We had great expectations for Nathan Chen in the leadup to the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. One of the most widely hyped athletes coming into the event, Chen was sponsored by Coca-Cola, United Airlines and Kellogg's and was featured in a Super Bowl ad. At only 18, he was called "the greatest athlete in the sport's history" and was considered a gold-medal favorite.
But when it came time to perform in Pyeongchang, Chen buckled under the weight of others' expectations. Far from winning a gold medal, he made his Olympic debut only to fall in his short program, finishing the competition in fifth place.
Four years later, Chen has finally met the public's expectations today in Beijing by earning a gold medal in men's figure skating. Ironically, after gaining some perspective post-Pyeongchang, he did it in part by rejecting those expectations altogether.
Rather, instead of focusing on winning at these Olympics, he was just hoping to have fun. "I'm so happy," he said on the NBC broadcast after sealing the win in the free skate. "I just had a blast out there, so I'm just really grateful."
Chen started his individual competition by setting a world record in the short program with a dynamic and emotive performance that put him solidly in first place. His free skate wasn't perfect, with the most egregious mistake being a missed connection from a quad to a triple flip. But it was clear before the four minutes were up that Chen had done it, finally winning the gold medal that had eluded him the last Olympics with a 332.60.
The performance closed the deal for perhaps the most widely—and wildly—hyped athlete coming into the past two Winter Olympics. "These past four years will come down to four minutes," NBC commentator Tara Lipinski said shortly before Chen took the ice, as if Chen was set not to compete in a sporting event but to save America from an impending nuclear disaster. It's exactly the type of pressure-laden rhetoric that the public has come to question following Simone Biles' withdrawal from competition during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and again after Mikaela Shiffrin's struggles in these Games.
For his part, Chen took it to heart back in 2018. "I didn't have fun with it," Chen told USA Today's Tom Schad about his time in Pyeongchang. He told The New York Times Juliet Macur that he internalized the pressure in the leadup to those Games and was obsessed with winning.
It's not that Chen doesn't deserve attention—far from it. Even for those who know nothing about the sport, when Chen is on the ice, his technique, his artistry, his dynamism make it hard to keep your eyes off him, and normally this translates into wins. But in Pyeongchang, the attention translated into a lackluster performance. There, Chen fell in both the team competition and the individual short program. He was able to turn the page for the free skate, hitting five quads in one competition, but it wasn't enough to make up for his short program, and he finished well below his potential in fifth.
He learned a valuable lesson at those games, he told Macur. Even after he loses, "the world continues to turn," he said. It's a mindset he's been able to cultivate thanks to broadening his horizons beyond skating, including by working toward a degree at Yale and playing piano.
It's a mindset that has served him well—since the 2018 Olympics, Chen has failed to win just one competition. Here, he continued to stave off his rivals old and new, including the back-to-back Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu, who came in fourth after popping one of his quad jumps in the short program. Shoma Uno, the 2018 silver medalist who was also the first man to land a quad flip, beat Chen at Skate America this year and was fit to pounce on the opportunity if Chen made errors. But a fall in the free skate kept him out of contention for gold, though he still took a well-deserved bronze. World silver medalist Yuma Kagiyama came in as a dark horse after his delightfully upbeat short program put him in third going into the free skate. A less-than-perfect free skate was still enough to get him a silver.
Even as Chen dominated the competition, the Japanese skaters gave us a glimpse of the future of this ever-changing and cutthroat sport, one today's veterans will no longer factor in. At only 18, Kagiyama has plenty of time to surpass Chen. And in his free skate, Hanyu made a valiant attempt to complete a quadruple axel in what would have been a first in men's figure skating.
The sport's rapid evolution means that competing isn't something skaters can take for granted, and Chen seems to be acutely aware of this. "Every opportunity that I get at competitions is one that I should be grateful for—and especially the Olympics, that's a completely different story," Chen told NBC News after the short program. "I'm just really happy to be here."
And when you're already happy, winning is just an added bonus.