| USA TODAY Sports
GANGNEUNG, South Korea – The loquacious Adam Rippon was in the mixed zone Saturday afternoon, his successful run in the Olympics over, when he suddenly got distracted and stopped talking. That doesn’t happen every day. Something big must have been going on.
It was. The scores for China’s Boyang Jin were popping up on a nearby TV screen, and Rippon wanted to see, as the entire skating world did, if American Nathan Chen would still be holding onto the lead, improbably enough, once they were announced.
“I’m talking to you,” Rippon told reporters, “but I’m watching skating.”
Two hours earlier, Chen had soared into first place by becoming the first skater in Olympic history to land five clean quadruple jumps, and a sixth with a hand down, in a long program.
Let’s stop and say that again. Chen went for six quads, and didn’t fall on a one of them, with only the one mistake. And to think that eight years ago, American Evan Lysacek won the Olympic gold medal in Vancouver with this many quads: zero.
After a horrible short program left him mired in 17th place, the 18-year-old Chen suddenly leaped into contention with a long program that would end up being the day’s best – although no one knew that yet. The day was too young. There were still 15 skaters coming after him.
Soon, fellow American Vincent Zhou, at 17 the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic team, who had landed four clean quads himself in his long program, moved into second place behind Chen.
I have seen the future of American men’s skating, and it has four revolutions.
One by one, the best male skaters came and went, and Chen was still in first, with a total score of 297.35, with Zhou still in second with 276.69.
All of a sudden, it appeared no one could touch Chen – which is why he had been a medal favorite leading into the Games. His long program score of 215.08, his best ever, was holding up. Even after the first skater in the last group, Chen was in first, with just five skaters – five great skaters – left to go.
That was when Jin took the ice, as Rippon was talking about the thrilling time he has had at these Olympics and how his life has now been changed forever by his performances here and his willingness to speak out on any and all topics, including his sexuality as an openly gay athlete.
But he was scoreboard watching too.
“I saw how Nathan skated and I saw how Vincent skated,” said Rippon, 28, who doesn’t try a quad and knew he would be far behind the others because of it. “I’m so honestly grateful to skate in the same competition as they do. They are incredible.”
He continued: “I skate with Nathan every day and he’s had such a rough (expletive) week and for him to put that all behind him and skate so well today, I saw him before I had my six-minute warmup and he was just in street clothes, and I gave him a hug and said, ‘I’m so proud of you.’
“He had the weight of the world on him,” Rippon said, “and, Vincent, the future is out there for him. These kids are amazing. I’m so honored and grateful to be on this team with these kids. They feel like my kids.”
Then Jin’s scores appeared: 194.45 in the long program, 297.77 overall. He had passed Chen by 4/10ths of a point.
“Oh my God, these kids,” Rippon said, watching Chen slip to second place, knowing as we all did that Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu and Shoma Uno and Spain’s Javier Fernandez were still to skate.
“These kids are out of control. This is the future.”
Chen stayed in second after Canadian veteran Patrick Chan had another disappointing Olympic performance, dropping to ninth place. But then the Big Three of Hanyu, Uno and Fernandez caught him, dropping Chen to fifth, Zhou to sixth and Rippon to 10th.
Still, Chen won the long program, finishing nearly nine points ahead of Hanyu, who became the first male figure skater to win consecutive Olympic gold medals since American Dick Button in 1948-52.
For Chen, there was much to celebrate, but also much to ponder. If only he had not made so many mistakes in his short program a day earlier. If only he had not been so far behind. If only he could have skated all week as he did in the long program, without the pressure that consumed him in the team event and the short program.