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How Nathan Chen won Olympic gold

In a sport graded to the decimal, Chen pulled out a 20-point win.

Figure skater Nathan Chen standing on the ice with one arm outstretched and his head thrown back.
Nathan Chen clinches the gold medal at the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Nathan Chen is finally golden.

On Thursday in Beijing, Chen came in first place with a combined score — short program and free skate — of 332.60 to win the 2022 Olympic men’s figure skating title. He hit five quadruple jumps, and garnered the highest total for program components (a.k.a. the artistic score) of the night. Japanese rivals Yuma Kagiyama and Shoma Uno won silver and bronze, respectively.

While it took a combined seven skating minutes to clinch gold, Chen’s victory was four years in the making. It started at the 2018 Olympics with disappointment in the short program. Three botched jumping attempts effectively ended Chen’s chance at gold. Since then, America’s best male skater has been on a journey of redemption and repetition, perfecting his jumps and fine-tuning his artistry, winning world championships and US National Championships left and right but with an eye toward 2022.

Chen’s journey arrived at its destination: a gold medal. Here’s how he did it.

Nathan Chen’s record-setting short program set him up for success

In Olympic competition, skaters perform a two-minute and 40-second routine called a short program and a four-minute free skate. Medal winners are determined by the combined scores from each program. There’s more points and jumps at stake in the free skate, but that doesn’t mean the short program isn’t important.

There might be no better example of how integral skating’s short program is to winning than Nathan Chen’s journey. Four years ago, headed into the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, Chen was considered one of the frontrunners to take gold. He had been dazzling the sport with his ability to hit quads, and was considered the threat to Yuzuru Hanyu, the defending champion from Japan. Then, in around two minutes, his chances vaporized.

In the short program, skaters have three jumping attempts (or passes), one of which is required to be a double or triple axel. Each of those jumping passes has a corresponding base value, determined by how difficult each jump or combo of jumps is. Chen flubbed his quad lutz, his quad toe loop, and his triple axel (highlighted in yellow). Those spoiled jumps also came with negative grade of execution scores — scores on a negative to positive scale based on how well a skater performed a skill. In 2018, this was a -3 to +3 scale; today it’s -5 to +5 — which ate into the base value. Instead of 13-plus points for his quad lutz combo (4Lz), he only got 9.6 points.

Nathan Chen’s scoresheet from the 2018 Olympics.

Because of the limited number of jumps and because of his poor execution, Chen dug himself into a hole that he couldn’t crawl out of. Ultimately, he finished in 17th place after the event. Competitors who hit all three elements scored much higher than him and medals were out of sight. Hanyu, for example, had almost 20 points on Chen — the equivalent value of two or so quads. If Chen had hit two of the three elements, perhaps that would’ve been a different story.

Chen’s 2022 Olympic short program this week was the complete inverse of that nightmare. Chen hit all three of his jumping passes — a quadruple flip, the required triple axel, and a quadruple lutz and triple toe loop combination — with positive GOEs. Those positive GOE scores added to his base value. His quadruple flip, for example, has a base value of 11 and with his positive GOE, it soared to 15.40. Another thing to notice is that Chen put his third jumping pass — a quadruple lutz, triple toe loop combination (4Lz+3T) — in the second half of his program which accrued a 10 percent bonus (as denoted by the X). That gave him a 21.21 total on a jumping pass that starts at 17.27 points — a really good thing in the skating world.

Nathan Chen’s short program scoresheet from the 2022 Olympics.

Chen’s 10 percent bonus on his quad-triple combo sets him apart from his competitors. Kagiyama, who came in second place in the short program, also takes advantage of the 10 percent bonus rule (below). He employed the bonus on his triple axel, which has a base value of 8.80, and received 11.66 total points on it. The payoff could’ve been larger had Kagiyama put the bonus on a quad combination, but that’s theoretically more difficult to pull off.

Yuma Kagiyama’s scoresheet from the 2022 Olympics.

There’s a sports saying about athletes exorcizing demons. As I am not a scholar in demonology, I can’t speak to whether these comparisons effectively encapsulate redemption. But Chen’s brilliance on the technical side matched with strong artistic scores (the “Program Components” scores on the sheet) in his short program helped set him up for success. While the short program didn’t win him a medal outright, it put him in a gold medal-striking position. It also didn’t, as it did in 2018, hurt his chances.

Nathan Chen’s long program was stellar, and he had some help along the way

At the men’s free skate, Chen skated last. Skaters perform in reverse order with the highest score going last and the lowest scores from the short program going first. He had the advantage of seeing his main competitors, Shoma Uno and Kagiyama, go ahead of him. He would know the score he needed to achieve to win gold, and his destiny was in his hands.

As the night played out, Uno and Kagiyama made a few minor mistakes and left some points at the table. Uno had a fall, and his free skate score was only the fifth-best of the night. Kagiyama skated cleaner, but judges determined that he landed his quadruple loop on the quarter — essentially missing a quarter rotation. He only nabbed around 5 points on a skill with a base value of around 10 points.

Kagiyama’s free skate score sheet from the 2022 Olympics.

Chen, with the short program, had a 5-point lead and Kagiyama’s mistake gave him another 5-point cushion. Chen’s planned routine was also more difficult than Kagiyama’s and had a higher base value. Essentially, Chen wouldn’t need to skate a perfect routine to win, but he came pretty close.

Chen nailed his first four quadruple jumps — a quad flip combo, quad flip, quad salchow, and quad lutz — with positive grades of execution. The quad flips and the quad lutz scored well over +4 GOE, which means a lot of bonus points; he scored nearly 40 points with those three elements. For whatever reason, Chen downgraded his last quad combo attempt (4T +1EU +1F) which is supposed to end with a triple flip, and instead turned into a single flip. But at that point, with the cumulative lead he had and the elements he hit, Chen didn’t need the jump. He could have theoretically not attempted that 13-point element and still finished ahead of Kagiyama in the technical scores.

Nathan Chen’s scoresheet from the 2022 Olympics.

The other thing to note here is that Chen also finished 4 points ahead of Kagiyama in the program components section (in blue above). That advantage just built his lead further. Chen’s total score — the short program and free skate combined — was a 332.60 compared to Kagiyama’s 310.05 (a personal best) and Uno’s 293.00.

In a sport that can sometimes come down to decimal points, Chen turned in a 22-point victory. With that kind of scoring advantage, he didn’t need to skate perfectly to win a gold medal — but he still came pretty close.

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