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Nathan "Rocketman" Chen Just Became America's Greatest Athlete

Two days ago, when Nathan Chen set a record with his dazzling performance in the Short program to take an insurmountable lead in the Olympic Men's Figure Skating competition, I made a lot of comparisons to Rocky Balboa in "Rocky IV." 

In retrospect, I did the man a disservice by comparing him to a fictional character. After capturing Gold last night in a Free Skate for the ages, I it occurred to me that he deserves better. I'll leave Rocky for statues in Philadelphia and instead declare that winning in Beijing established Chen as America's greatest athlete. In a post-Tom Brady and (essentially) post-Tiger Woods world, with Lebron James in decline, and with Patrick Mahomes now 1-for-4 when it comes to turning 1-seeds into rings, there is simply no bigger winner than this 22-year-old champion from Salt Lake City. 

In the biggest moment, on the biggest stage, one that presents itself only once every four years (so that you rarely get a second crack at it while you're in your prime), quite literally on the other side of Earth, thousands of miles and 11 time zones from home, he didn't just succeed. He triumphed. He wasn't just great. He was transcendent. Flawless. As teammate Mariah Bell put it, "He deserves to be an Olympic champion, because few people can handle it." 

Chen's program was not only an impressive feat of athleticism no other human could match - he landed all five of his quad jumps for a score of 218.63, giving him a total of 332.60 for the competition and a gap of more than 22 points over the Silver medal winner - it was an artistic triumph. Skating to a three-part program of:

  • "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road"
  • "Rocketman" and
  • "Bennie and the Jets"

… from the "Rocketman" movie soundtrack, he captured the hearts and minds of the sparse, socially distanced crowd and made it feel like there were 100,000 people in Capital Indoor Stadium, all pulling for him. The other Team USA member in the competition Jason Brown, who finished sixth, put it best when he said, "He just is like no one else. … And the way that he’s dealt with the pressure is remarkable."

So true. After his disappointing performance in 2018 at Pyeongchang where he finished 17th in the Short program, Chen had the weight of the world on his shoulders. And all he did was reinvent himself. From USA Today:

Chen talked Thursday about his decision to start working with a sports psychologist, which he called "really helpful." He tried to devote more time to his interests off the ice. He brought an electric guitar with him to Beijing and, before his long program, was throwing a football back and forth with Bell down a hallway at the arena. 

He also transitioned from the classical music-heavy programs he was skating to and be more true to his own personality. (Just watch the way he brings it home during the "Bennie and the Jets" finale, and you'll see for yourself.) And in doing so, has won Gold in every international competition he's entered since. He has the longest current winning streak. And has set the world record six times under the current scoring system. And now has joined the proud ranks of Evan Lysacek, Brian Boitano and Scott Hamilton in bringing Olympic Gold to the States in the last 40 years. 

Name another US athlete in any sport that can say likewise. Never mind. Don't even try. You can't. 

This 5-foot-5 1/2 titan has taken on the best his sport can produce from around the entire globe, beaten them all consistently, and when the stakes were highest did it better than anyone ever has. While doing things no one else can do. If that doesn't make you the best there, I don't know what does. And the beautiful thing is, he doesn't even turn 23 until May. So my no means have we seen the last of this true champion. 

Nathan Chen: America's best. And my mood right now: