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Nathan Chen Strikes a Blow for Men's Figure Skating, America, and Freedom

Two worlds collide
Rival nations
It's a primitive clash
Venting years of frustrations
Bravely we hope
Against all hope
There is so much at stake
Seems our freedom's up
Against the ropes
Does the crowd understand?
Is it East versus West
Or man against man?
Can any nation stand alone?
- Survivor, "Burning Heart"

I don't quote a song from one of the 15 or so montages in "Rocky IV" lightly. It's a metaphor that is inescapable as you watch what Nathan Chen accomplished last night in Beijing. 

One man. Trying to return to his former glory. Thousands of miles from home. In hostile territory. In the dead of winter. Surrounded by people rooting against him. Caught in the epicenter of worldwide events far beyond his control. All that was left for him to do was shut out the noise, summon the long-dormant inner strength that made him great in the first place, but that had seemed to run out for him. To face his competition with no fear. And win hearts and minds around the world. 

And that is exactly what Chen did. 

We of course all remember what happened in Pyeongchang, 2018. Chen has certainly lived in the shadows of it for four long, grueling years. A season that began with so much promise as he made history as the first skater ever to land FIVE quads in competition (lutz, flip, salchow, loop and toe loop), ended with him on the ice repeatedly in the Olympic Short Program, placing a disastrous 17th. And even though he came back to place first in the Free Skate (landing five out of six attempted quads), it was not enough to put him on the medal stand. 

And with all that bearing down on his 22 year old shoulders, this 5-foot-5 1/2 warrior stood tall on the ice and did this:

Personally, I've been saying for a while now that if I never saw someone skate to “La Boheme" again, it would be too soon. But I take it back after this. The Quad King didn't skate to it; he perfected it. 

Chen's 113.97 puts him an incredible five points over the second place finisher, Kagiyama Yuma of Japan. Meanwhile his biggest competition, Yuma's teammate and 2018 Gold winner Yuzuru Hanyu, finished a disappointing eighth. Now I'll be the first to admit, Chen's work here is not done by any means. There's still the Free Skate on Wednesday, and the old Red Sox fan in me refuses to celebrate victory until that Gold is actually hanging from his neck. But in Skating terms, five points is Secretariat making the turn at the Belmont. And I have every confidence he too will increase his lead.

Why? Because Chen is a closer in every sense of the word. You don't need me reminding you he's coming off his fifth World Championship. Or that he's the first American since Scott Hamilton to win three straight. The greats learn from their early mistakes (or the mistakes of four years ago), and finish stronger than they started. Which I will argue would be impossible to do after a Short like he just skated. But with this guy, the word "impossible" doesn't apply. 

Go< Nathan Chen. Go, America. 

Giphy Images.