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Nathan Chen was always America’s best shot at figure skating gold

The “Quad King” finished fifth at the 2018 Olympics but has finally clinched a gold medal — after three years of being almost unbeatable in international competition.

US figure skater Nathan Chen.
Valery Sharifulin/TASS via Getty Images

The Olympic spotlight is, once again, on American skater Nathan Chen. The 22-year-old Utah native won the men’s figure skating event after a record-breaking short program and a season’s-best free skate, with a combined score of 332.60.

Figure skating is a niche sport, one that most Americans only really pay attention to during an Olympic year. Even casual viewers, though, have likely heard or seen the buzz surrounding Chen through commercials and television promos as the American athlete who might make history.

In 2018, Chen was, perhaps prematurely, named a gold medal favorite in Pyeongchang, based on his rare ability to execute five different quadruple jumps. This technical arsenal made Chen a serious contender for the gold. Dubbed the “Quad King” by American sports media, he was expected to be within confident reach of a medal.

At the time, however, Chen was only in his second year of senior international competition and had yet to win a World Championship title. Chen’s disastrous short program in the 2018 men’s event effectively eliminated his chances of a solo medal. He did manage a redemptive free skate without any falls — landing a record number of six quads — that catapulted him from 17th place up to fifth. All in all, it was a laudable finish for an 18-year-old fresh on the Olympic stage.

Over the next four years, Chen has become nearly unbeatable in international competition, with the exception of a third-place finish at the 2021 Skate America competition. When he takes the ice in Beijing, he will be regarded as a seasoned competitor and a fan favorite — a three-time world champion who has achieved some of the highest scores in the sport. His technical consistency remains largely unmatched. Chen has been the unrivaled kingpin of American figure skating since 2017, often winning the US Figure Skating Championships by a comfortable margin. He has outscored Vincent Zhou and Jason Brown, his fellow skaters on the 2022 Olympic team, in national competition by 30.9 points and 37.29 points, respectively. Chen has spoken humbly about how he has scored, but this is no simple feat. In figure skating, a tenth or even a hundredth of a point can make the difference between silver and gold. On Thursday, Chen landed five quadruple jumps in his free skate and secured the gold with a 22.55-point margin ahead of the silver medalist Yuma Kagiyama.

Chen’s dominance in the sport is due, in large part, to his quadruple jumps. (Vox’s Alex Abad-Santos has an in-depth piece that explores how this offers him an unusual scoring advantage.) In short, most male skaters have only one or two quads that they consistently perform in competition; the rest of their jumps are usually triples. Chen, on the other hand, is capable of packing his routine with five different quad variations. (Most elite skaters at Chen’s level compete with three to four quads.) And since the current scoring system rewards a skater significantly more points for quads than perfectly performed triples, Chen is vulnerable only under a few circumstances: if his closest competitors skate at the top of their game; if he skates poorly in both his short program and free skate (or extremely poorly in either); or if, for some unexpected reason, Chen drastically reduces the number of quads he performs.

Sports coverage, however, thrives on narratives of rivalry, and analyses of Chen’s gold-medal odds are no exception. Japanese skater and two-time Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu has been depicted as Chen’s greatest rival for the gold. The faceoff between Hanyu, 27, and Chen, the two highest-scoring male skaters in figure skating history, was something of a wild card. They last competed at the 2021 World Championships, where Hanyu placed first after the short program but took home bronze in the free skate. Hanyu settled for fourth in the free skate but was the first skater to attempt a quad axel — the most difficult, and therefore highest scoring, of the quads — in international competition.

There is no doubt, though, that Chen has made history in Beijing. He is the first Asian American man to win a solo Olympic medal in figure skating (he already has a bronze and silver from the 2018 and 2022 team event). Identity wins aside, Chen offers a much-needed boost to Team USA’s Olympic track record; the last time an American figure skater won a solo Olympic medal was in 2010.

Female skaters — including Asian American athletes, like Michelle Kwan and Kristi Yamaguchi — have long been the recognizable face of US figure skating. American women dominated the sport throughout the 1990s: They were top contenders for the podium at World Championships, and won two Olympic golds, two silvers, and one bronze for Team USA. Their victories briefly spurred public interest in the sport, but over the following two decades, attention toward figure skating — and America’s competitive strength in the sport — has been on the decline.

While a handful of American male skaters were competitive throughout the 2000s and 2010s, few stand out in the public consciousness or have achieved Chen’s level of consistency throughout his career. In this regard, Chen is a unicorn of an athlete. (It helps that he seems like a pretty chill guy.) It’s not just his nearly superhuman ability to perform whip-fast four-revolution jumps. Chen, at 22, has already proven himself to be one of the most decorated and successful American skaters in the history of the sport. This time, though, he’s finally golden.

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