Nathan Chen leads strong day for Americans in figure skating team event as Sui/ Han set new pairs record

Chen turned in a personal best short program on Friday (4 February) to win the men's short, while teammates Hubbell/ Donohue captured the rhythm dance. Sui/ Han edged out their ROC rivals.

By Nick McCarvel
Picture by Justin Setterfield

Four years after disappointment at the team stage, reigning and three-time world champion Nathan Chen opened his Olympic Games with a bang.

The 22-year-old American skated into the lead in the figure skating team event at Beijing 2022, scoring a career-best 111.71 in the men's short program to put the U.S. out in front by earning 10 points.

The team event kicked off the first day of skating at the Capital Indoor Stadium in Beijing on Friday (4 February), with Chen's teammates Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue winning the ice dance rhythm dance, as well.

China's Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, two-time world champions, set a new world record score (82.23) to win the pairs short program, edging past current world champs Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov (82.64).

After day one, the U.S. lead with 28 points, followed by the ROC with 26 and China with 21. Japan (20) and Italy (18) round out the top five.

In the men's short, Chen earned 10 points for his segment-leading skate, set to "La Boheme" by Charles Aznavour, followed by PyeongChang 2018 silver medallist Uno Shoma of Japan - who also skated a personal best to score 105.46 - and the ROC's Mark Kondratiuk (95.81).

Morisi Kvitelashvili skated into fourth for Georgia (seven points), while Daniel Grassl of Italy placed fifth (six points).

Chen's score was just 0.11 off the world record, a 111.82, set by Hanyu Yuzuru at Four Continents in 2020.

The 10-team event will continue on Sunday (6 February) with the women's short program and men's free skate. Only five teams will advance to the free skating portion - with the ROC favoured to win the gold.

See a full primer on the team event here.

Football first, then world-class skating

Known to be an avid basketball fan, Chen was spotted rink side pre-competition with an American football loosening up for his skate.

On the ice, his short program was technically sound: He hit a quadruple flip to open, then a triple Axel before going for a quad Lutz-triple toe combination, all of which earned positive GOEs (Grades of Execution). Chen led the day on program components, as well, with a 47.86 - a point higher than Uno.

"I'm happy with the way that it went today," he told reporters. "And overall, my goal is just to enjoy this experience as much as I can. I already feel so honoured just to be able to be here at a second Olympics. As much as I can, I'm trying to remember everything and be able to have an experience to look back on and really enjoy."

And that football-throwing pre-skate?

"As soon as I brought that out, [Canada's] Roman Sadovsky was like, 'Oh man, that's the most American thing I've seen,'" Chen said, laughing. "But no, it's been fun to have that. My trainer is a big sports guy himself. It's nice to be able to have someone to throw the football around with. I got a game ball for Christmas, so I started throwing it around a lot more."

Uno, who like Chen is at his second Games, soared to a quad flip to start, as well, then a quad toe-triple toe and triple Axel in his "Oboe Concerto" short. He is without coach Stephane Lambiel in Beijing, the Torino 2006 silver medallist, who tested positive for Covid-19 prior to leaving for the Games from Switzerland.

"These Games, I feel really at ease. I was calm before the skate so I’m pleased with my mindset," said Uno, who is 24. "As I’ve said before, there aren’t too many competitions bigger than the nationals and this is one of them. The intense atmosphere, you can’t beat this."

Kondratiuk, just 18, has had a breakout last few weeks, winning nationals and making his Olympic debut. He held on for a quad toe to start, then did the same on a triple Axel. He hit a quad Salchow-triple toe combination.

Pairs: Sui/ Han set new record over Mishina/ Galliamov

The individual pairs event will close out the Olympics, on 18 and 20 February, but the team short program offered a teaser, with Sui/Han delivering in front of a small group of home fans and an international TV audience as the country has celebrated the Lunar New Year over the last week.

Their orchestral arrangement to Mission Impossible 2 was brilliant from the start, opening with side-by-side triple toe-loops and then a throw triple flip and Level 4 triple twist.

"We did our best and showcased our hard work - it's paid off," Sui said via an interpreter. "Hopefully in the individual event we can skate even better; our coach said we need to relax more."

"We consider this a gift to all of the Chinese people," added Han. "This is our first home Olympics for us... we need to contribute our share so the team event."

Mishina/Galliamov had an equally impressive performance, only to be outscored by the Chinese in program components. The 2019 world junior champions have had a breakthrough last year, and were left wanting with their score just a sliver shy of Sui/Han.

"We're happy that we have almost the same score... of course we would like to have two tenths more," a smiling Mishina said in English. "But, it's OK. We have almost the same and we got nine (points) for the team."

The pairs short featured several strong skates, including by American Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, who had a person best by some five points for a 75.00 total.

Said Knierim: "We're still processing that to be honest. We're doing exactly what we do at home. Putting that program out there on the Olympic stage, that created a feeling that's going to last forever."

Japan's Miura Riku and Kihara Ryuichi were fourth with a 74.45, while Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro of Canada finished fifth at 67.34.

Sui Wenjing (L) and Han Cong, China
Picture by Justin Setterfield

Ice dance: Hubbell/ Donohue fight nerves for first

While Chen was the favourite heading into the men's short, Hubbell and Donohue's win in the rhythm dance was a surprise as they finished ahead of reigning world champions Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov by 1.51 points (85.05).

The Americans' score was a personal best, bettering their previous best from worlds in 2021.

"To be able to put out a performance like that, it felt amazing," said Donohue of the duo Janet Jackson-themed program. "It's an honour to be able to skate like that for the rest of the team who's working their butts off and hoping and wishing for us."

Hubbell said she fought through nerves to skate on Olympic ice: "I was feeling very calm even in the locker room, and then all of a sudden the heartbeat was going. Backstage, I could feel Zach's heart too, and we took some maybe extra deep breaths knowing that we had Team USA to show up for. But I think we skate our best when we know something's on the line and when we feel like we're not only doing it for ourselves, but for other people."

Katsalapov earned a Level 3 for the teams twizzles, though the ROC duo had the highest component marks of the day with 3813. to Hubbell/Donohue's 38.06.

"It’s simple, I just made a mistake," Katsalapov said after their rhythm dance. "Victoria told me on the ice, 'Calm down, let’s keep going.' But unfortunately, a small mistake has cost us a lot of points.”

Italy's Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri were third with a 83.83, while Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier were fourth with a 82.72.

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