I just have to put this behind me and keep on moving forward. —Nathan Chen
HELSINKI, Finland — As Salt Lake City's Nathan Chen glided onto the Hartwall Arena rink for his free skate Saturday afternoon, he had to avoid some of the dozens of Winnie the Poohs being removed from it.
Fans had littered the ice with the plush bears and other stuffed animals to celebrate a record-breaking performance by Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, for whom Pooh is a good-luck charm.
For any skater — and especially a 17-year-old World Championships rookie like Chen — it wasn’t easy to follow that.
“It was difficult but kind of expected,” Chen said. “It wasn’t that big of an issue for me.”
Chen had another big issue: the physical instability created by a crumbling skate boot, and the effect that had on his competitive mindset.
Both clearly contributed to an error-riddled free skate that left him disappointed and in sixth place at an event he had entered as a medal contender.
“I just have to put this behind me and keep on moving forward,” Chen said.
Hanyu, the reigning Olympic champion, pulled himself from fifth after the short program to his second world title with a free skate that was dazzling both athletically (four clean quadruple jumps) and artistically. He finished with 321.59 points.
Shoma Uno of Japan (319.31) and Jin Boyang of China (303.58) went 2-3 to make history. This is the first time skaters from Asian countries have swept the men’s medals at the World Championships.
Chen had 290.72 points. He finished fourth in the free skate to the three medalists, and a clean performance likely would have been good enough to win the bronze medal.
“It wasn’t at all the program I wanted to do,” Chen said.
“I'm glad that with the mistakes I made today, I'm still potentially competitive against these guys.
One mistake was not having a pair of backup boots broken in and ready to use. Chen had already gone through several pairs of boots this season, and he chose to stick with a pair held together by duct tape rather than use a brand-new pair he never had worn.
The right boot was giving way on every takeoff for the quadruple lutz, the jump with which he opened his program. He also knew it could impact other jumps.
Yet he gamely stuck to a plan with a record six quadruple jump attempts. All were judged fully rotated, but he fell on two (including the opening lutz, ending a 20-quad success streak), and he received negative grades of execution on two others.
The lutz issue also meant altering his program on the fly. He would substitute a second quadruple toe loop, a lesser-value jump, for the planned second quad lutz and adjust which jump combinations he did because the lutz fall prevented one intended combination
“It makes the program a little broken, which I’m not a huge fan of,” he said. “But I have multiple plans of program already in my head.”
Switching the elements was easier than recovering from the falls. The second was on a quadruple salchow just past the midway point in the 4½-minute program to music from Borodin’s “Polovtsian Dances.”
“Every time you fall, you expend more energy than landing the jump properly,” he said. “Once you fall, having to get up and pick up speed again uses a lot of energy and puts you in a rough position for the next few jumps.”
After the second fall, Chen landed the final five jumps, which came in two combinations, one a quad toe-triple toe. But both those jumping passes got negative grades.
“I feel sorry (about) the things I did, but it’s a good step for me,” Chen said.
This has been the longest season of his career, and the wear and tear adds up, even on a young body. He had landed 48 straight jumps over three previous competitions before falling on a triple axle in his sixth-place short program here Thursday.
There also was the pressure generated by Chen’s suddenly having taken the skating world by storm with history-making free skates (five clean quads) as he won his first senior U.S. Championships title in January and first international title at the Four Continents Championship in February.
“That kind of pressure wasn’t necessarily negative,” said Chen, who used it as motivation.
Not winning a medal at this World Championships still might help by reducing the attention on him heading to next year’s Olympics. Barring injury, Chen is a lock to get one of the three U.S. men’s spots in the field for the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea.
“It was a long season for me, and I'm pretty exhausted,” he said.