From the Greatest of All Time to the greatest comeback, the men's free skate was and always will be a pivotal moment in Nathan Chen's career. And then there was the comeback of Javier Fernandez from the disappointment (over a technicality, no less) four years ago in Sochi to win his and Spain's first figure skating Olympic medal. It was a day of skating that will live on in our collective consciousness for quite a while.
Recap/videos: Men's free skate
Had his free skate gone wrong today, it would have been hard to imagine how difficult it would have been for Chen to recover. Everything about that program was crucial to his career and where it would go after today. A redeeming free skate and he can be assured that he still knows how to compete. A third career-low program and his mindset as a competitor, and frankly his entire future as a figure skater, would have been in serious jeopardy.
How does a skater who has, up to now, only succeeded, recover from three enormous disappointments at the biggest competition of his life?
We'll never know, because Chen turned it all around with the best free skate of his life so far - and the fifth best of all time. It won him the free skate portion of the event and vaulted him from an unimaginable 17th to fifth overall. He ended up eight points away from the podium and a fraction away from fourth, right behind Boyang Jin, who made a comeback himself from ankle injuries just a couple months ago.
After a confidence-shattering Team Event short program, his success in the short depended on the very first jump. And when he fell on that quad lutz to open, you knew it wasn't going to get much better. His free skate was a completely different story - a clean lutz to open and his confidence skyrocketed. And it was then that you were entirely convinced that every mistake that Chen made this week had to do with him overthinking this competition.
And when Chen let his muscle memory take over, the brilliance returned. It was telling when his coach, Rafael Arutyunyan, said to him afterward, "This time, it was you."
Nathan Chen was at his best - where he and everyone else willed him to be.
On the other end of the spectrum, in his third and final Olympics - in perhaps his final competition - Javier Fernandez made good on righting the wrong that happened to him four years ago in Sochi. Medal in sight in 2014, Fernandez popped his second quad salchow into a triple, then unknowingly did an invalid triple salchow at the end of his program (he had done the maximum three combos already and because it was a repeat, it counted as a fourth combo, which got the entire 4+ point jump invalidated - he lost bronze by less than two points).
After skating a brilliant short program yesterday, Fernandez came in knowing that a clean skate would win him a medal. In a ridiculously deja vu moment, he popped that second quad salchow again - this time into a double. But his program was designed such that he wouldn't have that issue again, and he calmly and coolly skated the rest of his program clean.
A year ago, it looked as if Fernandez was two years to early in his peak. After all, the two World titles he won were in 2015 and 2016, right before the onslaught of new quads arrived. But as I've noted this season, slow and steady might just win the race this season.
Though it wasn't gold, this bronze for Fernandez is just as sweet. And he can retire an Olympic medalist.
The men were truly full of incredible moments. If I wrote about each one of them, I'll never get to sleep. But here's a quick look at some of my favorite highlights before we move on to the ice dance competition.
- Shoma Uno grits it out even though he was just off-kilter for most of his free skate. Sitting in third after the short, he proved his mettle and grabbed the silver just ahead of Fernandez. He fully admitted that being in the shadow of the media craze over Yuzuru Hanyu probably helped him focus on the task at hand. The future continues to be bright for Uno.
- A sixth-place debut (who called it?) was a superb debut for Vincent Zhou, skating in his first major senior international event ever. He became the first person to land a quad lutz in Olympic competition yesterday, and he delivered.
- All signs indicate that Patrick Chan has skated his last competitive program. It wasn't anywhere near his most memorable, but it was a fine effort. His goal here was most certainly the Team gold, which makes him a three-time Olympic medalist. Chan revolutionized the sport in the years after Sochi - skaters today wouldn't be as all-around as they are without him leading the way.
- Adam Rippon's 10th made it three American in the top ten. Never a contender for a medal here, Rippon nonetheless skated another program to be proud of. He has been and is still the most consistent American skater on the men's side this season. Rippon made this Olympics his own.