Previewing the men’s free skate competition at the PyeongChang Olympics: Can King Hanyu keep the crown?


The odds-on favorites to win figure skating gold at the PyeongChang Olympics skated one after another in the short program, Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu and American Nathan Chen. And within ten minutes, the crowd was thrilled, then shocked. One reputation was revived, the other unraveled, diametrical responses to the pressure and attention that come when you’re your country’s great Olympic hope.

Chen entered these Olympics as a marquee name, given his prodigious fluency with the quadruple jump. His stock has skyrocketed over the past three years, as he mastered moves that had been absent from American skating.

Just 18, Chen seemed to be the perfect age for an Olympic title. All that expectation might have masked the reality that his performances had been uneven and cautious (by his standards) as his profile rose and the Olympics approached. He did not cleanly land triple axels — an axel is easiest to distinguish because it’s the only jump going forward — during the national championships, nor did he attempt his trademark quadruple Lutz.

When he jumped well in practice earlier in the week, it seemed he had shaken off his poor performance in the team event. Instead, his short program was even worse than it was a week ago.

Chen has one more chance to show the world what he can do in Friday’s free skate (8 p.m. ET). The longer program provides 4 minutes 40 seconds to roll out his impressive arsenal of quadruple jumps, but also illustrate his marked improvement in his extension and body lines as he tries to raise his presentation scores.

Meanwhile, His Majesty, King Hanyu, has played coy. After an ankle injury this fall, Hanyu only resumed practicing his difficult moves a month ago. He showed up at the Games, flanked by a horde of Japanese news media that follows him everywhere, and provided mere teases about his health.

Any doubts were silenced with the first notes of Chopin’s Ballade No. 1, when Hanyu stared into the audience with focus and swagger. Then came the first quadruple jump and his signature move, a snappy, springy triple axel. Most skaters, including Chen, need massive preparation to accomplish those jumps. Hanyu enters into them with difficult transitions, generating power with strokes on one foot when most use two. The edges of his blades were so deep into the ice that felt as if he was doing more than skating. He stroked like an artist with his paintbrush, and the ice was his canvas.

Chen, by contrast, was off from the beginning.

Skating to the driving piano phrasing of Benjamin Clementine’s “Nemesis,” Chen usually starts as if he is possessed, lunging deeply in his few first steps as he gathers speed for his opening quadruple jump.

This is what it should have looked like:

But Chen’s knees lunges were stiff and he went into his first move, that quad Lutz, with uncharacteristic lethargy.

The superhuman snap he possesses to quickly launch into rotation somehow vanished, and he fell. The pulsing rhythm of the music now evoked more of a manic heartbeat than a modern groove, as Chen flubbed all three jumping passes.

Chen was not expected to win the short program if His Majesty skated perfectly, maybe four or five points behind. Chen enters the free skate in 17th place, nearly 30 points behind. Even Adam Rippon, Chen’s lovable but quad-less teammate, outperformed him and enters Friday’s final in seventh. No one would have expected this, especially when Rippon – whose typical club-banging program is vivacious and loose – was calculating and slow. We’ll have one more chance to see his ethereal Coldplay program:

Chen’s future remains bright and he’ll likely rally tonight. He needs to.

Nonetheless, a compelling competition for the gold remains. Behind Hanyu is his training partner, Javier Fernandez of Spain, whose Charlie Chaplin costume and performance to the soundtrack from the 1936 movie “Modern Times” was charming, sweet and precise. He will channel that impossible dreamer, Don Quixote, in his free program.

Shoma Uno, in his brilliant classical style, impressed everyone but himself with his routine to Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.”  Ever the competitor, Uno said he was disappointed with his program and his placement — but he is in medal striking distance.

Also gunning for a medal is China’s Boyang Jin, in fourth, who was aggressive and sharp in his short program and known for capitalizing on others’ mistakes.

Whether any of those men can catch up to Hanyu is truly up to Hanyu. If he performs well, he will win. But he occasionally falters in the free skate, especially when he has done a knockout short program. The three men behind him perform better when rallying from behind and can theoretically catch up. This makes up for deep and compelling final. If Hanyu can pull it off, he will solidify his case for a different kind of title: Greatest of All Time.

Read more about the PyeongChang Olympics:

Mikaela Shiffrin admits she feels the pressure — from Mikaela Shiffrin

Lindsey Jacobellis still doesn’t have an Olympic gold medal, placing fourth in snowboard cross

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