Olympische Winterspiele 2018 in PyeongChang
Nathan Chen. Photo by Anke Waelischmiller/SVEN SIMON/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

It may be that it’s Lent, or maybe that I’ve seen Wagner’s Parsifal twice in a week and can’t get the music out of my head, but redemption has been much on my mind.

No, not that kind of redemption, exactly. The kind that involves Nathan Chen’s clean quads, which sounds like a hygiene thing.

Nathan Chen is, of course, an American figure skater, and one of the stars of the sport. Veteran of many competitions at the advanced age of 18, Chen is perhaps best known for executing the fearsome quadruple jump — four rotations in the air (hence a “quad”) — a maneuver that combines skating’s balletic grace with stunning control and power at eye-blurring speed. Chen not only put this jump on the map, he does multiple quads in a single skating program.


In his free-skate program at the Pyeongchang Olympics, Chen executed an unprecedented six quads, five of which were, in skating parlance, “clean.”

Chen will come home from the Olympics this month with a bronze for the United States’ team event. But not without a struggle.

He had an uncharacteristically rough short program early in the competition, an episode in the skater’s career that only increased anticipation for what he could do, quadwise, as it were.

And when he did, the response was ecstatic. Click on the link in the tweet below for an excerpt from that performance:

NBC news coverage ran this headline: “Redemption for Nathan Chen as He Lands Five Clean Quads in His Free Skate.”


I’m not the only one puzzled by the default invocation of “redemption.”

The sports commentator Mary Carillo observed that “the word gets thrown around a lot at the Olympics,” but that she prefers the concepts of “‘resilience’ or ‘resetting.’”

The word redemption functions in English in two primary ways. First as the completion of a transaction, usually involving a pledge or promise of some sort. You might redeem U.S. savings bonds, for example, preferably at their maturity date.

In my childhood, grocery stores eagerly provided stamps corresponding to the amount spent at checkout. Booklets of S&H Green Stamps, having been carefully pasted down on gridded pages, could be redeemed for merchandise of a household nature.

The more dramatic sense of redemption involves concepts of sin and divine forgiveness, both of which exceed the parameters of this language blog. (If you have six free hours and like such things, go listen to Parsifal.)


As to Olympic redemption, I’m with Carillo here. Even starry athletes have bad days or, in the case of high-pressure Olympic competition, bad milliseconds. When they get it together — the next day, or the next minute — it’s a reset, and it happens because the athlete is serious, committed, has talent, and knows how to push through. In other words, they have resilience.

It’s not about sin or shame or failure, though implying that that’s the case makes for eye-catching headlines, especially when there’s a bright ending to the tale.

Redemption is a word I’ll keep in reserve for other persons and things. Mary Magdalene, for example, or the venti cappuccino I now have enough Starbucks points to get for free.

And if I’m feeling undercaffeinated, I can ask the barista to up the espresso component to four. Which makes it — what else? — a quad shot.