If you felt a sudden gust of wind shortly after midnight ET, that was me exhaling after Nathan Chen’s long program, a breath I had been holding for four years.* At every Olympics as far back as I can remember, some favorite skater of mine manages to disappoint me, leaving me sullen for days as I wonder how they might have walked in fields of gold. Whether it be Nancy Kerrigan in ’94, Michelle Kwan in ’98 and ’02, or Sasha Cohen in ’06, some American always finds a way to miss out on their gold medal moment. I now live my life expecting disappointment at every turn. When I eat spaghetti while wearing a white shirt, I mentally plan when I’m going to have to go to the dry cleaners. I’m working on it in therapy.
Last Olympics, it was Nathan Chen who got my hopes up. A master of quadruple jumps, he was seen as a favorite going into the Pyeongchang Games, heavily promoted as a superstar of the event. However, in the 2018 team short program and the men’s short program, two disastrous performances left this quad god seeming very human. Although Chen came back in that Olympics with an astonishingly high score in the long program, this gold medal favorite ended up a disappointing fifth place.
There is another trend in U.S. skating, besides perpetually hurting my feelings: male skaters flopping at their first Olympics only to come back as champions. In 1980, Scott Hamilton placed fifth, but in 1984 he placed first. In 1984, Brian Boitano placed fourth, but in 1988 he placed first. In 2006, Evan Lysacek placed fourth, but in 2010, he placed first. In the men’s event at this Olympics, that trend continued. After placing fifth in 2018, Nathan Chen is now your 2022 Olympic men’s gold medalist. But to understand how Chen reached the top of that podium, we must first examine the gauntlet of international talent that came before his gold medal performance.
Yuzuru Hanyu (Japan)
If there was a tragic figure of men’s figure skating at this Olympics, it was Yuzuru Hanyu. A two-time gold medalist going into these Games, he had a shocking error in the short program, receiving zero points for a planned quadruple salchow by “popping” it and completing a single salchow instead. That error left him in eighth place and without a realistic shot at the gold medal. However, a gold medal wasn’t Hanyu’s only goal in Beijing. After winning two of those in Sochi and Pyeongchang, Hanyu set his sights on something no skater had ever done before: completing a quadruple axel in competition. He has said it was one of the biggest reasons he wanted to compete in Beijing. Even the theme of his short program was his emotional journey when he was struggling to learn the quadruple axel. The man is obsessed.
A quadruple axel is the hardest quadruple jump possible, as it is 4.5 revolutions in the air instead of 4 (due to its distinctive forward takeoff). When I was growing up in the sport, “quadruple axel” was the type of thing you’d say when referring to something so hard that it was impossible: “He’s so far behind he’d have to do a quadruple axel now to win!” At these Olympics, Hanyu attempted the impossible. In a program titled “Heaven and Earth,” Hanyu’s very first jump was the quadruple axel. He leapt toward heaven and, unfortunately, crashed back down to earth, falling on an underrotated attempt at the jump. Hanyu pulled himself off the ice, shook it off, and attempted his next jump, the quadruple salchow, the one that had ruined his chances in the short program. He fell again.
If there is one thing skaters know how to do, it’s how to get up after we fall (as much as I have wanted to be dragged off the ice by coach after an embarrassing wipeout). After Hanyu’s two falls, he went on to complete his next five jumping passes without a major error, including two quadruple-triple combinations. His artistic expression, as always, was breathtaking. After his initial errors, he seemed to find himself and finished his program with an arresting intensity, like a celestial warrior on a mission from the gods.
His arm movements had me spellbound. It wasn’t just aimless flailing—each arm position meant something, had feeling in it. Due to the quality of his artistry, along with his high grade of execution scores, Hanyu earned a score that put him in first place until the last three skaters of the night. He ultimately placed fourth overall, but in the journey to that off-podium finish, Hanyu had tapped at the edges of the heavens, almost achieving a feat few had even dreamed possible.
Jason Brown (USA)
I would be remiss in covering the men’s long program to not briefly mention the achievements of Jason Brown. It is hard to write about Brown’s skating because I am running out of new superlative adjectives. Without a quadruple jump, Brown instead aimed for completing clean programs that were works of art. In his long program, set to the theme from Schindler’s List, you could practically feel his body ache to the sounds of Itzhak Perlman’s violin.
Watching his position in an Ina Bauer, an element in which the skater’s blades are parallel but pointing opposite directions, I said “mmm!” out loud like I’d just sampled a delicious dessert. Brown had beautiful landings on all seven of his jumping passes. Due to the lesser difficulty of his jumps, his score was only enough for sixth place, but I found him to be the greatest artist in the event. I’m certain Brown’s creative legacy will live on beyond those of many of his more decorated contemporaries.
