Nathan Chen’s short program to the Charles Aznavour song “La Boheme” includes a passage with an expressive emotional release, his mouth clenched into a grimace, his eyes afire with the passion and longing of the artist the lyrics describe.
The emotion in that choreographed expression during the team event short program Friday morning at the 2022 Winter Olympics also spoke of a different release than the one Chen needed simply to inhabit the role he was interpreting.
Chen seemed to be letting go of all the frustration and disappointment that had followed his stunningly poor performances in the team event and individual event short programs during his Olympic debut four years ago.
“It feels good to have a short program that I actually skated well in an Olympic experience,” Chen said.
Chen had gone from badly flawed to nearly flawless. His imperfections this time were so minor they had little effect on the command of the ice that led judges to give him the highest short program score of his career (111.71). It was just a whisker below Japanese star Yuzuru Hanyu’s record score of 111.82.
Hanyu, winner of the last two Olympic singles titles, is not competing in the team event. His countryman, Shoma Uno, was second to Chen Friday with 105.46.
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If there were any doubts lingering inside Chen’s psyche from four years ago, he neither paid any attention to them nor wanted to discuss them after his first of an expected three performances in the 2022 Winter Games.
Did he feel relief?
“It certainly feels good.”
Did he shake some demons from his Olympic past?
“Rather than it being a demon, I think it was a helpful learning experience.”
Four years ago, Chen was 0-for-6 on clean jumping passes in the two short programs, with two falls and one jump that didn't earn a single point.
This time he opened with a quad flip that got a huge positive grade of execution, followed by a solid triple axel and a strong quad lutz-triple toe loop combination in the second half of the program. Chen is the only person to have done that combination in the bonus time period, when tired legs can make such a difficult element even more difficult.
This was the Chen who has won three straight world titles and six straight U.S. titles. The one who gave a lighthearted response when asked a few days ago about his quad jumps appearing effortless.
“If I wake up on the right side of the bed, they are,” he said.
He tossed them off insouciantly in a program as generally understated as the black tuxedo jacket, black pants and plain white shirt of his costume. His answers Friday were similarly low-key, but Chen insisted his internal reaction was different.
“I may not be the most emotional person, but deep down I’m genuinely very happy,” Chen said.
He almost certainly will not skate again until Tuesday’s short program in men’s singles, leaving the team event free skate to either Vincent Zhou or Jason Brown. Now Chen can concentrate on polishing the two spins that did not impress the judges rather than worry about picking up the pieces of a mess.
During his six days of practice in Beijing prior to the team event, Chen had seemed consistently relaxed. You could see it in photos – even behind a mask – and hear it in his voice whenever he stopped to talk in the mixed zone area where athletes can do brief interviews with media.
Chen’s mixed zone visits were so frequent that a Russian journalist, Dmitry Kuznetsov, noting Russian skaters unwillingness to share a few words, wrote in Sport Express: “Americans have been talking to journalists for almost a week – Nathan Chen, it seems, will soon start telling stories from elementary school in the mixed zone, because everything else has already been asked.”
Chen came to Beijing with an electric guitar and a basketball to provide diversions from skating. He also said it was helpful to come to his second Olympics with good friends – reigning U.S. champion singles skater Mariah Bell, who has trained with the same coach as Chen for several years, and ice dancers Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker.
“I don’t know Nathan’s experience because I’m not in his position,” Bell said. “This is my first Olympics, and I’m not favored to win, obviously. So we’re feeling very different things.
“But I know even in my experience that sometimes these things feel daunting. So when you have something that feels like home or just like every day, it helps this experience be easier and even more exciting.”
In 2018, Chen allowed himself to get too caught up in medal expectations, both his own and those of others for him. He answered a question about regrets over that in two different ways during one mixed zone interview earlier in the week.
“I don’t regret anything,” he said. “I was at the Olympics. I tried my best, and it didn’t go the way I wanted to…"
“Okay, if you’re talking about regret, the fact I wasn’t able to enjoy it. I was a kid not really knowing exactly what the Olympics was. I didn’t have fun."
“Looking back at that, I didn’t really have the fondest memories. Coming here, regardless of how I skate, I want to be able to look back and say that it was a really cool experience.”
Nathan Chen was cool as ice Friday.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCOlympics.com.