Is Nathan Chen for real? Has he been bundled onto earth somehow by a shiny space ship bearing gifts? Is he the lottery ticket somebody lost, then pulled triumphantly out of a drawer? Is this all a fairy tale?
Injured after last year’s U.S. nationals, Chen was competing at only his second major international event (Grand Prix Final last December, when he took the silver medal behind Hanyu, was his first), at the Four Continents championships, the Olympic test event in Korea this past week. He’s only 17. A little more than a year ago, Chen competed on the Junior Grand Prix circuit. He won the Junior Grand Prix Final, a little spark of greatness.
Yet he’s seized the pre-Olympic buzz by the throat. And after winning on the weekend in an epic battle with defending Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, he’ll have the best of memories to take back with him to Pyeongchang a year from now. The rest are all now racing to catch up. And believe me, they will be racing.
The Four Continents promised to be the quad contest beyond all quad contests, with Boyang Jin of China and the American Chen offering up five quads – and Hanyu for the first time trying five – while Shoma Uno of Japan and Kevin Reynolds of Canada attempted four. None were perfect. The risk is beyond the pale.
Just how did Chen and his quiet confidence win his gold medal?
He didn’t actually win the long program. Hanyu did. But Chen put distance between them by winning the short program, while Hanyu doubled a quad Salchow and landed third, 6.08 points behind. It’s a classic case of how important the short program can be. You can’t load it up with everything you can do, but if you miss something, you’re at a disadvantage.
While Hanyu defeated Chen by 2.33 points in the free, it wasn’t enough for gold. Chen still had enough space left to win by 3.75 points.
Hanyu defeated Chen in the free on the strength of his component mark, because Chen actually won the technical mark: 115.48 to Hanyu’s 112.33.
Hanyu won the component mark with 94.34 points, while Patrick Chan was second in this category with 92.58, Uno third with 91.08 and Chen fourth with 88.86, just ahead of the divine Jason Brown at 85.72. Alas, Brown, injured earlier this season, had to dump an uncertain quad from his repertoire. Still, with excellent skating, Brown finished sixth in the free and sixth overall.
Chen also had to face having to skate last, waiting 40 minutes after the warmup to go out onto the ice – and when he did go, the crowd rained down numerous sorts of Pooh things in celebration of a skate Hanyu would have deemed gold worthy on any other day. Still, Chen shrugged it off. Took it like a pro.
“Skating after Yuzu is obviously kind of exciting, so it’s great to be able to skate after that,” he said. “With the whole Winnie the Pooh situation, it’s something that I can’t change. But it was something that I was expecting. I just waited until everything was cleared, got on the ice and did everything I needed to do. I had plenty of time to do what I needed to do, so it wasn’t too much of a struggle for me.” He doesn’t seem to sweat the small stuff. Others can turn that into big stuff.
Let’s compare quad to quad, because who doesn’t want to do that in such a contest?
Of Hanyu’s five quads, he landed the quad loop, (a money maker, earning him 2.14 bonus points for 14.14 points), a quad Salchow (11.93 with bonus), he doubled a quad Salchow in combination with a single loop (ouch, only 1.92 points), a quad toe (13.19) and finally late in the game, a quad toe –double toe (for 13.90 points, and he didn’t maximize his GOE, with a lot of +1s.)
In fact, Hanyu didn’t earn as many high GOE points as usual, and there were no marks at all of 10.00 for components.
The triple Axel is one of his best jumps and he racked up 16.51 points for a triple-triple combo, and a solo triple Axel worth 11.78. We’ve seen him do a triple Axel – loop – triple Salchow in the past – a real point getter – but it wasn’t in this routine, obviously dropped for the fifth quad.
All in all, Hanyu earned 55.08 points for his quad attempts.
Chen opened up with an astonishingly brilliant and difficult quad Lutz – triple toe loop, which earned him a whopping 20.33 points, followed it up with a very nice quad flip (14.73 points), a common old quad toe loop (9.79, because he turned out of it), a quad toe loop – double toe loop (12.03, with the quad landed a little forward) and a quad Salchow (12.84).
Chen landed more quads than triples. (So did Hanyu). But two of Chen’s four triples were Axels, one in combination with a couple of double toe loops. He turned after both triple Axels. Yes, there were bobbles throughout the routine. He managed huge GOEs only after his opening quad combination, his quad flip and his straightline footwork, which was level four.
His quad pointage: 69.72.
Hanyu did five jumps after the half-way mark and three of them were to be quads. This is an onslaught of point-maximizing, if it all works out. Chen did four, with only one a quad. (Let’s give him a break: he’s only 17 and relatively new at this!)
As for Shoma Uno, the bronze medalist, who is actually the Japanese champion because Hanyu missed the event because of flu (extra point to be made, Hanyu hadn’t competed in two months.) also did five jumps in the second half, two of them quads.
