American figure skater Nathan Chen came into Pyeongchang with the promise of a possible coronation. He’ll leave, instead, with a whole lot of work left to do. The 18-year-old winner of back-to-back U.S. national titles, who was many people’s pick to win gold at the men’s individual competition in his first Olympics, failed to bounce back last night in his first skate since a bad performance in the team event. Chen placed 17th in the men’s short program with a score of 82.27, thanks to a fall on his opening move—the extremely difficult quad lutz—and hiccups on several others. Fellow Americans Adam Rippon and the even-younger Vincent Zhou both did better, and Rippon, in particular, took over as America’s breakout star.
Chen has one more performance left in the Olympics—his free skate tonight—but getting back into contention for a medal is basically impossible. In 2018, he’s been usurped not only by his own teammates, but also by Yuzuru Hanyu, the Japanese legend who came back from an injury to give an all-time classic skate right before Chen. It was heartbreaking to see Chen stumble immediately after the crowd went wild for Hanyu, and even though Chen handled his struggles extremely well, his disappointment was palpable.
It’s not that Chen can’t do the elements required of him to take home gold. We know he can, because we’ve seen him do it. He just can’t do them all the time, all at the same time, on the biggest stage of all, and unfortunately, his opportunity to try only comes once every four years. There’s really nothing to say about this other than, that really sucks.
Chen now has to deal with something that he’s never dealt with in his career before: real, crushing failure. He’s got the talent, but he now has to persevere through the quieter years while holding off Zhou and the younger competition that’s sure to challenge his spot. Chen’s time as the golden boy has passed in the blink of an eye. It’s a cruelty particular to this sport. But in 2022, if all goes well, we’ll get to watch something even better than a young phenom’s stunning debut—a comeback story. The work starts tonight.