The Winter Olympics are always sports’ most unique event. For the most part, it’s a collection of niche sports getting international attention all at once. Exceptions have existed with men’s ice hockey, with five straight Olympiads allowing the NHL’s stars to participate for their countries, last taking place at the 2014 Sochi games. Remember the shootout against Russia where TJ Oshie’s performance launched him into super stardom? Or the 2010 Vancouver final between the United States and Canada that felt like an All-Star game, but everyone actually tried in one of the greatest hockey games I’ve ever seen?
Other exemptions have been given to individuals like Michelle Kwan, Scott Hamilton, Mikaela Shiffrin, Apolo Ohno, Shaun White. If he wasn’t on that exclusively subjective list before late Monday night in America, Nathan Chen needs to be on it now. In Beijing, Chen has slayed whatever lingering demons were left over from his Olympic debut in PyeongChang, where he fell in the short program in the team and individual events.
Chen scored a world-record 113.97 points in the individual men’s short program, a performance which included a triple axel and two quadruple jumps, on Tuesday in China, improving from his already-stellar performance in the team competition last Friday, where his short-program heroics helped the United States to a silver medal. Chen entered the Olympics as the heavy favorite to win gold and has lived up to the hype thus far. He took his new world record from Yuzuru Hanyu, who won gold in men’s singles in Sochi and PyeongChang, and scored a 111.82 at the Four Continents Championships in February 2020.
Chen is only 22 and won’t celebrate another birthday until the first week of May. Ever since his self-described “disastrous” outings four years ago, he’s a three-time world champion. The 2020 edition wasn’t held due to the pandemic, making him the undisputed men’s singles world champion in between the 23rd and 24th Olympiads. He’s also the three-time defending champion in men’s singles at the Grand Prix Final, dating back to December 2017, with the last two events being canceled due to COVID-19.
His dominance continues well beyond international events. Competing individually, Chen has won 21 of 27 events dating back to September 2017. That consistency, knowing the lineup of challengers he’s had is batshit crazy. His only non-top-three finish during that span was a fifth-place mark at the 2018 Olympics. A 17th-place finish in the short program after a fall combined with first in the free skate couldn’t get him onto the podium. Four years later, he’s likely one clean routine away from a gold medal.
I could keep throwing fact after fact at you, like that Chen is the first to have successfully completed five types of quadruple jumps in competition, to drive home how he’s dominated this sport and deserves every ounce of recognition that comes from the Olympic spotlight. He’ll probably become the first American to win gold in men’s singles since Evan Lysacek stood atop the podium in 2010. Before him, it was Brian Boitano in 1988 in Calgary. No American has won back-to-back gold medals in the event since Dick Button in 1948 and 1952, the first of four straight golds in the discipline won by Americans.
Late Wednesday night (in the United States) is when the Salt Lake City native will get his opportunity to officially put the nightmare from PyeongChang to rest with his free skate performance. The only hurdles separating Chen from what feels like inevitability are a pair of Japanese skaters that aren’t Hanyu, who’s quest for a three-peat is essentially done, after a fall in the short program put him in eighth with half the competition over. Three straight Olympic golds has only been done once, by Sweden’s Gillis Grafström from 1920-28.
Yuma Kagiyama and Shoma Uno are in second and third respectively, with Kagiyama sitting nearly six points back of first place, making Chen’s only true hurdle to a first-place finish himself. Of course, it’s not guaranteed. It’s insanely hard to come to any other conclusion than The Star-Spangled Banner being played Thursday at Capital Indoor Stadium in Beijing. Chen’s redemption is nearly complete. And with the expected result coming to fruition, he could start out on another journey beyond being appointment television — being considered the greatest American male figure skater in history.