Nathan Chen's much-anticipated Olympic debut becomes a flop

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea -- When he stopped skating, Nathan Chen lowered his head and quickly ran a hand through his hair. His face was blank. If something was churning inside him, Chen kept it bottled up.

"It wasn't shock," Chen said of his reaction. "It was more disappointment, the fact I didn't do what I want to do. I'm not going to show that I'm happy and kind of fake it if I'm genuinely not."

Chen truly had nothing to be happy about when it came to his performance. His highly anticipated Olympic debut Friday morning in the short program of the team event was a flop.

It was Chen's lowest-scored short program, by some five points, in two seasons as an international senior skater. None of his three jumping passes went either clean or as planned. He fell on a triple axel. He also turned a planned second quadruple jump into a double, giving him no points on that element because at least a solo triple jump is required.

The performances of Chen and that of the skater who followed, Russian Mikhail Kolyada, were so uncharacteristically bad that they unsettled Japan's Shoma Uno, who watched both before going out as the last of 10 men in the team short program.

"I have never seen them skate so poorly before," Uno said. "I was wondering if it was too early in the morning or they were too nervous because this is a special event. It made me doubt myself on the quad flip."

That was Uno's opening jump, one that he botched, stepping out on the landing. But he recovered nicely and far outscored the rest of the field with 103.25 points.

Israel's Alexei Bychenko was a surprising second at 88.49 points. Despite two falls, Canada's Patrick Chan was third (81.66) and Chen fourth (80.61).

Kolyada's eighth-place implosion, with two falls and a popped axel, had the most significance in the standings. It meant Chan's debacle did not effectively kill Canada's hopes to beat Russia -- OK, "Olympic Athletes from Russia" -- for the gold medal in the team event, which ends Monday.

The schedule, with a 10 a.m. local start time to accommodate prime time TV in the United States, was disconcerting for everyone.

"None of us have competed this early, let alone at the Olympics," Chan said.

Two-time U.S. champion Chen got to the rink at 6 a.m. for a warmup session an hour later and did not have time to return to the Olympic Village before the competition began. He performed at 11 a.m.

"We practice at home around this time (10 a.m.), but I don't get to the rink at 6 for warmups," Chen said.

Chen, 18, expressed regret he had let down Team USA, but it remains in good position for an expected bronze medal. Canada leads with 17 points, followed by the USA (14), and Japan and OAR (13) after what amounts to one-fourth of an event that resumes Sunday.

What Chen really fell short of was the image as a potential Olympic superstar that has accompanied him to South Korea, exemplified by his portrayal as "King Quad" in a United Airlines "Superheroes" advertising campaign.

"We all put these expectations on him, and popping the balloon makes them more realistic, even if he didn't intend to do that," said 1992 Olympic silver medalist Paul Wylie, working here as a Westwood One radio correspondent.

Chan, 2014 Olympic individual and team silver medalist, understands what such burdens mean. His Olympic debut came as a 19-year-old on home soil eight years ago in Vancouver.

"And I had a fraction of the pressure an American skater has," Chan said. "I hope he (Chen) knows it is very normal not to have a good skate."

Chen insisted pressure wasn't a significant factor. Yet he had an uncertain landing on his first jump, a quad flip, forcing him to reduce the second part of that combination to a double toe loop. He looked slow and tentative before making the two bigger jump mistakes later.

"I thought I would be way more nervous," Chen said. "I thought there would be a lot more pressure. Honestly, I felt really comfortable, pretty relaxed, ready to go. I think I was just a little too excited.

"Right now, all I can do is try to analyze what I did wrong and let it go."

He will not compete again until the men's individual event begins next Friday. Adam Rippon is scheduled to go for the U.S. in the team men's free skate Monday.

Chen has been a master of shrugging off horrible practices at a competition. But shrugging off a very bad performance to begin a competition will be a new challenge for him -- and one made more difficult by having to do it at the Olympics.

"One of two things can happen," Wylie said. "Either it makes you really concentrate on the rest, or you freak out and think, 'I'm really off, what's wrong with me?'''

Could Chen's problem have been that he was distracted by something -- perhaps the realization that he's at the Olympics?

"Ultimately, it just kind of feels kind of like any other skating competition," Chen said.

Then he circled back.

"There's the vibe of the Olympics, the idea that you see the rings," he said. "It's different."

Relaxed and too excited? The same yet different? Clearly, Chen was searching for answers.

(This article originally appeared on icenetwork.)