On Friday morning, in a 12,000-seat Olympic figure skating arena in Gangneung, South Korea, 18-year-old Nathan Chen’s history-making quadruple jumps helped keep the U.S. figure skating team in the medal race at the 2018 Winter Games — though that success was tempered by failure, as was quickly signaled by Chen’s expression following his program.
In short, Chen did something that he rarely does on the ice.
Figure skaters and former Olympians Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir, providing commentary for the NBC broadcast of the men’s short program during team competition at the Gangneung Ice Arena, captured the feeling this way:
As Lipinski noted Chen had accomplished the “first-ever quad flip [a kind of quad jump] in the Olympic Games,” Weir said, “That’s the worst short program I have ever seen from Nathan Chen … disaster.”
Expectations for the teen were high ahead of the Friday competition, which aired live on Thursday night in America. And the expectations only crept higher as Chen, performing eighth in a lineup of 10 men’s skaters, followed Canada’s Patrick Chan and Israel’s Alexei Bychenko, whose programs had just shot them to the top of the leaderboard.
Following those two seemed a prime opportunity for Chen to continue to dominate, as he has all season.
Instead he succeeded at only one of the two planned quad jumps in his short program, turning the second into a double and falling during an attempted triple axel.
His final result of 80.61 was good enough for fourth. The U.S. will need to stay in the top five, after the men, women, pairs and ice dancers all compete, in order to advance to the second half of the team event.
“It wasn’t a nerves thing, I just wasn’t in the right place mentally going in,” Chen told reporters after he skated. “Not in terms of nerves, I just wasn’t thinking about the right things technically. I was kind of ahead of myself in terms of how to land the jump, how to get out. I wasn’t thinking about how to step in to the jump, which kind of threw me off.”
“No one wants to skate like that on Olympic ice,” he said. “But it happens. Just take it and move on.”
Finishing out the men’s programs was Shoma Uno, of Japan, who earned first with a score that cracked 100 — the only skater to do so.
During the other routines were two moments that likely didn’t make it to broadcast TV: Russian Mikhail Kolyada, who was competing as one of the neutral “Olympic athletes from Russia” given that country’s official ban from participating as a result of doping, was consistently cheered on by a large contingent of Russian fans in the upper seats of the arena. Many carried signs, and it sounded like almost all of them shouted their support.
And while Chafik Besseghier, of France, earned the unfortunate distinction of coming in 10th place out of 10 skaters, his powerfully rhythmic program had the audience clapping to the beat.
After leaving the ice at the end of his program, Chen spoke of his disappointment, which was evident almost as soon as he finished.
“Honestly, [I] just let myself down. ‘Let the team down’ was the first thing I thought,” he said. “Definitely not a representation of who I am and what I can do. Definitely need to work harder for the next couple of days.”
Some on Twitter were quick to come to Chen’s defense.
“I feel so bad for Nathan Chen everyone is putting so much pressure on him and he’s only 18 and it’s his first time at the Olympics,” one user wrote. “It’s probably psyching him out.”
Another wrote: “My goodness people. Yes, Nathan Chen fell. Get over it and stop focusing on the negativity and calling it a ‘failure’. What he’s doing at 18 is remarkable, and he’s excited to be there. It’s a lot of pressure. Cut him some slack.”
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Chen’s teammates are “very supportive,” he said.
“Team USA is awesome. The rest of the team, all the skaters, I’m very confident that they’ll be able to back me up with their skates,” he said. “We’re a great team. … And again, I let them down, but I think that they’ll be able to pull through.”
“I definitely let the rest of the team down, so I feel bad in that regard,” he said. “But I think that it was a good opportunity for me to put myself out there and make silly mistakes.”
The first male skater to land five quadruple jumps in a single program, Chen has long been a phenomenon in the sport — notable for his athletic ability as well as for a resolve dating back to childhood.
“Basically, I’ve skated every single day since to where I am now,” he told PEOPLE prior to leaving for South Korea. “I’m currently 18, so that’s quite a few days on the ice.”
“There are times when as an athlete or as a person you kind of lose some motivation for what you’re doing, but for me my biggest goal is to make that Olympic team,” Chen said. “My biggest goal is to be on that podium for the Olympics. And every single day when I wake up, I know that’s my goal and what I’m working for — I’ve worked my entire life for this moment and I’m not just going to give it up that easy.”
Chen will return to the ice when he competes in the men’s singles late next week. He could compete again in the team event’s free skate, if the U.S. advances — or officials could swap him out for another men’s skater on the team, such as Adam Rippon or Vincent Zhou.
The 2018 Winter Olympics began on Thursday and continue through Feb. 25. To learn more, visit teamusa.org.