Quad revolution Chan helped start swept away his medal hopes, but not his legacy

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea - In his 12 years at the senior level of figure skating, Canada's Patrick Chan has been a transformative athlete.

"I am never going to look at Patrick as anything but a three-time world champion who was the first man to do beautiful skating and multiple quads," said four-time world champion and fellow Canadian Kurt Browning. "He was alpha dog for a long time."

What Browning could not include in that encomium is the one thing missing from Chan's much-decorated career: an individual Olympic gold medal. He let it slip from his grasp in 2014, and it seems out of his reach in the men's competition that begins with the short program Friday morning.

When Chan got his first Olympic gold medal Monday, it was for the team event, in which he had two mistake-riddled performances. That could have made it seem a bittersweet prize, but he refused to see it that way.

"At the end of the day, a medal is a medal," Chan insisted. "I'm going to hold this medal tight to me. That's how I am going to see it. That's how I am going to enjoy it."

Four years ago, there seemed little question Chan would win the Olympic individual title with mistake-free skating. He could do all the big tricks, including quadruple jumps. The quality of his fundamentals, especially the use of edges and balance over his blades, had been peerless during his three-year reign over the sport from 2011 through 2013.

Yet Chan wanted more. When he was named Canada's male athlete of the year in 2011, after two brilliant skates at that year's world championships, he envisioned dominating the sport the way Roger Federer then did in tennis and Tiger Woods in golf.

"He wanted to be remembered for all time," Browning said. "I think he will be remembered that way, but this still isn't quite what he saw for himself."

That picture was coming clearly into focus in Sochi, Russia, after he trailed Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu by a little less than four points in the 2014 Olympic short program. Chan took the ice in the free skate immediately after Hanyu fell twice and messed up a combination, so the Canadian could have overcome that gap even with one error.

Chan made three big mistakes, putting his hand down on the landings of two consecutive jumps and botching a simple double axel at the end. He wound up silver medalist to Hanyu by 4.47 points.

"I kicked myself for two years about that," Chan said. "Then I realized this is just skating, and this is just the Olympic Games, and in two or three weeks, no one is going to remember this, we're all going to move on with our lives. If the individual event is good or bad (here), I'm going to have a great life."

Those words carried an air of rationalization, especially after what Chan would say when he came back to competition after sitting out the season after the Sochi Olympics.

In that year, the sport's quad revolution began to leave him behind. Others were starting to routinely do three (and soon more) quads in a free skate. Chan tried that once and failed, then went on to say he feared for the health of skaters doing so many quads and decried how the sport had come to reward athleticism far more than artistry.

Such criticisms sounded like sour grapes. Browning did not think so.

"When they come from one of the most respected athletes in our sport, they are fair," Browning said.

Chan pressed on, despite knowing his quad limits and persistent triple axel struggles put him at a substantial disadvantage compared to the new generation -- including Hanyu and Shoma Uno of Japan, Nathan Chen of the United States, Boyang Jin of China, and even veteran Javier Fernández of Spain, who has two quads in the short program and three in the free.

Chan returned to the world championships in 2016, finishing a distant fifth, then repeating that last season. He made the Grand Prix Final in 2015 and 2016 but ended up off the podium both times after having won medals at the event in all four seasons before the Sochi Olympics. Even the judges' frequent largesse with his component scores, which came to be known as "Chanflation," was not enough to make him a medal contender at major events.

He went from coach to coach, three in the past three seasons, seeking answers. The latest, Ravi Walia, took over after Chan's dismal performance at October's Skate Canada led the skater to bag his second scheduled Grand Prix event of this season.

"Looking back to the summer when I was struggling and then after Skate Canada, the national title and the stages of making the team and doing the team event seemed so daunting and so far away," Chan said.

"Now I'm standing here after all that. I've survived."

But the triple axel remains an intractable problem. He bungled all three in the team event here, falling on two. In three Olympic Games, he is 1-for-9 on triple axel attempts, with four falls.

"The (triple) axel has been a challenge my entire life," he said. "Maybe I just grew up with the wrong technique. I'm so determined to smoke a great triple axel at the Olympics."

At his first Olympics in 2010 in Vancouver, national pride made Canadians project him as a potential medalist, even if that was a bit unrealistic. Coming off a season riddled with injury and illness, he finished a respectable but disappointing fifth and almost immediately began to be talked of as an Olympic title contender in the next cycle.

A Canadian journalist asked Chan on Monday if he still were in the conversation for the individual event.

"I think I have been in the conversation for a while," he said. "I'm there always."

The last word on Chan's competitive career most likely will not be about winning a second individual Olympic medal. Yet the quality of his skating will be spoken about for years to come.

Browning, the greatest men's skater never to win an Olympic medal, summed up Chan's legacy.

"Patrick will never be known for his quads, even as fantastic as they were," Browning said. "He will be known as one of the greatest ice skaters the sport had ever seen."

(This article originally appeared on icenetwork.)