Nathan Chen recalls driving from his home in Salt Lake City to Rafael Artyunyun’s training camp in Southern California with his mother. He’d started just a few years before, borrowing his sister’s skates and sleeping in the van to pursue his Olympic ambitions.
On Thursday morning, ten years later, Chen sat with Artyunyun as his results were read, and that dream was finally achieved.
The 22-year-old Yale student won the gold medal at the Beijing Games on Thursday with a near-perfect free skate following a world-record-setting short program. He became the first American figure skating champion since Evan Lysacek in 2010, capping one of the sport’s most dominant four-year streaks.
“My mother and I were destitute as children. We didn’t have a lot of money,” Chen explained after the shock of his thrilling victory had subsided. “She would simply scrape together some money to try to pay Raf, and Raf obviously understood about the circumstances and was able to just keep letting me in and taking as much money as we could afford him, owing to the compassion of his heart.”
“I would constantly try to stick it in his pocket,” Chen claimed of Artyunyun’s attempts to return the money.
Chen was able to deliver something precious to his former instructor.
“I’m content. “It was so emotional,” Arutyunyan explained. “He figured it out.”
Chen landed all five of his quads during his “Rocketman” routine set to the soaring film music by Elton John inside the historic Capital Indoor Stadium in China, the country from where both of his parents came. The statistics and data science major ended with an unbeatable score of 332.60 points, only three points shy of his personal best and 22 points ahead of his nearest competitor. Japan’s Yuma Kagiyama and Shoma Uno won silver and bronze, respectively.
Chen firmly pushed any residual recollections of his heartbreaking sadness in missing out on a medal four years ago in Pyeongchang to the back of his mind.
Chen’s gold medal may not be the last he brings home.
The Americans, who finished second to Russia in the team event on Monday, were waiting for confirmation from the International Olympic Committee and the International Skating Union that the “legal issues” that were delaying the medal ceremony were related to doping allegations against their biggest star, Kamila Valieva. This might help the United States win the gold medal, which would be Chen’s second.
“I mean, I don’t feel like I’m the best person to talk about it,” Chen explained. “Whatever the situation is, whatever the case is, I’m still wrapped up in what I was able to do today.”
Last Friday, the Salt Lake City native contributed to the American team with a victorious short program. After doing his free skate on Sunday, Vincent Zhou, who was forced to retire from the individual event owing to a positive COVID-19 test, would also win a gold medal for the United States.
Chen and his Japanese competitors stood out from the rest of the competition during their short programs, when Chen broke the world record with a perfect performance to “La Boheme.” Kagiyama and Uno made just enough blunders on the rink during the free skate to smooth the way for Chen’s coronation.
Uno under-rotated a quad salchow and quad toe loop while performing to “Bolero,” one of the most popular musical selections at the Beijing Games, and was subsequently penalized for his combo spin late in the performance, finishing with 293 points.
Then there came the 18-year-old Kagiyama, who blasted his triple toe loop and triple salchow to music from the film “Gladiator.” It was still enough to earn a fist pump in the kiss-and-cry area and a score of 310.05 points, but not enough to put any pressure on Chen, who was skating across the calm ice as Kagiyama’s score was announced.
Chen flew through his initial quad salchow in front of a socially distant crowd in Beijing on Thursday afternoon, and millions at home on late-night television. He nailed four more smooth quads, with only a minor hiccup on a late combo routine, and couldn’t stop grinning as he seemed to reach for the skies.
“And I suppose it’s going to be a long, long time, ‘before touchdown brings me ’round again,” the words to “Rocketman” that played through the ancient home of ping-pong diplomacy sounded appropriate for the occasion.
Chen basked in the spotlight in the center of the rink before heading off to hear his scores, which had become a formality by that point. Chen’s longtime coach lifted his arm triumphantly when they were read.
Jason Brown, who finished sixth, stated, “He deserves it.” “Over the previous four years, I’ve had the opportunity to compete alongside him in every world championship, every national championship, and the Grand Prix.” There is no one who is more deserving of this honor. He put forth so much effort. He’s a freakishly gifted individual. I’m honored to be a member of the team.”
While Chen’s star shone brightly, his old hero and Japanese opponent seemed to fade into the background.
Yuzuru Hanyu arrived in Beijing with the goal of being the first male figure skater to win a third consecutive Olympic gold medal since Gillis Grafstrom in 1928. However, after missing the most of the previous year due to an ankle ailment, the 27-year-old struggled through his short program on Tuesday, thereby eliminating him from medal contention.
Only a go-for-broke try at the quad axel, a 4 1/2-revolution leap that had never been landed in competition, remained for Hanyu. He came close to landing but couldn’t quite hold on, then fell again on his quad salchow before an emotional end to what may be his final Olympic performance on ice.
Hanyu finished fourth, almost missing out on the medals, behind his two colleagues.
And, of course, in support of the newly crowned American champion.