Nathan Chen, the 17-year-old U.S. champion, faced the pressure of skating after Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu with a gold medal at stake on Sunday.
He met it, bagging the biggest title of his young career at the Four Continents Championships.
Chen did so at the 2018 Olympic venue, and with minor jumping mistakes, boosting hopes he can prevail at worlds next month and again in South Korea next year.
Chen landed five quadruple jumps — matching his record for a free skate — to total 307.46 points, the highest in the world this season.
Hanyu landed four quads — with a costly double Salchow, as he did in the short program — for 303.71. Another Japanese, Shoma Uno, took bronze with 288.05 points. Full results are here.
“There were some mistakes here and there,” said Chen, who became the first American to outscore Hanyu at an event in more than five years. “There are definitely things I need to work on, but I’m certainly happy with the way everything went.”
Hanyu skated before Chen and put down the highest free-skate and total scores in the world this season, despite those Salchow errors, and still more than 25 points shy of his world record from last season.
“A mistake is a mistake, and I’m happy I was able to show almost everything,” Hanyu said.
Chen, the last skater to go, waited to take the ice while several kids cleaned the ice of Winnie the Pooh bears tossed by adoring Hanyu fans. This has become routine when Hanyu skates.
“With the whole Winnie the Pooh situation, it’s something that I can’t change, but it was something I was expecting,” Chen said.
If Hanyu was near his best, he still beats Chen — for now — but Chen must have known that with a strong free skate, he could overcome the less-than-perfect Hanyu. Chen had a 6.08-point cushion over a flawed Hanyu from Friday’s short program.
Chen’s free skate was marvelous, but not quite his jumping showcase of the U.S. Championships in January. He turned out of one of his five quad landings and also had negative execution scores on both triple Axels (one in combination).
“I tried five quads today, and I landed three of the five solidly,” Chen said. “The other two were a little shaky, so that’s something that I need to improve on for worlds.”
Still, Chen scored 204.34 points for the free skate — his best in international competition by nearly seven points — after Hanyu tallied 206.67.
It’s the biggest win for a U.S. man since Evan Lysacek‘s Olympic title in 2010. The Four Continents field included every single Olympic medal contender except for two-time reigning world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain.
The victory marked the latest step in Chen’s incredible ascent since the start of 2016. He is fulfilling promise — and then some — since becoming the darling boy of the 2010 U.S. Championships.
In January 2016, Chen took bronze at nationals at 16, becoming the youngest man to finish in the top three since 1973.
He suffered a season-ending hip injury in the exhibition later that day but came back in the fall to beat Hanyu and Fernandez in the Grand Prix Final free skate, taking silver overall.
Last month, Chen shattered U.S. Championships scoring records en route to becoming the youngest U.S. men’s gold medalist since 1966.
Those last two competitions made Chen a world and Olympic medal contender. Now, he must be considered a medal favorite and a gold-medal contender going into worlds in six weeks, especially given the exceptional Hanyu’s inconsistency.
Hanyu sat off stage when Chen’s score came up Sunday afternoon. He learned it, scrunched his eyes and cupped his cheeks.
“Before going on to the podium I looked at Nathan,” Hanyu said, “and I felt envious. I wanted to win.”
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