He opened up with his new jump, a triple loop (lots of bonus marks for this one at 14.43), a quad flip (14.59), a quad toe loop, which he turned out of, not allowing him to do a double toe at the end (10.79) and a quad toe – double toe loop, because he bravely turned a solo jump into a combo (for 14.05). He fell on both of his triple Axel combinations, losing huge points. And both of them had been in the second half.
Uno’s quad count? 53.86 points.
Boyang Jin? He’s the one that started the quad rush, having unleashed four at the Grand Prix Final and at the world championships last year. But rarely does he get GOEs higher than +1 for anything he does.
The free program in Pyengchang was riddled with problems. Jin landed only one of his five quads cleanly. His opening quad Lutz – triple toe loop was okay, but the Lutz was landed with a break in the waist (18.33); he stepped out of a quad Salchow (8.96); he underrotated and fell on a quad loop (4.40); he fell on a quad toe loop (7.33); and he landed a quad toe loop – double toe loop, but had a hand down on the quad. (11.56). All in all, the big risks he took got him a quad count of only 50.58. If he made mistakes, they were on his quads. Still, he has the third highest technical points, over Uno.
The base value of Jin’s jumps was a whopping 106.18, just shy of Nathan Chen, but he couldn’t maximize them. Jin’s component score was 77.44, well behind that of Hanyu. Jin ended up fifth in the free, and sixth overall, just nipped by Patrick Chan by .47 points.
Chan, fourth with a free skate score of 179.52, well below his best, and a final score of 267.98, attempted three quads but fell on two: his new quad Salchow and the quad toe loop. He did land his opening quad toe loop – triple toe loop to a huge roar from the crowd. It earned him a lofty 17.17 points. His triple Axel that followed – a jump that used to be his nemesis – flew, getting five +3s for 11.07. He underroated the quad Salchow, and got chump change for his two flawed quads. He also stepped out of a triple Lutz, meant to be a big combo. Thinking on his feet, he tacked the end part of that combo onto a triple flip that followed.
He says he needs more snap off the ice into his jumps, and he’ll work on it.
Kevin Reynolds attempted four quads, but tripled the first one, a quad Salchow; underrotated and fell on the quad toe, did land a quad Salchow, but it was underrotated, and he also underrotated the second quad toe. He was assessed one fall. But the miscues (four underrotations) riddled his technical mark. He was 12th in the free and 12th overall.
Reynolds said it was tough mentally to overcome his rough opening, and then with each mistake, he got bogged down further. “You lose your energy and your focus,” he said. He’ll regroup for the world championships on his routine that is “a minefield of technical difficulty that we have to do in the free program now.”
His teammate, Nam Nguyen, who finished behind him at the Canadian championship, ended up eighth overall, with three quads planned. He landed the first one, a quad toe loop, but undrerotated and fell on a quad Salchow. He did land an ambitious quad Salchow – double toe loop – double loop in the second half, good for 15.25 points. Nguyen had the fifth highest technical points (92.57) of the free skate, with much lower component marks (72.52). He was seventh in the free skate, with season’s bests in the free and the total score.
“It’s been a while to see that SB next to my score,” he said, after a season in which he changed coaches twice. “It’s special to me, although it’s not very high compared to the other skaters.” He won’t be going to the world championships, but said he’s been working on a quad flip and “it’s getting there.”
Chen hadn’t intended to do five quads in the free at all this year. He’d done it at U.S. nationals because things had been going so well during the skate. And so he kept it up for Four Continents. “The amount of quads I put into a program in a particular season is relative to how my body is adapting to training, how it’s adapting to competition and what the other skaters are doing,” he said. He said Hanyu pushed him, not only with jumps, but with artistry, too.
“He really kind of started that huge quad craze when we were younger,” he said. “We were all struggling to get our triples and do triple-triples and he was out there doing four quads in a long. I think that really motivated all of us junior skaters to start working on these quads and putting them into the programs. It’s really showing up now that we are senior skaters.”
In other words, Hanyu has started something that will come back to haunt him, much like Patrick Chan did, after starting the trend back to quads following the 2010 Olympics, won without a quad. Now he’s chasing younger skaters, too.
At podium time, Hanyu admitted he felt envious of Chen. But with what the American had accomplished, Hanyu said: “I felt like I want to congratulate him from the bottom of my heart.”
Despite all the accolades he’s earned, this is Hanyu’s third silver medal at Four Continents.
“It’s hard to predict what is going to happen between now and the Olympics,” Hanyu said. “You never know who is going to do another quad.” As we have seen during the past year, things can change quickly. New faces could bound right up the ladder.
And it’s not stopping. Over the weekend, and overshadowed by the Four Continents, was the Bavarian Open in Germany. Canada’s little gem, Stephen Gogolev won an advanced novice competition by landing the second quad Salchow of his life. And he’s 12 years old.
And just for fun, Jason Brown: