BEJING (AP) – Utah’s Nathan Chen was not going to be denied this time at the Olympics.
Chen completed his four-year journey toward an elusive Olympic gold medal Thursday, following his record short program at the Beijing Games with a near-perfect free skate that earned him a standing ovation from supporters inside historic Capital Indoor Stadium.
The 22-year-old star, who grew up in Salt Lake City, landed all five of his quads during his “Rocketman” program, set to the soaring film score by Elton John, to finish with 332.60 points — just three off his own world record — and become the first American champion since Evan Lysacek stood on the top of the podium in 2010 in Vancouver.
Chen’s score easily outdistanced his two closest pursuers, Yuma Kagiyama and Shoma Uno of Japan, and put firmly in the past any lingering memories of his brutal disappointment four years ago in Pyeongchang.
“After I finished the last jump, I thought I was pretty much close to guaranteeing gold,” Chen said. “I was keeping track of what was going on, so I kind of had an idea. Overall I was just so happy.”
It might not be the last gold medal 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.
Chen did his part for the American team with a winning short program, and Vincent Zhou — who was forced to withdraw from the individual event due to a positive COVID-19 test — also would earn a gold medal for his free skate.
The suave, down-to-earth Chen and his two Japanese pursuers separated themselves from the rest of the field during their short programs, when Chen shattered the world record with a flawless performance to “La Boheme.” When they took the ice for the free skate, Kagiyama and Uno made just enough mistakes to clear the way for Chen’s coronation.
“I can’t even describe it,” Chen said. “You can’t imagine what it might feel like, but it’s just amazing.”
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 calmly skated across the placid ice as Kagiyama’s score was read.
With socially distanced crowd watching Thursday afternoon in Beijing, and millions watching back home on late-night TV, the young Yale student soared through his opening quad salchow. Chen landed four more effortless quads, his only slight bobble coming on a late combination sequence. He couldn’t wipe the grin from his face as the music finished.
He 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, it seemed to fade away for his longtime 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 him fourth, behind his two teammates.
And, of course, behind the new American champion.