Nathan Chen vowed publicly to have fun at his second Olympics, to free his head of the anxiety that overwhelmed him four years ago.
Chen remained so true to that pledge that he even broke out a wry smile after his one mistake in a free skate of surpassing difficulty Thursday afternoon.
He handled the free and an equally demanding short program so well on his sport’s biggest stage that Chen won the Olympic gold medal easily at the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing, the city where his mother grew up.
But there was nothing easy about the journey that got him here.
“I never thought I would actually be able to make this happen,” Chen said. “It was a pretty daunting mountain.”
His coach, Rafael Arutunian, recalled Chen and his mother, Hetty Wang, driving every few months from Salt Lake City to southern California for lessons with him at the start of their working relationship 11 years ago. They were lessons the family could not really afford, so Arutunian would take the money Chen’s mother paid him and give it back to her son.
“One day he said to his mom, ‘If we don’t move, I will not make it,’” Arutunian said. “This was an 11-year-old boy saying that.”
Chen made it happen with that kind of will, a will that drove him to push himself and his sport past seemingly established limits, a will that allowed him to become the seventh U.S. man to win a singles Olympic figure skating gold medal.
“My mom and I grew up quite poor, and Raf obviously knew about the situation,” Chen said. “He would say, `I don’t really want that money. I want you to achieve the goal you want.’”
So he moved with his mother to be close to the coach. And he repaid Arutunian with the medal the coach had dreamed of from the time he began coaching 46 years ago.
“Raf has always shared with me how much he has wanted to coach somebody to an Olympic title,” Chen said.
Chen did it despite the weight of expectations that grew exponentially after winning the last three world championships.
“In my mind, I was not the favorite,” he insisted.
Yet he has been one of the faces of NBC’s Olympic promotion for months. He is in commercials seemingly every five seconds during the Olympic coverage in the United States. Video of his Tuesday short program had 3 million YouTube views by the time he finished the free skate.
And Chen had four long years to carry the mental baggage of what had happened at the 2018 Olympics, when he got swept up in expectations and finished fifth after staggering to 17th in the short program.
That burden was among the reasons Evan Lysacek, the previous U.S. man to win Olympic gold, felt there would be special meaning in both Chen’s triumph and the quality of the skating that produced it.
“External factors of the Games as a whole can contribute to how we remember a performance,” Lysacek, the 2010 champion, said when we spoke before the free skate. “Consider political tensions going in, Team USA’s performance overall, and how much weight rested on Nathan’s shoulders to be the hero for America.”
Chen, 22, won with five clean quadruple jumps and the regret of a perfectionist over popping the triple flip that was to accompany the last quad in a program to the music of Elton John. He followed a world record short program score with a free skate score relatively modest by his own standards - his fourth best and some six points from his world record - but one that only he has topped since 2017.
The result was 332.60 points, a score only he has bettered (by three points). He finished far ahead of the three Japanese skaters who followed: Yuma Kagiyama (310.05), Shoma Uno (293.00) and Yuzuru Hanyu (283.21).
Hanyu literally fell short of his goals to win a third straight Olympic title and to become the first man to land a quadruple axel in competition. Chen’s teammate, Jason Brown, took sixth without a quad, using his consummate artistry and execution of each element to wind up less than two points from fourth.
“I was sort of watching what the other men were doing, and I had an idea of what I needed to accomplish,” Chen said.
Will he go on? Chen’s only current long-range plan is to return to Yale in August, when he will be a junior after having taken a two-year leave.
To put Chen’s skating into perspective, I had called Lysacek and two other U.S. men who have won Olympic gold, Scott Hamilton (1984) and Hayes Jenkins (1956), a few hours in advance of the free skate.
“I believe no one will be able to replicate what Nathan has done and can do,” Hamilton said. “He is a one-of-a-kind talent that I’m grateful has comes into our world in my lifetime.
“Nathan is cut from the same cloth as Dick Button (the 1948 and 1952 gold medalist.) Not being satisfied with the status quo, Nathan did everything possible (and impossible) to build his athleticism in a way no one else previously had.”
Jenkins, who competed against Button, expected how well Chen skated at the Olympics because he has seen Chen skate that way repeatedly before.
“First, he has done the finest athletic performances by a man I ever have seen,” Jenkins said. “Second, they were coupled with very significant artistic performances. Look at his arms, his hands, his carriage. It is all very fluid, not exaggerated, and everything has a purpose.
“And, third he was very aware of the music, which we know not all skaters are.”
He was the final performer in the free skate. He could have played it safe and taken out a quad. That would have been out of character for a skater who always has dared the unprecedented.
So there would be two quad flips, a quad salchow, a quad lutz and a quad toeloop. And when the music turned to a fast hip-hop beat near the end, he got completely into the tempo, no matter that he had fallen doing that while winning a sixth straight U.S. title in January. He smiled again, this time a broad one.
Chen could sense by then he was winning an Olympic gold medal. How could anything be more fun than that.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCOlympics.com.