By GRANT ROBERTSON
Monday, February 19, 2018
PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA -- A few minutes after his final Olympic performance ended, Patrick Chan walked into the tunnel leading away from the ice. As he turned his back to leave, the last thing he heard was a wild roar of applause. But this time it wasn't for him.
At that moment, Japanese superstar and eventual gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu landed one of several masterful quads in his long program. Earlier in the competition, American Nathan Chen landed five and attempted six - the most quads ever done on Olympic ice.
It was the clearest sign yet that it was time for Chan to go.
The former three-time world champion, considered one of the best figure skaters Canada has ever produced, always said that this was going to be his swan-song Olympics. But the figure skating world he leaves behind in 2018 is one that no longer has a place for him.
Several of the world's top skaters tried at least three or four quads in their long program in Pyeongchang. Chan attempted just two.
He is known for being one of the strongest, most refined skaters in the sport, with precision, strength and footwork that is respected around the world. But in the past two years, as the sport morphed into an arms race over which skater could do the most quadruple jumps, Chan simply couldn't keep up any more.
At 27, his vertical is no longer as lofty as it once was, his muscles no longer as responsive. "My body can't do what I used to do when I was 20 or 21," he confided a few days before the Olympics began.
It's not that Chan wasn't a jumper in his day. When he introduced the quad into his routine at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, it put all other skaters on notice. By combining his sound fundamentals with the powerful jump, and the technical marks that come with it, Chan became unstoppable at the world championships.
But the younger group of skaters that has come up after him are now doing more quads than he ever thought possible, changing the game he once dominated.
Now skaters such as Chen of the United States are packing them into their programs anywhere they can find enough strides to launch.
It's a brand of skating Chan no longer recognizes, with less emphasis on skills executed in between jumps, though he does respect it.
"I grew up in an era where ... a jump should never be in the same spot as another jump, the program needs to be balanced," Chan said. "But when you're doing five quads - I don't blame the guys, they're trying to do five quads, I understand - you need to brush those things aside."
The result is less of a focus on the other facets of skating - the non-jumps, such as footwork.
"This is a really exciting path that skating is taking, but yes there are consequences. I think we're seeing a lot of walking from one jump to the next," Chan said.
He doesn't leave bitter, just perplexed by it all. He came into these Olympics speaking differently than he once did. Four years ago, in Sochi, Chan was a contender for the gold medal and he talked of aggressively chasing victory with a mixture of footwork and complex jumps. But the quad failed him, and he was forced to settle for silver. He admitted last week that it took two years to get over that.
But in Pyeongchang, Chan talked instead of just wanting to skate a clean program, one that he could be proud of. It was his way of saying that he wouldn't be attempting as many quads as his competitors. In a sport where competitors are rewarded for taking risks, even if they don't land cleanly, Chan was skating conservatively.
With the evolution of men's figure skating since 2014, Chan walked into what former Olympic figure skater Kurt Browning calls a "volatile jumping environment," in Pyeongchang, leaving him outside the field of contenders.
"When you come to the table with only one [variety of] quad that you can only do twice in the long program, versus other guys that have access to five, it's pretty tough," Browning said. "They can miss three and still beat you" in terms of their technical score.
After Nathan Chen's historic performance in the long program, in which the five quads he landed garnered him a high mark of 215.08, the 18-year-old American acknowledged that figure skating has changed.
"To some degree, yeah. We are adding a lot more quads - I'm adding a lot more quads now," he said.
But the quad is still a high-risk proposition. Despite making history, Chen finished fifth over all, with a combined score of 297.35, because he fell several times in his short program attempting those key jumps.
Chan, who went into the free skate in sixth place after the short program, finished in ninth place with a combined mark of 263.43, which reflected not only his struggles in the short skate, but also the conservative nature of his long program in relation to his competitors.
Hanyu took the gold with 318.85 points, Japan's Shoma Uno won silver with 306.90 and Spain's Javier Fernandez claimed bronze with 305.24.
Browning, himself a four-time world champion for Canada and the first man to land a quad in competition, said Chan walks away from the sport as one of its legends.
"He has a pretty firm stance on immortality within the pantheon of figure skating in Canada," Browning said, emphasizing Chan's ability to nail the "skating" aspect of figure skating, which made him greater than the spotlight-grabbing jumps he once executed with ease.
Browning likes to tell a story about skating with Chan at a performance event, and not being able to keep up with him.
"We talk about: jump, jump, jump, jump, jump. But we're skaters - and he was one of the greatest," Browning said. "It's a little bit of a shame that the jumps didn't stay until Korea, so that he could have that shine. But I don't think it's denting his image."
Chan did finally earn a gold medal in figure skating by helping the Canadian figure-skating squad to a victory in the team event in Pyeongchang. And though he never reached the top of the Olympic podium as an individual skater, Chan said he leaves content.
Asked what he thinks his legacy will be, Chan said he is probably the one skater that connected today's current crop of jumpers to the generation before him, which didn't fixate on the quad.
"I was the bridge from those skaters to these skaters now," he said. "I hope one day people will look back at my skating and what I've brought to the table and [say] remember when Patrick skated like this, or remember when skating was like this - that would be a cool statement to leave."
Chan plans to settle down in Vancouver with his girlfriend, get his commercial real estate licence - "to be able to live happily in Vancouver, because it's very expensive" - and possibly open a skating academy. He will also skate in shows.
After a career that includes a record 10-consecutive Canadian championships, Chan is ready to go. And he says there are a few things he won't miss about figure skating.
"I just look forward not having to expose myself out on the ice in front of judges, and shake it," Chan said with a laugh. "I just really want to be able to enjoy it as an audience member now."
Preparing to step away has given him new perspective on the sport. Figure skating, he acknowledges, is a bit unusual.
"You can't help but ask yourself, if aliens came and saw what we do - we wear these costumes and we're on the ice asking for praise, it's a very funny concept," Chan said. "And I loved it, it's given me so many opportunities, I've been such a fortunate person. It set my life up, I feel so proud to be a skater."
Patrick Chan falls while competing during the men's single skating short program at Gangneung Ice Arena on Friday.
HARRY HOW/GETTY IMAGES