GANGNEUNG, South Korea – Before Adam Rippon took the ice for his Olympic free skate warm-up, he saw Nathan Chen, who was minutes removed from a spectacular performance.
“I gave him a big hug, and I said, I’m so proud of you,” Rippon said. “Because I am. I see how hard he works. He had the weight of the world coming into this.”
Chen and Rippon, two men who have shared a coach for five years but are opposites in demeanor, age and skating style, will look back on these Olympics in vastly different ways.
Chen was asked to sum up his first Olympics in one word.
“Three words,” he said. “Up and down.”
Adam Rippon, who wears his heart on his sequined sleeve, was asked the same question. These are not only the 28-year-old’s first Olympics, but also his last.
“Surreal,” he said. “Is that a good word?”
Chen had one of the all-time Olympic bounce-backs. From the two worst short programs of his young senior international career in the last week to beating gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu by 8.91 points with Saturday’s top free skate score. He jumped from 17th after Thursday’s short to finish fifth overall.
The 18-year-old became the first man to land five clean quadruple jumps in Olympic competition. He attempted six. He recorded the highest technical score ever.
“What happened in the short program allowed me to take a lot of pressure off,” said Chen, the only undefeated male skater this season going into the Olympics. “I wanted to lay everything out there. … I think I redeemed myself to some extent.”
Rippon didn’t attempt a quad – as expected – but was proud to finish 10th after making the Olympics in his third and last try. He broke into tears on the ice in what may have been his last competition. Unlike Chen, Rippon is not committing to skating at next month’s world championships.
“To skate three clean programs, to finish in the top 10 and to come away with an Olympic bronze medal [in the team event], I’m coming away feeling like a champion,” said Rippon as all three Americans made the top 10 (Vincent Zhou was sixth). “Sometimes they say that somebody’s life changes after the Olympic Games, and a lot of times they say it’s the gold medalist, but I really think that I’m going to be one of those people.”
Back to Chen.
His week conjures 2006, when an American at his first Olympics had a disaster of a short program and landed in 10th place. That American was Evan Lysacek, who discovered he was suffering from a stomach flu.
Lysacek, after skipping practice the next morning to get IV treatment for dehydration, came back to land eight triple jumps in his free skate and finish fourth overall.
"It's hard because I dreamed about the Olympics for upwards of a decade,” Lysacek said then. “And that dream didn't include getting sick with a stomach flu, getting stuck with IVs, having my veins collapse and falling in the short program. It became about something different – courage."
Nathan Chen isn’t sick or injured. But, like Lysacek, he had to go deep mentally to recover at his first Olympics. (Unlike Lysacek, Chen had no day off between the short and free)
Lysacek stuck around to watch the medal ceremony in Torino.
“There was a moment for me where I thought: I’m going to do everything that I possibly can to get on that podium the next time,” Lysacek said. “It became so real for me at that point, what it meant and their emotion and you know, their feeling of justification for a life’s training and a life’s work.”
Lysacek won the Olympics four years later.
After Chen’s disaster short program Friday, he lay in bed, trying to forget about what happened. Before his free skate Saturday morning, he checked his phone and saw tweets from Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (Chen, who learned to skate on a Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic practice rink, has a secret Twitter account to follow the NBA) and Olympic champion gymnast Simone Biles.
The Biles tweet came 67 minutes before Chen’s skate.
Then he took the ice. As soon as the music started, he said he felt the support from everyone – the American flags he saw in the crowd, the cascades of “Let’s go Nathans” and messages from friends and family members the previous 24 hours.
“I was super present,” Chen said.
Then came the jumps. Quad Lutz. Quad flip-double toe loop. Quad flip (putting his hand down on the ice). Quad toe-triple toe. Quad toe. Quad Salchow. Triple Axel. Triple flip-half loop-triple Salchow.
“They all just clicked as soon as I took off,” he said. “Usually, halfway through the program, I’m gassed. I’m dead. But I didn’t feel it this time.”
Chen ended his program. He winced in what appeared to be euphoria and rubbed his hands over his face.
“It felt authentic,” he said. “It wasn’t necessarily a hurrah sort of happiness, but it was definitely a lot of happiness.”
Rippon skated 90 minutes later. After embracing Chen, he took the ice with Olympic slopestyle skier Gus Kenworthy in the crowd, waving a rainbow flag. (Rippon said he and his family hope to trek up the mountains for Kenworthy’s event Sunday)
The oldest U.S. Olympic singles skating rookie in 82 years was clean on seven of his eight jumping passes, skating to Coldplay.
“I wasn’t nervous today,” Rippon said. “I felt so serene.”
As his Olympics approached, Rippon shared that when he moved to California five years ago, he was so broke that his grocery shopping consisted of taking all the free apples at the gym. That four years ago, he and Mirai Nagasu climbed to the roof of Nagasu's house and ate In-N-Out they were so upset at missing the Olympic team. That his butt was real.
Reese Witherspoon and Britney Spears tweeted that they were fans.
Rippon may leave these Olympics as the most well-known figure skater in the United States.
He has more than 300,000 followers on both Twitter and Instagram (about three times the amount of Chen, who had one post combined on the two networks the last week, while Rippon had 60 including retweets).
Chinese TV asked him about Beijing 2022, to which he said he could be there in a non-skating capacity.
“I’ll be old as hell!” Rippon said.
What to say about Chen. Perhaps Dick Button, the 1948 and 1952 Olympic champion, put it best before Chen’s free skate.
“Beyonce fell off the stage at a concert and got right back up, so can you,” was tweeted from the 88-year-old’s account, @PushDicksButton.
Chen will stay in PyeongChang through the Closing Ceremony. He hopes to watch a mountain event. Maybe bobsled or a hockey game.
He could have multiple Olympics ahead of him. He knows that’s possible from watching Rippon every day in practice.
“It’s hard to say what it will be like in 10 years,” Chen said at his pre-event press conference Thursday. “It’s hard to say what it will be like tomorrow, but for the most part, if I still have a dream or if I still have something I want to accomplish, I will definitely put the work in.
“I want to get another Olympic medal outside of the team event.”
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