Four of the most extraordinary comeback performances in Olympic figure skating history

We all experience failures in our lives. The bigger the failure, the harder it is to come back, and there may not be a bigger stage on which to suffer a setback than the Olympic Games. But as these epic comebacks from figure skaters at past Olympic Games prove, we all have the ability to overcome adversity through perseverance and grit.

By Chiaki Nishimura
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

A typical figure skating competition is divided into two segments: the short programme and free skating. The combined score from both segments determines the final standings.

So, while a poor showing in the short programme can impact an athlete's mind, the free skating section provides a chance at redemption - and a much improved score that could launch them onto the podium.

Here are four such examples of exceptional free skating comeback performances at the Olympic Winter Games.

Nathan Chen - PyeongChang 2018

Nathan Chen looked grim-faced after the Men's Single Skating Short Program
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

‘Honestly, it was bad. I made as many mistakes as I possibly could have.’

Nathan Chen (USA) went into his first Olympic Winter Games at PyeongChang 2018 as a gold medal favourite after winning the men's singles competition at the 2018 Grand Prix Final. However, the then-18-year-old Chen made a series of mistakes in the short programme at the Games, earning a score of 82.27 - 20 points below his season-best and almost 30 points behind his rival Hanyu Yuzuru (JPN).

Finding himself in 17th place overall following his disappointing short program performance, Chen elected to alter his routine for the free skate, performing six quadruple jumps instead of five.

Although Chen missed the podium in PyeongChang, his outstanding free skate showing - which included Chen making Olympic history with six successful quad jumps - vaulted him up into fifth place overall

Chen looked back on his experience at PyeongChang 2018 in a roundtable interview following the World Figure Skating Championships in March 2021.

“I think that just having experience of making mistakes and still trying to figure out ways to get back has been really useful in training and competition. Not every single day will I go to training and be like, ‘Oh, I'm on top of my game.’ Things can’t always go super.”

In Beijing 2022, we can expect some great performances from Chen, who is a three-time world champion and the current world recordholder for the free skate and the combined score, as well as from Chen's rival Hanyu, who is aiming for his third consecutive Olympic gold medal.

Mao Asada - Sochi 2014

Mao Asada of Japan reacts after competing in the Figure Skating Ladies' Short Program on day 12 of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics
Picture by 2014 Getty Images

In the women's short programme at Sochi 2014, Asada Mao (JPN) suffered a shocking start to the competition. The 2010 Olympic silver medallist and three-time world champion fell on her signature triple axel attempt and was unable to regain her composure as more mistakes followed in the short programme, with the then-24-year-old dropped to 16th place at the halfway point of the competition.

Less than 24 hours after the short program, Asada stood on Olympic ice once more for the free skating portion of the contest. One would be forgiven for thinking that the Japanese would be overwhelmed with thoughts of the previous day's failure, but Asada started her performance calmly and landed eight triple jumps, including a triple axel, as she set a new personal best with a score of 142.72.

As soon as Asada completed her emotional performance, she burst into tears. She then gave a big nod of her head, as if to calm herself or to say ‘well done’ and smiled as the crowd cheered her on.

Although Asada finished in 6th place, when she was asked about the most memorable performance in her career at her retirement press conference in 2017, she chose her free skating routine in Sochi:

(After the short programme) I felt so bad and was more depressed than ever...but I was able to show my resilience through the performance and what's more I did that in the Olympics - I think that's the best thing.

Evan Lysacek - Turin 2006

Evan Lysacek competes in the Men's Short Program Figure Skating 
Picture by 2006 Getty Images

Evan Lysacek (USA), who won a gold medal in men’s single figure skating at Vancouver 2010, has a bitter memory on his Olympics debut at Turin 2006. At those Games, the then-21-year-old fell on his first triple axel and a series of mistakes followed in the short programme. The 2005 World Championships bronze medalist finished the day in 10th place.

On top of the disappointing performance, Lysacek was suffering from stomach flu and at one point it was thought that he might have to withdraw from the competition. However, he received fluids from IVs and competed in free skating, delivering one of the best performances of his career as the American clawed his way back to fourth place overall.

Despite the disappointment in just missing out on the podium, Lysacek has since mentioned how his experience at Turin 2006 helped push him to become a world and Olympic champion.

After his retirement in 2013, he reflected on his career from Turin 2006 to Vancouver 2010, where he won a gold medal, in an interview with Team USA.

"I set my sights on 2010, knowing that so much could happen in four years. I kept my failure from Torino in my mind at every second.

"The day of my short program in Vancouver, I had trouble keeping the memory of 2006 out of my mind, so I told myself that it was up to me to not ever feel that way again."

Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot - PyeongChang 2018

Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot during the Pair Skating Free Skating
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

PyeongChang 2018 was the fifth Olympics for Ukrainian-born Aljona Savchenko, who represented Germany in the pairs event alongside French-born Bruno Massot, her partner since 2014. The pair came into the Games in strong form, having won silver at the 2017 World Championships and gold at the Grand Prix finals, which took place two months before the Winter Games.

However, an error by Massot in the short programme (he landed a double salchow instead of the triple Savchenko completed) dropped them to fourth.

In the free skating, however, they turned things around. Their haunting performance brought a gold medal with a world record highest score in the pair free skating. After the win, Massot said, "Yesterday I said I don’t want [Savchenko] to come back with another bronze medal. She deserved this gold medal.’

In May 2021, Savchenko revealed that she and Massot will not be competing next season on social media. However, it’s worth mentioning that the Chinese pair of Sui Wenjing and Han Zheng, who won silver at PyeongChang 2018 and the world championships in 2021, will expect to compete in Beijing 2022. They missed the gold medal by 0.43 points at PyeongChang 2018 and will be aiming for a long-awaited gold medal at Beijing 2022.