GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Figure skating’s team event didn’t exist when Scott Hamilton won gold at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics. Looking back, he wishes it had — not simply to have a chance to bring home a second medal from those Winter Games, but also to have a preliminary event to get the jitters out in his Olympic debut before his hopes of an individual medal were on the line.
“When I competed my Olympic short, my adrenaline was through the roof,” Hamilton said in an interview after a men’s practice earlier this week at the Gangneung Ice Arena, where he watched Americans Nathan Chen and Adam Rippon train.
“I was a mess,” Hamilton continued, although he rebounded nicely to win gold. “The team event takes a little of that away; it’s kind of a dress rehearsal. If I had gotten to do a short program in the team event, it would have been a lot easier.”
Perhaps that’s what ailed Chen Friday in his Olympic debut. As the “leadoff hitter,” as it were, in the United States’ quest for a team medal, the notoriously unflappable 18-year-old who’s fluent in five types of quadruple jumps, took the ice for the men’s short program — the first of four events that make up the team competition — and committed three major errors in a two-minute, 40-second span.
Patrick Chan, a three-time world champion who is Canada’s pride, was empathetic when asked what he made of Chen’s stumbles. “It’s very normal to have not a great skate (in an Olympic debut),” said Chan, 27, who finished fifth at his first Olympics, the 2010 Vancouver Games in his home country, before winning silvers in the men’s and team events at the 2014 Sochi Games. “It’s part of the experience. It’s part of the Olympics.”
It was a consoling thought — that delivering one’s best performance on an Olympic stage is often more difficult than it seems, unlike any other pressure-packed competition, defying all indicators that an athlete is peaking at the right time.
In Chen’s case, the was every reason to believe he was the man for the moment. And he may yet be. His contribution to the team event is over. Adam Rippon, who at 28 is also a first-time Olympian, was tapped before Chen’s struggles Friday to compete in the free skate.
The Olympic team event rewards countries for their breadth and depth of expertise in all four disciplines: men’s, women’s, pairs and ice dance. Only the top five among the eight countries to qualify after all four entrants have performed their short programs advance to the free skate, where the medals will be settled.
With the married duo of Chris Knierim and Alex Scimeca-Knierim turning in an impressive fourth-place performance with their short program Friday, given that pairs is not U.S. squad’s strength, the United States are second in the standings. Canada leads with 17 points, followed by the United States (14) and Japan and the Olympic Athletes from Russia (13 each).
The competition resumes with short programs in dance and women’s Sunday (8 p.m. Saturday ET), after which the field will be culled to five.
Chen may be present to cheer on his teammates, as they did him. But he has a full week to diagnose what went wrong — in terms of technique, focus, managing his emotions and structuring his pre-competition morning — and make the proper adjustment before the men’s short programs Feb. 16.
To reach the prime-time TV market in the United States, the figure-skating events begin at 10 a.m. in South Korea, which is 14 hours ahead of Eastern time. That’s a notable change for skaters accustomed to competing year-round in the evening.
Asked earlier in the week whether the upside-down timetable was a concern, Chen insisted not, explaining that he and Rippon, who train on the same rink with the same coach (Rafael Arutyunyan), typically meet for early morning practices.
But Chan, the three-time Olympian from Canada, said it was a challenge. “I don’t think any of us in our entire careers, even mine, have ever skated this early, or with this type of schedule,” said Chan, who fell twice. “I definitely think that played a role.”
Chen hinted at the same. He arrived at the Gangneung Ice Arena Friday at 6 a.m. for a 7 a.m. practice before his 11 a.m. competitive debut — not exactly typical.
“It’s a little bit shifted earlier,” said Chen. “But with the time change and everything, it’s not a big deal. I just need to recalculate everything in my head.”
He betrayed no sense of panic or bewilderment after failing to deliver a clean performance on either of the quads in this program and falling on his triple Axel. “Disappointed” is how he described himself. Disappointed that he didn’t perform to the best of his ability; disappointed, in his words, that he had let his teammates down.
“I’m glad that I got the opportunity you need to at least come out there and put the programs down and learn from it,” Chen said. “Right now, all I can do is try to analyze what I did wrong, let it go and move on.”
Meanwhile, the United States is in good position at second in the standings. U.S. Figure Skating will announce on Saturday who’ll compete in women’s and ice dancing, but they’re expected to tap siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani for the short dance and first-time Olympian Bradie Tennell, 20, for the women’s short program.
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