Shoma Uno (Japan)
Skating third to last in the long program was Shoma Uno, the reigning Olympic silver medalist. His long program was set to Ravel’s Bolero, one of the sport’s most overused pieces of music, being used by Russian champion Kamila Valieva at these same Olympics. But Bolero is overused for a reason: It slaps! I had a little trouble connecting with Uno’s short program, but something shifted in his free skate. In the words of Sally Field, “The first time I didn’t feel it but this time I feel it!”
Uno’s long program was not technically perfect. He lurched forward and put his hands on the ice on the landing of a quadruple flip. He barely held on to the landing of a quadruple toe loop. He popped the ending of a planned triple-triple combination. But in the same program he completed three other quadruple jumps and, in my opinion, elevated his performance style. I felt the continuity between all his elements and a cohesion between skater and music. It wasn’t without error, and I do think it’s a bit too literal to skate to Bolero while wearing a bolero, but it was a performance I will remember. Shoma Uno ends up with a bronze medal to add to his collection, along with a bronze in the team event at these Games.
Yuma Kagiyama (Japan)
Depending on what Nathan Chen decides to do with his life, Yuma Kagiyama is now your odds-on favorite to be the 2026 Olympic gold medalist. As the reigning world silver medalist, he didn’t exactly come out of nowhere, but the 18-year-old Japanese skater certainly had a “star is born” moment in Beijing. Skating second to last, with his two-time Olympian father watching on the sidelines, Kagiyama was facing incredible pressure. He was seen as having the best shot of anyone to win gold over Nathan Chen. His music, Hans Zimmer’s Gladiator score, underscored the drama of the moment. Unlike in his short program, where he skipped across the ice to Michael Bublé’s “When You’re Smiling” in a perhaps-too-cutesy style, Kagiyama leaned into a confident maturity in his free skate. In an almost completely clean skate, he attempted four quadruple jumps, completing three cleanly and having a step-out on the landing of one. When he hit his landings, he really hit, perhaps because of his phenomenal speed into his elements. Some programs broadcast emotion outward, but this one drew me in. Kagiyama’s score ultimately garnered him the silver medal, making him the youngest man on the men’s podium since Viktor Petrenko in 1988. And despite not becoming the Olympic champion, he claimed his title as the next superstar of the sport.
Nathan Chen (USA)
At the 2018 Olympics, Nathan Chen seemed weighed down by the pressure, not necessarily enjoying his experience. At these Olympics, he came in with a palpable confidence, laying down a world record score in the short program. Despite this confidence, I was still so nervous for Nathan Chen that I had to put down my wine glass for fear it would shatter in my hand. In a nearly flawless free skate, Nathan Chen completed five quadruple jumps, albeit with a rough landing on one. Nathan had returned to music from a previous season, an Elton John medley. Chen frequently comes off as stoic, on and off the ice, but here he displayed a wide range of emotion. During the opening to “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” he seemed tender and wistful. As the music transitioned into “Rocketman,” he began to exhibit a subtle triumphant swagger. And by the time he was completing a hip-hop-inspired step sequence to “Benny and the Jets” (I know it sounds insane on paper, but trust me, it works!), he was positively giddy.
At one point the joyful Chen almost slipped off an edge during this step sequence, which could have resulted in a repeat of his face-plant on the same element at January’s National Championships. But it was charming because it made the Rocketman seem more human! By the time Nathan Chen struck his final pose, I would not have been surprised if he had shot lightning bolts out of his fingers. This was not just redemption; it was revelation.
The last American man to win gold at the Olympics was Evan Lysacek in 2010, a win he achieved without attempting a single quad. Across the men’s event of the 2022 Olympics, Nathan Chen completed seven quads. When the scores came in, Chen had the highest score for both his technical elements and his program components, resulting in a commanding win by more than 22 points. While it can be fun to root for the underdog, in this event, it was a joy to watch the favorite claim his place in history. In this long program, skaters leapt toward heavenly, impossible goals; some were achieved and some, while still unrealized, now seem closer than ever. If men’s figure skating keeps advancing as fast as it has in the past decade, I fully expect the 2026 Olympic champion to be a man who has learned how to levitate for four minutes straight. And I look forward to being nervous for him, too.
Correction, Feb. 10, 2022: This article originally misstated when Nathan Chen’s routine ended. It was shortly after midnight ET, not around 10 p.m. ET.