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Nathan Chen cements his legacy as the world's best figure skater

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

American figure skater Nathan Chen skated to a gold in Beijing today. Wearing a dazzling constellation-themed top, he performed flawlessly to a medley that included Elton John's "Rocket Man." Chen rewarded audiences with an uncharacteristically beaming smile as he finished his program and then became the seventh U.S. male figure skater to win an individual Olympic gold. NPR's Tom Goldman was in Beijing.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: All gold medals looked the same, but there are different feels to each one. There's the, oh, my God, I-just-shocked-the-world gold, and there's the mission-accomplished gold. Nathan Chen seemed to win the second kind today. Before these games, he was one of those Olympians on magazine covers and every list of gold medal favorites. But after he won, 22-year-old Chen still had that pinch-me reaction of a shock-the-world winner.

NATHAN CHEN: I mean, truly, I never imagined I'd be able to make it this far in my career, and it really means the world. And I still, of course, have to take a little bit more time to process everything.

GOLDMAN: Whenever he finishes processing, he'll realize he overcame the unique pressure the favorite feels to put on a gold medal-worthy performance. He says he didn't rid himself of the pressure.

CHEN: I mean, before every event, I certainly am very nervous and thinking about what I can do and what I should do, what I need to do. And that was certainly no different here.

GOLDMAN: But when his program started, Chen locked in on the mental cues he uses to execute on the ice. He hit all five of his quadruple revolution jumps - one was a bit shaky - and delivered his usual mix of athleticism and grace and fun, with a big assist to the Elton John medley that drove his performance, including "Rocket Man" and finishing off with "Bennie And The Jets."

CHEN: That music is just, you know, a blast to skate to, and, you know, I can just let loose knowing I don't have any jumps left and just have fun with it.

GOLDMAN: When the music ended, Chen arched his back and looked up at the arena ceiling with a big smile. After his winning score was announced, his longtime coach, Rafael Arutunian, raised Chen's arm like a triumphant boxer. The top three in the final standings mirrored Tuesday's short program finish. Eighteen-year-old Yuma Kagiyama of Japan won the silver medal. His countryman, Shoma Uno, won bronze. The fourth-place finisher was notable, too. Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu had won the previous two Olympic gold medals. After finishing eighth in the short program here, Hanyu's chance for a third straight title was pretty much dashed, but he still went into Thursday's free skate with a chance at history. Hanyu is one of only two male skaters who've tried and failed to land skating's most difficult jump - the quadruple axel - in competition. Skating analyst Jackie Wong talked about Hanyu's quest to land the jump at these games.

JACKIE WONG: Adding a third Olympic gold, that's wonderful, but, like, it would mean more to him to be a two-time Olympic champion who's landed a jump that nobody else can land ever. That would be the thing.

GOLDMAN: Today, Hanyu tried again, got close but fell. He still skated a wonderful program to move up to fourth and earn the respect of Chen, who called Hanyu the greatest skater ever. High praise coming from the new champ.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.