Nathan Chen was nearly at a loss for words trying to explain where his Olympic short program went awry, leaving the American medal contender fortunate just to qualify for the free skate.
In fact, Chen was at a loss for what to do next.
"I've never been in this spot before," he said Friday. "I mean, I thought I did everything right in terms of my general approach going into this. Things just didn't click together."
After crowd-pleasing performances from teammates Adam Rippon and Vincent Zhou, the 18-year-old Chen failed to cleanly land a single jump in his high-flying short program. The best hope for an American figure skating gold medal fell on his opening quad flip, stepped out on a quad toe and triple axel, and never could work a missed combination back into his shaky program.
The result was a score of 82.27 points, more than 20 off his season best. It left the Grand Prix Finals champion in 17th place, and so far adrift of Yuzuru Hanyu's stellar 111.68 score that Chen will skate hours before the Japanese leader for his free skate on Saturday.
"I'm going to talk to my team and see what the best approach is," Chen said. "It was just rough. Nothing clicked. I did all the right stuff going into it. It just didn't go how it should have."
Making the performance even more disappointing was that it came just after Hanyu, the reigning Olympic champion, effortlessly landed both of the quads in his program.
Hanyu's fans showered the ice with Winnie the Pooh bears — the Japanese sensation once said he collects them — after his music ended. That caused a minor delay while a flock of children skated out to gather them, even though Chen insisted that it didn't bother his concentration.
"It's happened before and I've been able to skate well after that," he said. "Not today."
Chen certainly was in no mood to make excuses.
He said the team event, where he likewise struggled with the short but still helped the U.S. win bronze, did not affect his preparation. He also dismissed any notion that he might be hurt.
Asked whether he succumbed to the pressure of being the face of U.S. Figure Skating, not to mention ever-present in NBC promos, Chen replied: "It was the same pressure I always put on myself."
The other two Americans in the competition fared much better.
The 17-year-old Zhou actually led for about an hour, skating third among the 30 competitors and becoming the first figure skater to land a quad lutz in an Olympic event. He used the four-rotation jump to lead into a triple toe and wound up with a season-best 84.53 points.
That left Zhou, the son of Chinese immigrants, in 12th place entering the free skate.
"I'm happy I committed to all my jumps," he said, "and yeah, happy that I gave it my all."
Rippon was similarly pleased with his performance, which scored 87.94 points despite not having a single quad. The personable 28-year-old landed a clean triple flip-triple toe combination to start, then got into a rhythm with a crowd-pleasing performance that left him smiling on the ice.
His score also briefly led before leaving him in seventh place.
"My most important thing at this competition was to deliver in the team skate, get a bronze medal for the United States, and I was able to do that," Rippon said. "Now I'm able to go out in the individual and show the world I'm a cut-through competitor. And I'm an awesome skater."
That self-confidence is part of what has made the openly gay Rippon one of the Olympics' endearing personalities. He's been interviewed by everyone, from the mainstream to the niche, and has transcended not only the sport of figure skating but the American audience.
Even the South Korea fans were waving American flags for him inside Gangneung Ice Arena.
"I want to share my story and, more importantly, when I'm out there on the ice it's important I show that I put a lot of hard work into this," he said. "I'm confident in the work I put out. And I know I might not be the best in the competition but I'm definitely the most fun."
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