For Nathan Chen, this is not how it was supposed to go

Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

GANGNEUNG, South Korea -- There is no pressure in sports quite like what's heaped on an anointed Olympic star. The combination of time (the years of buildup) and attention (from around the world) and meaning (representing a country) will forever combine to lay, heavy, across the nape of an athlete's neck.

It is a burden, to be sure, though a gilded one. And Nathan Chen wanted it. He believed it was his destiny.

So don't be confused or misguided by what happened at the Pyeongchang Olympics on Friday afternoon. Don't be led astray by the shock or surprise over Chen's complete and total collapse in the short program here.

This was not a case of a teenager overwhelmed by unexpected fame. Not a situation where anyone -- on TV or in magazines or running the marketing campaign for a soda or an airline -- thrust something upon an innocent boy who suddenly crumbled. Chen agreed to all those interviews, took the money for all those commercials. Last week, when U.S. Figure Skating had a media conference with all its skaters, Chen chose to do one later on his own.

And that's fine. It is. There is nothing wrong with embracing the pressure, nothing wrong at all with reveling in the expectations from others who are only topped by the expectations from oneself. Chen, who is 18, started skating when he was 3. He had targeted these Olympics for his major debut since he was 10. He had been anticipating this moment for roughly his entire life.

He steered himself toward it. He craved it. Except it was a disaster.

What happened? Everything. And nothing. A fall on his opening quadruple lutz, step-outs on two other jumps, a four-revolution leap that was only three and, when the music finally stopped, a facial expression that might best be described as residing in that awful place between total shock and abject horror.

His score was 82.27, a number so low that Chen -- who hadn't lost in four competitions this season and was one of the favorites to win a gold medal -- is in 17th place out of 24 qualifying skaters, somehow closer to last than he is to first.

As he moved through the interview area afterward, Chen's face was ashen. To his credit, he did not blame any sort of injury, did not offer any kind of excuse. He struggled last week in the team event and was, somehow, even worse on Friday, yet there was no defiance or anger or blame.

There was only a soft, mournful realization that he has sunk to a place with which he is not familiar.

"I honestly have never been in this position before," he said, "so I don't exactly know what to do."

Chen was talking about his position in the rankings, and whether there is anything he might be able to try in Saturday's free skate to somehow salvage this event (short answer: probably not). But he could, too, have been speaking about the larger circumstances that led him to this point.

It is worth remembering: This is his first Olympics. And in his senior career -- which began in 2016 -- he has competed in exactly one world championships, in which he also struggled.

The allure of his athleticism and his strength and his focus made it easy to look at him and see only excellence. His results in the run-up events, where he stood up to the best in the world and beat them, made it impossible not to believe. Chen, as Olympians can and should do, cashed in on his opportunity to elevate to that special place only to tumble all the way back down again.

"Honestly, it was bad," Chen said. "I made as many mistakes as I possibly could have."

Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu didn't. Neither did Spain's Javier Fernandez or Chen's teammate, Adam Rippon, who didn't even attempt a quad jump but skated cleanly and finished in seventh. Vincent Zhou, the third American in the competition, is five spots in front of Chen in 12th.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. It was supposed to be Chen and Hanyu, staring down each other in a spectacle of whirling jumps and elegant artistry beneath the din of an Olympic crowd. Instead, Chen will skate 2½ hours before the final skater on Saturday, the stands still filling as he slips into his routine at a time normally reserved for the still-hopefuls or the never-will-bes.

Maybe Chen will find his magic there. Maybe he will dazzle and drive, hinting again at the power that lies beneath. Maybe he will, for a little while at least, make a run at the most unlikely of medals feel possible. Maybe.

Either way, this Olympics will be something far less than Chen had imagined. And so, when the Games end and the disappointment fades and perspective arrives, he will be forced to embrace a new challenge. He will be forced to chase after another kind of story, a kind of story that Americans might actually love more than a coronation.

A comeback.