In the pantheon of figure skating rivalries, Nancy and Tonya soars like a triple lutz above the rest.
Two athletes in their prime, each trying to be America’s golden girl, on the biggest stage in winter sports. And it came draped in the most bizarre of controversies: An attack on Nancy Kerrigan, the favorite to win Olympic gold, planned by Tonya Harding’s ex-husband and executed just seven weeks before the Lillehammer Games.
There was such drama that nearly half of U.S. households tuned in to watch their showdown. And these days, few but the most ardent of figure skating fans could tell you who actually won gold in 1994 (it was Oksana Baiul).
Now, figure skating’s latest rivalry will climax at the Beijing Games next month, when three-time reigning world champion Nathan Chen once more faces two-time defending Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu at the Capital Indoor Stadium.
This is no ping-pong diplomacy, though.
Chen is the most decorated U.S. men’s skater since two-time Olympic champion Dick Button in the 1940s and early ‘50s. He’s the suave, Nike-sponsored star taking a hiatus from chasing a degree in statistics and data science at Yale to chase the Olympic gold that eluded him after a calamitous short program at the Pyeongchang Games.
Hanyu is the boundary-pushing, Winnie-the-Pooh loving wunderkind whose rock star status in Japan is rivaled by actor Ken Watanabe, two-way Angels dynamo Shohei Ohtani, and very few others. Hanyu’s ability to bring his best to the biggest stage was evident during his golden skates at the Sochi Games and four years later in South Korea.
“He’s in a league of his own when it comes to natural talent and his ability to adapt to new circumstances,” said NBC analyst Tara Lipinski, whose own rivalry with Michelle Kwan culminated in a showdown at the 1998 Nagano Games. “The longevity and consistency of his career speaks volumes. He handles pressure in a way that cannot be taught.”
Indeed, there will be plenty of pressure on both men in Beijing.
The weighty expectations Chen felt in Pyeongchang have only grown in four succeeding years. He didn’t lose a single competition over that stretch until Olympic teammate Vincent Zhou topped him at Skate America; Chen bounced right back to win Skate Canada and then his sixth consecutive national championship.
Now, the youngest of five kids is one of the poster boys for NBC’s coverage of the Winter Olympics, right there alongside Alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin, cross country skier Jessie Diggins, and fearless snowboarder Chloe Kim.
And when it comes to facing Hanyu, the 22-year-old from Salt Lake City has won the last three showdowns.
“Yuzuru has definitely pushed me. Long before I competed against him, he was that benchmark for what an exceptional figure skater should be,” Chen said. “I remember watching him when I was at the Junior Grand Prix final and he was at the senior final and I was amazed at how good he was, how much he commanded the audience. He was a shining star in figure skating. I went home and I was like, ‘Oh, man. That’s what figure skating is supposed to be like.’ “
Hanyu won his sixth Japanese championship in December, but things have been rocky on the road to Beijing. He’s dealt with a series of injuries along with a bout of apathy that tends to befall many athletes at the pinnacle of their sport.
What may have shaken him out of it: the challenge of the quadruple axel. It’s a four-and-a-half rotation jump that nobody has landed in competition, but which he intends to try again in China.
“Hanyu had very few events before he defended his title at the 2018 Olympics,” NBC skating analyst Johnny Weir said, “so this isn’t foreign territory. Having known him for many years, the only pressure he puts on himself comes from within. He’s a very strong competitor mentally and has so much passion for victory that I think he only competes against himself.”
Well, not exactly. He’ll have a certain American skater waiting for him in China.
As Chen and Hanyu prepare to face off one more time, here are some of figure skating’s other great rivalries:
BATTLE OF THE BRIANS
Brian Orser captured the silver medal at the 1984 Olympics, when American rival Brian Boitano was fifth, and the two went back and forth for the next four years. That set the stage for the 1988 Calgary Games, where Boitano upstaged the reigning world champion in his native Canada by a 5-to-4 split of the judges to win the gold medal.
BATTLE OF THE CARMENS
At the same Winter Games in Calgary, world champ Katarina Witt of East Germany and silver medalist Debi Thomas of the U.S. were favorites to win gold. Both had unwittingly chosen music from the opera “Carmen” for their long programs, and it was Witt who outclassed Thomas to win the title. She wound up with bronze behind Canada’s Elizabeth Manley.
KIM VS ASADA
The long program at the 2010 Vancouver Games was appointment viewing in Asia, where Yuna Kim had become the biggest star in South Korea and Mao Asada rivaled her popularity in Japan. Kim ultimately won the gold medal with three world-best scores, and Asada took silver after becoming the first woman to land the triple axel during Olympic competition.
THE BORDER WAR
Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the U.S. and Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir proved rivalries can exist even in the understated world of ice dance. Virtue and Moir edged Davis and White for gold at the 2010 Vancouver Games, then the teams swapped spots four years later at the Sochi Olympics. White and Davis subsequently retired after their triumph, and that cleared the way for Virtue and Moir to win a second Olympic title at the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang.