A spellbinding routine from Nathan Chen set a new short-program world record in the men’s figure skating event in Beijing on Tuesday, lifting the American to the top spot and within sight of a dream first Winter Olympic gold medal.
The 22-year-old’s near-flawless performance was rewarded by judges with an unprecedented 113.97 points, sending him over five points clear at the top of the rankings with the deciding free skate final to come on Thursday.
Chen’s score broke the previous world record of 111.82 set in 2020 by two-time Olympic defending champion Yuzuru Hanyu.
Many had tipped the Japanese icon to be the main barrier to Chen’s pursuit of gold, but an uncharacteristic error early in Hanyu’s routine left him in eighth with a score of 95.15.
After winning bronze in the team event at PyeongChang in 2018 and silver in the same category yesterday, Hanyu’s mistake further boosts Chen’s chances at an as yet elusive gold, but the American said he is taking nothing for granted.
“When I heard that [Hanyu’s score], I [thought], ‘Stick to my game plan, nothing changes, focus on what I can do, try to do the best that I can,’” Chen said.
“You certainly can’t ever count him out. He’s two-time Olympic champion for a reason. Also, no matter what he does in the future, he will always, always be a true figure skating icon, one of the greatest ever, if not the greatest ever.”
‘Pretty close to my best’
Coined the ‘Quad King,’ Chen emphatically lived up to his nickname by executing a multitude of difficult maneuvers – kicking off his routine with a quad flip and never looking back.
Before the Games, Chen admitted he was disappointed with his performances in PyeongChang, but he arrived in Beijing off the back of three straight world championships and a 6th consecutive US title.
Continuing his upward trajectory, Chen said that his routine was “pretty close to my best,” a performance that rewarded him with top spot heading into Thursday.
“Obviously, there are always things you can improve on, there are always things you can do a little bit better, but overall, I’m very happy,” Chen said.
“But the competition’s not one program. Whatever happens in the short program is not indicative of what will happen in the free program.”
He is pursued on the remaining podium places by Japanese pair Yuma Kagiyama and Shoma Uno – the only other skaters to break the 100 point mark – with scores of 108.12 and 105.90 respectively.
Their compatriot Hanzu was left to rue a missed opening jump that has dampened his aspirations of a third consecutive gold, the Japanese skater revealing he felt a “hole” in the ice.
“I feel really shocked,” Hanzu said.
“I didn’t feel anything bad until takeoff. When I took off, I was under some hole, maybe [caused by] some other skater’s toe [loop] or flip or something.”
Devastated Zhou withdraws
Chen’s perfect day contrasted with an agonizing blow for his compatriot Vincent Zhou, who withdrew from the event on Monday after testing positive for Covid-19.
The 21-year-old had helped the US to their silver medal in the team event on Sunday and had been tipped to challenge for the podium places in the individual event.
Announcing his withdrawal on his Instagram, an emotional Zhou said the positive test felt “unreal” after trying so hard to avoid testing positive for the virus.
“I have been doing everything in my power to stay free of Covid since the start of the pandemic,” Zhou said.
“I’ve taken all the precautions I can. I’ve isolated myself so much that the loneliness I felt in the last month or two has been crushing at times.
“I’ve already lost count of the number of times I’ve cried today. But I’m happy to say that at least one of those times was happy tears, and that was when I found out that I became an Olympic silver medalist.”
Speaking after his short program routine, Chen expressed his sympathy for his teammate.
“It definitely brings people to edge, and I’m really, really upset for him,” Chen said.
“He definitely deserves to be here. He worked so incredibly hard. We’ve been through so much together as competitors since we were very young, so to see that happen right before the short program is so tough.
“He’s been a really great sport about it so far and staying very positive.”