BEIJING — For almost four years now, Nathan Chen has been the most dominant male figure skater in the world – a cool, quad-jumping maestro unlike anything the sport has ever seen. He's won national and world championships. Broken national and world records. Over a span of more 1,300 days, he did not lose a single competition.
All that had been missing in this marvelous four-year stretch was an Olympic gold medal.
Missing, that is, until Thursday.
Almost four years to the day after a disastrous performance in Pyeongchang, Chen aced his final appearance at the 2022 Winter Olympics and coasted to gold, becoming just the seventh American man to win the men's individual competition at the Games.
Skating to a compilation of music from the 2019 film "Rocketman," the 22-year-old was equal parts graceful, technical and fun in his four-minute performance at Capital Indoor Stadium in Beijing. He landed all five of the quad jumps in his long program for a score of 218.63, pushing his total for the competition to 332.60.
Japan's Yuma Kagiyama finished second to claim the silver, while his countryman Shoma Uno won bronze. Jason Brown, the other American in the field, finished sixth.
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With Thursday's performance, Chen joins an exclusive club of American men to win gold at the Winter Olympics. He is the first to do so since Evan Lysacek in 2010.
His time on the ice Thursday will likely go down as the most memorable of his career to date, a captivating coda on a stretch in which he won every major international competition that he entered for more than three years.
And, in what will likely come as a relief, it should mark the end of the what-about-your-2018-short-program questions that Chen has fielded almost ad nauseum for four years.
In that 2018 short program, Chen made mistakes on all of his attempted jumps, including a fall on a planned quadruple lutz. He finished 17th in the event, which was supposed to be the beginning of a potential medal run. A victory in the long program portion left him fifth overall, two spots off the podium.
In the years since, Chen has talked about being overwhelmed in his first Olympic appearance – feeling too much pressure, and not having enough fun. And he set out to change that. He tried to take the sport less seriously, and embrace his interests away from it. He brought an electric guitar with him to Beijing, for instance, to help unwind.
"I think it just gives you a fresh perspective," Chen said last week, when asked how the 2018 letdown has shaped his perspective. "Just recognizing that within the course of my skating career, I only have a very limited amount of time on the ice and in competition, and especially at the Olympics. So if I can’t enjoy it, then what’s the point in doing it?”
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That outlook was evident on the ice Thursday, as he whisked around to a mishmash of Elton John tunes – complete with an intricate hip-hop step sequence at the end. He also showed off the technical ability and stamina that has led others to call him one of the greats, even before his gold medal.
Scott Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic gold medalist, has likened Chen to Dick Button, a two-time gold medalist who was the first skater to land a triple jump in competition.
"A lot of it has to do with both men revolutionizing our sport, taking the sport to new heights and forcing everyone else to catch up," Hamilton told The Associated Press. "Button did that in 1948 and ’52. He changed the sport forever. With Nathan‘s proficiency on these extremely difficult elements, and the quality that goes along with that proficiency, he is easily the best in the world."
Chen helped the U.S. win a team silver medal earlier at the Games, winning the men's short program portion to give the Americans an early lead. Then, on Tuesday, he set a new world record with his short-program score of 113.97, punching the air in celebration after the music stopped.
"I almost never do stuff like that, so I was like, 'why'd I do that?'" Chen said, with a laugh. "I kind of broke character a little bit there, but just really happy."
On Thursday, when it was all over, there was no first pump. There was no primal scream. He just put his hands on his head and looked up, the dream of a lifetime, finally achieved.