GANGNEUNG, South Korea – Every sporting event has stories that could fill a book. The athletes’ tales make up the varied chapters, those of triumph and those too of heartbreak.
But men’s figure skating at the 2018 Winter Olympics was a saga unlike few we’ve seen – or read about – before.
There was the Yuzuru Hanyu, the comeback kid. There was Javier Fernandez, the one who finally got his wish. There was Adam Rippon, Mr. Congeniality. And there was Nathan Chen, the redemption story that was nearly a complete horror film, because not every sporting saga has a happy ending.
The event, however, started before it even began, with Chen’s disastrous short program in the team event over a week ago, and then the building chatter of “Can he do it?” “Is the pressure going to get to him?” The singles event was meant to be when he righted his 18-year-old ship.
Instead, he drove it into even rougher, darker waters.
“It was just really rough,” a blank-faced Chen told the camera after his short program on Friday, in which his once steel armored jumps suddenly appeared to be built from flimsy paper. The “Quad King” – as figure skating aficionados call him – couldn’t land the jumps that had built him into an Olympic contender.
He was 17th after the short program. He had won the last five events he skated in entering the Olympics.
Simultaneously, Hanyu, the reigning Olympic champion in men’s figure skating, was writing an unlikely fairy tale that thousands of figure skating-fanatic fans from Japan were devouring every step, spin, jump and subtle hand movement of.
The 23-year-old Hanyu, lithe, poetic, powerful and mysterious, had come into the Olympics on the complete opposite end of the spectrum as Chen: He hadn’t skated competitively since October because of an ankle injury. He had only been jumping for a few weeks before he left his training base in Toronto for PyeongChang.
“I want to give the skate of my life,” he told reporters at a press conference before he skated. The room was bursting at the seams with Japanese journalists.
He scored a 111.68 in the short program, one measly point shy of his best-ever skate and some 30 points ahead of Chen, who had registered a rock-bottom 82.27.
Fernandez, a two-time world champion, and Rippon, a first-time Olympian at 28, were on point in their short programs as well, registering close to personal-best scores. For the Spaniard that meant a chance at the podium he so narrowly missed in Sochi, when in the free skate he botched the jumping calculations in his head (adding an extra jump he shouldn’t have) and was fourth overall.
And for Rippon – who has become these Games’ quick-lipped quippy king – that meant a clean short that didn’t put him in medal contention, but with more reason to smile wryly and call out his list of ever-growing admirers, including Reese Witherspoon and Britney Spears.
Then came the free skate. First it was Chen, skating ninth and some two hours before his one-time rivals.
He was nothing short of brilliant, 18 at the beginning of the program but a man by the end it. Six landed quads is an Olympic record, five of them clean. His face quivered at the finish – and this is a kid who rarely shows emotion. The pressure was gone and the old (steel-cased) Nathan was back. He’d win the free skate by nearly 10 points and finish fifth. Imagine it: 17th to fifth. Heartbreak to redemption. Disaster to triumph.
The day – and the event – belonged to Hanyu, however. He was everything he had spent the last six years building himself to be and more. He botched just one jump in two breathless programs, the entire of the Gangneung Ice Arena living with his every move. This is perhaps the greatest skater of all time and most certainly of his generation. He couldn’t quit smiling at the end, and his legions of loyal fans threw hundreds of Winnie the Pooh bears onto the ice, his favorite cartoon character since he was a kid.
He’s the first back-to-back Olympic champion in men’s figure skating since American Dick Button, way back in 1948-52.
His countryman Shoma Uno was second behind a gutsy two days of quad-filled skating that involved just one fall. He talked of the quantity and quality of the quads he was doing. He’s barely over five feet tall but stood above nearly an entire men’s field that tried some 71 quad jumps the last two days, up from 17 just four years ago in Sochi.
Fernandez’s bronze is the first in figure skating for Spain the country’s history, and just the fourth Winter Olympic medal in its history, two days after Regino Hernandez won bronze in men’s snowboard cross. He said this was his last Olympics. The affable 26-year-old also said he couldn’t have done it without his Toronto training partner, Hanyu, the two sharing Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser as a coach.
Another quad master, China’s Jin Boyang, was fourth. With Chen in fifth, it was his 17-year-old American teammate Vincent Zhou who would finish sixth. The youngest member of the U.S. Olympic Team rose from 12th in the short program behind his own four-rotation attack plan. He collapsed to his knees at the conclusion of his free skate, overcome with emotion.
Imagine what he and Chen could do in Beijing in 2022.
In what many imagine to be his final Olympic outing, 2014 silver medalist and three-time world champion Patrick Chan was ninth. He had bobbles in both his short program and free skate.
While the last word here belongs to Hanyu, it was still a men’s event that had every angle covered. The best part? The guys finished with a bang in South Korea, compared to a fall-filled, splat-fest free skate four years ago at the Sochi Games.
That’s an ending the sport – and its fans – can agree upon.