No way to sugarcoat this: Nathan Chen has been awful in his first Olympics

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea - There is no way to sugarcoat this, to find a silver lining or a saving grace, or to think that the light at the end of the tunnel is anything but an oncoming train.

Nathan Chen has simply been awful in his first Olympics.

As poor as Chen was in the team event short program a week ago, he was significantly worse in the individual short program Friday.

"Honestly, it was bad," Chen said. "I made as many mistakes as I possibly could have."

The most gifted jumper in U.S. men's skating history did not have a clean jumping pass among the six he completed in the two short programs. The three in the individual short produced a fall, two step-out landings and failure to do a required combination.

He doesn't seem to know why.

"I'm not really sure what happened," Chen said.

His coach, Rafael Arutunian, gave a cryptic response when he was asked what has happened.

"It's too complicated," Arutunian wrote in a text message after the individual short, before declining a request to elaborate.

Chen finished 17th, with the top 24 skaters advancing to Saturday's free skate. He skated like a minor league journeyman in a competition where the top four men performed like major league all-stars and the winner, Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, was a Hall of Famer.

"It should have been different," Chen said. "Stuff happens."

With a score of 82.27, the two-time U.S. reigning champion wound up more than 29 points behind Hanyu, the reigning Olympic champion who gave an absolutely magnificent skate in every otherworldly dimension. One would never have known that Hanyu missed more than two months of training after injuring his ankle Nov. 9 and had not competed since the Rostelecom Cup in mid-October, when Chen beat him for first place.

Javier Fernández of Spain was second at 107.58, Japan's Shoma Uno third at 104.17 and Boyang Jin of China fourth at 103.32. It was the first time four men have topped 100 points in a short program.

Chen, 18, said he had no regret about having done the team event, but what happened last Friday had to shake him. After saving an opening combination that finished with a double toe loop instead of a triple, he received zero points by doubling a quad toe and then fell on a triple axel.

And this whole implosion came after he arrived in South Korea buoyed by another five-clean-quad free skate at last month's U.S. championships.

"Until the short in the team event, I wasn't sure he was human," said 1984 Olympic champion Scott Hamilton, an NBC analyst at the Winter Games.

"I don't know what happened, and I'm sure he doesn't either. He's been riding so high for so long, I never thought he was capable of skating so far beneath his incredible talent."

Chen now has done the two worst -- and lowest-scored -- short programs of his senior career in the Olympics. When the second one ended, he stood with hands on hips, seemingly unable to fathom his failure.

The sad details included a fall on a quad lutz attempt (-4.0 overall Grade of Execution), a bad step-out on the quad toe (-2.63 GOE) and a step-out and hand down on the triple axel (-3.0). He was tentative at the outset and sluggish after the fall, and that was accurately reflected in component scores in the low-to-mid 8's.

Chen skated immediately after Hanyu, whose jumps, spins and footwork added up to a seamless piece as hauntingly beautiful as the G minor Chopin ballade to which the Japanese maestro performed. As expected, many of the Japanese fans saluted him by throwing scores of stuffed versions of Hanyu's good luck charm, Winnie the Pooh, onto the ice surface.

It was a hard act to follow.

"I have skated after him before, and skated well," Chen said. "Obviously, that didn't happen here. I don't think that (played) too much of a role."

NBC analyst Johnny Weir, a two-time Olympian, saw it differently.

"He had to skate right after his biggest rival got the second-best score ever," Weir said. "Nerves would definitely come into it. Nathan wasn't using his full knee bend on jumps. When you're nervous, your legs shorten up."

Given what happened at last year's world championships, where Chen finished sixth despite two significantly flawed skates, there now have to be questions about his ability to perform at his sport's biggest events.

"He has to be ready for this stage," Weir said.

But Chen's world and Olympic debuts have been underwhelming, to be polite.

"He has had moxie on the Grand Prix," Weir said. "He needs to find that swagger again."

Chen needs to find it by Saturday morning at 11:22 a.m. local time, about two hours earlier than when he would have skated if he had made the final free skate group. Being in the top six seemed the least result one would have expected of Chen.

He skated three minutes after Hanyu in the short program. He will now skate 2 hours, 20 minutes ahead of the Japanese superstar in the free skate.

"I've never been in this position before," Chen said, "so I don't know exactly what to do."

Even with no possibility of his free skate producing the medal many had predicted for him, it could be a revealing, even pivotal, moment in Chen's young career. Can he turn his disappointment into competitive fire and end the Olympics on a positive note?

"Hopefully this won't diminish his belief in who he is, and who he could become in this sport," Hamilton said. "I do believe what's most important is what he decides to do with this experience. He gets to choose."

(This article originally appeared on icenetwork.)