Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan is in position to be the first man to repeat as Olympic champion since American Dick Button did it in 1948 and 1952.
Hanyu, who is also the reigning world champion, scored 111.68 points in Thursday’s short program, the second-highest score ever recorded. (Second only to himself, set earlier this season.)
His loyal fans showered the ice with Winnie the Pooh after he finished his program.
Hanyu was away from competition for three months due to damaged ligaments in his ankle sustained in November.
“It’s not like I really want to be an Olympic champion but I just want to do my best, and do what is best for me. Not as an Olympic champion but for me,” Hanyu said. Of the fan support, he said he was “very happy that there are a lot in the audience. I couldn’t perform for the last three months so I am very happy to be back.”
Hanyu’s training partner, Javier Fernandez, is poised to win Spain’s first-ever figure skating medal. Fernandez scored 107.58 points. The two share two-time Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser as a coach at their Toronto, Canada rink.
“I am a lot different,” Fernandez said of his competitions at the 2010 and 2014 Olympics. PyeongChang is expected to be his last Olympics. “I have four more years of experience in competitions. I won two world championships and six European titles, so I am surely a different person and such an different athlete and so much more mature.”
Hanyu’s countryman Shoma Uno, who earned silver at the 2017 World Championships, placed third in the short program with 104.17 points. Should Uno and Hanyu land on the podium together, it will be the first time since 2002 that two men of the same country share an Olympic podium. Back in Salt Lake City, Russia’s Alexei Yagudin struck gold and Yevgeny Plushenko earned the silver.
China’s Jin Boyang finished fourth by a slim margin, just 0.85 points. Jin won the Four Continents Championships over Uno last month, and can become the first Chinese man to win an Olympic medal in the men’s event.
“I did very well in the short program today and I improved my personal best by three points,” Jin noted. “Hopefully I will be able to skate even better than that in the free skating.”
Dmitri Aliev, an Olympic Athlete from Russia, placed fifth with 98.98 points. Three-time world champion Patrick Chan – who earlier in PyeongChang became the first Canadian man to win a gold medal, captured in the team event – placed sixth with 90.01 points.
The highest-finishing U.S. man was Adam Rippon, who scored 87.95 points to place seventh. Earlier in the Games, Rippon earned a bronze medal in the team event.
“I am just so excited that I have been able to skate so well these Olympic Games,” Rippon said. “To be here is like a dream come true and to come out here and perform and put on some of my best performances makes it even sweeter and even better.”
Vincent Zhou is the youngest U.S. athlete competing in PyeongChang. In his Olympic debut, he completed the first-ever quad Lutz on Olympic ice.
“Part of it was just my starting order, but at the same time it's pretty cool to have that title,” the 17-year-old said. “The quad Lutz is the most difficult quad currently achievable in our sport.”
His short program earned a personal best score of 84.53 points and he qualified for the free skate in 12th place.
“Having all of my family, and all of my friends, and thousands of supporters here to watch me skate is so important to me,” Zhou said. “I know that I'm appreciated and it's such a warm feeling.”
Like Rippon, Nathan Chen won a bronze medal in the team event. However, after making major mistakes on each of the three required jumping elements in the short program, Chen finished in 17th place with 82.27 points.
“It was rough again,” Chen said. “I still need some time to think about it. It happens and I guess I try to move on from here. Honestly, it was bad. I made as many mistakes as I possibly could have. Everything seemed right but there were little mistakes here and there.”
“I thought I did everything right going into this, things just didn't click together.”
Denis Ten from Kazakhstan, who won 2014 Sochi bronze, underperformed and didn’t qualify for the free skate. Competing in PyeongChang was more about the experience for Ten, who had also competed in Vancouver 2010.
He descends from a famous Korean general who fought for independence in the early 1900s.
The top 24 skaters from the field of 30 advance to the free skate, beginning Friday in Primetime on NBC and NBCOlympics.com.
Catch in-depth analysis and preview the free skate action with Kristi Yamaguchi, Charlie White and Ben Agosto on the Olympic Ice Post-Show.