The wait is almost over.
Yuzuru Hanyu vs. Nathan Chen.
“The Prince” vs. “The Quad King.”
Artistry vs. Strength.
The Legend vs. the Future.
On Monday night at 8:15 p.m. ET (Tuesday morning in Beijing), the highly-anticipated showdown between two of the best figure skaters in the world kicks off with the men’s singles short program.
Since placing fifth in the 2018 Olympics, Nathan Chen has dominated men’s figure skating, going undefeated in 10 consecutive individual competitions. Standing in Chen’s way is Hanyu Yuzuru, the two-time Olympic gold medallist and one of the greatest skaters of all-time, who has hinted that he will attempt a quadruple Axel – a jump that no skater has ever landed successfully in competition.
For skating fans, the tension and the drama is almost too much to bear.
Hanyu, the 27-year-old from Japan, is one of the most decorated figure skaters of all-time. Trying to summarize his accomplishments and world records would be like trying to dig the Ever Given free from the Suez Canal using a garden shovel. (Try Wikipedia).
Hanyu won gold in men’s singles at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi and the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang. He is the first man to win back-to-back gold medals since American Dick Button in 1948 and 1952. No man has gone back-to-back-to-back since Sweden’s Gillis Grafström almost a century ago.
Hanyu skates with sublime artistry and grace. Skating blogger Jackie Wong once compared him to Michael Jackson on ice: “People see Hanyu for the first time and they become hysterical or they’re moved to tears.” Swiss figure skater Stephane Lambiel called him “the most complete athlete in figure skating, probably ever.”
After each performance, Hanyu’s legion of fans typically hurl Winnie the Pooh dolls and teddys onto the ice (this, unfortunately, will not happen at these spectator-limited games.)
Chen, the 22-year-old skater from Salt Lake City, is a beast. By 2018, when he was still just a teenager, he became the first (and only) figure skater to have five quadruple jumps in his arsenal – toe loop, Salchow, loop, flip, and Lutz. In the 2018 Olympics, he landed six quadruple jumps in a single program.
And get this – Chen is undefeated since the 2018 Olympics, winning 10 straight individual competitions.
As a skater, Chen combines supreme strength with an unwavering sense of confidence, (though his nerves occasionally betray him). Since his arrival, the sport has become more athletic and physically demanding. His teammate Jason Brown recently referred to him as a “once-in-a-generation athlete.”
Despite his impressive undefeated streak, the 2018 Winter Games cast a shadow over the story of Nathan Chen. Only 18 years old at the time, Chen collapsed under pressure in the men’s short program, falling several times and finishing in 17th place. However, he bounced back brilliantly in the men’s free skate, landing five quads and setting a new Olympic record. He’d eventually end in fifth place.
Hanyu, who had recently recovered from an ankle injury, put on an emotionally-charged performance to take home his second gold.
What can we expect in Beijing?
Though Chen may hold a slight advantage over Hanyu, the event feels wide open (don’t write off Japanese skater Shoma Uno either.)
And while fans have pushed for the idea of a rivalry, Chen disagrees.
“I wouldn’t say we have a rivalry,” he said. “[Hanyu] has always been the icon of figure skating. It’s great to have the opportunities to skate against him. He always pushes the sport forward.”
“It’s really rare to be able to see a skater maintain this level of excellence across multiple generations,” he told reporters last week, saying he was eager to see Hanyu in person.
Over the weekend, Chen took the top spot in the men’s short program, recording the second-highest short program score ever while skating in the team event.
Meanwhile, Hanyu, who is not competing in the team event, has remained behind-the-scenes. He arrived in Beijing just two days before he was scheduled to compete, sending Chinese skating fans into a social media frenzy.
Last week, in a video released by the Japan Skating Federation, Hanyu revealed to fans that he is planning to attempt a 4A – shorthand for the elusive, never-before-landed quadruple Axel.
The quadruple axel is a high-risk, low-reward jump, Chang-Ran Kim explains in Reuters. Worth just one point more than a quadruple lutz, a missed 4A would significantly reduce a skater’s score.
“If Hanyu wanted to win, conventional wisdom says, he would go quad-to-quad on the five other jumps against his closest rival, and compete on overall execution,” Kim writes.
However, Hanyu remains determined: “I want to get to that place where I can confidently feel that this is the complete, perfectly formed version of Yuzuru Hanyu. And part of that is the 4A.”