the same time as him.”
Turns out Chen's rivals are saying the same thing about him.
“Nathan had a perfect performance, and for any athlete, it would be extremely difficult if not impossible to win over him. I am not there yet,” said Shoma Uno, who sat in third place after the short program. "For me to beat Nathan Chen, I have to have highly motivated practice and prepare years before, just as I started to do this year.”
Yet you'd never know that Chen is on the brink of achieving his Olympic dream; his plans after his short program consisted of strumming his Stratocaster and doing laundry. Nor would you get much out of him by asking about his place in history, both because of his natural propensity for deference and his tunnel-like, here-and-now attitude.
So, leave it to others who'd know to put his greatness in perspective.
“Not since Dick Button has there been a skater so dominant,” said Hamilton, referring to the only two-time U.S. Olympic champ, who landed the first triple jump in competition and invented the now-standard flying camel spin.
“A lot of it has to do with both men revolutionizing our sport, taking the sport to new heights and forcing everyone else to catch up,” Hamilton said. “Button did that in 1948 and '52. He change the sport forever. With Nathan‘s proficiency on these extremely difficult elements, and the quality that goes along with that proficiency, he is easily the best in the world.”
Chen is the first to land five different types of quads in competition; the loop, toe loop, salchow, flip and lutz. He landed seven clean quads at the 2019 Grand Prix Final, two in his short program and five in his free skate, something never done before. And now, he holds the world records for the short program, free skate and combined scored.
Those last two records could topple Thursday, when Chen performs his entertaining “Rocketman” free skate. The program has five planned quads, two of them in combinations, set by to a medley of music by Elton John.
It should serve as both a celebration and coronation of the next American champion.
“Yet he's never considered himself anything more than a competitor on the same level as the others,” Boitano said. “When people say: 'Well, you've got this in the bag. You're going to win this for sure,' he never discounts their contribution to the sport. He never takes for granted that he's going to win anything. He's just a great guy that way.”
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