Japan’s master figure skater
Since becoming Japan’s first Olympic figure skating champion at the age of 19 at Sochi 2014, Yuzuru Hanyū has gone on to claim every world record (short, free and overall) in his event. He underlined his superiority in the men’s singles at PyeongChang 2018, where he became the first skater to retain the title since the USA’s Dick Button at Oslo 1952.
On 11 March 2011, Japanese figure skater Hanyū, who had been crowned world junior champion the previous year, was in the middle of a training session at his local ice rink when a devastating earthquake struck off the coast off his home town, Sendai, triggering a devastating tsunami.
The 16-year-old, ice skates still on his feet, barely had time to evacuate the building before the waves struck, and would spend the next few days in an emergency shelter with his family, surveying the damage to his home and rink from afar.
“I often feel that things you take for granted are not always guaranteed,” he later reflected. “Everything exists by luck. Because I almost lost everything, I came to feel this way. The disaster totally changed my values. I want to make every single day, every practice and every competition count.”
In 2012, Hanyū won a bronze medal at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships in Nice (FRA). Shortly afterwards, he published his autobiography, entitled Blue Flames, the royalties for which went towards refurbishing the Sendai Ice Rink.
The up-and-coming figure skater then hired reputed coach Brian Orser. Basing himself in Toronto (CAN), Hanyū stepped up his training regime and refined his technique. After winning in style at the Japanese Championships in December 2013 in Sapporo, he earned a call-up to the Japanese Olympic team that was bound for the Sochi Games.
WORLD RECORD IN RUSSIA
Hanyū was in masterful form at the Sochi 2014 men’s figure skating competition at the Iceberg Skating Palace, delivering an astonishing short programme routine. To the sounds of Gary Moore’s Parisienne Walkways, he captivated the crowd by performing a quadruple toe, triple axel, and triple lutz-triple toe loop combination. His stunning display earned him a world record score of 101.45, as he became the first figure skater in history to break the 100-point barrier in the short programme.
Two days later, the Japanese skater, sitting atop the standings and boasting a four-point lead over Patrick Chan (CAN), unexpectedly fell twice in the opening minute of his free skate, choreographed to Nino Rota’s Romeo and Juliet. Demonstrating the mental fortitude for which he is known, he recovered in admirable fashion, putting in an emotional and artistic performance that featured exceptional jumps and transitions.
Awarded a total of 280.09 points, he was crowned Olympic champion ahead of silver medallist Chan (275.62 points), and immediately fell into the arms of a delighted Orser. At 19, he was the first male Japanese skater to win a figure skating gold medal, and the youngest man to do so for 66 years.
“I’m so surprised!” he exclaimed. “I’m not very happy with my performance. I was nervous, but I got the gold medal. I got the Japanese flag onto the flagpole. That’s something I can be proud of.”
THE TITLES KEEP COMING
In winning the ISU Grand Prix final in the lead-up to Sochi 2014 and then becoming a first-time world champion on home ice in Saitama a month later, Hanyū became the first skater to win the treble in the same year since Russia’s Alexei Yagudin in 2002.
A human sciences student at Waseda University, Hanyū was now a national idol in Japan and brought further joy to figure skating fans in the countdown to PyeongChang 2018. The first skater to win the Grand Prix final four times in a row, between 2014 and 2017, he also set a string of world records, taking the short programme out to 112.72 points in 2017, the free to 223.20 points that same year and the combined points total to 330.43 in 2015.
Not content with that, in September 2016 he became the first figure skater to land a quadruple loop, and in April 2017 he recovered from a lowly fifth place after the short to win another world title in Helsinki (FIN) thanks to a sublime free programme.
RACE AGAINST TIME
Hanyū sustained a serious right ankle injury after attempting a quadruple lutz in training in November 2017. Though he was subsequently ruled out of the Japanese trials, he had already assured his place at PyeongChang 2018 as the reigning world champion.
He returned to action in January, only a few months before the Winter Games, not that it showed. Producing a superlative display in the short, he took a significant lead over the rest of the field, and followed up the next day with a very solid free to rack up a remarkable total of 317.85 points, some way clear of his compatriot Shoma Uno on 306.90 and Spain’s Javier Fernandez on 305.24.
The Japanese star pulled off no fewer than four quadruple jumps in his free skate, performed to the sound of Shigeru Umebayashi’s Seimei. Skating at his very best, the 23-year-old kicked off with a very risky quadruple salchow and quadruple toe loop, and then followed up with a triple axel. He rounded off his routine with another quadruple salchow and a quadruple toe loop that he came close to landing perfectly.
A SUCCESSFUL DEFENCE
Hanyū had become the first athlete to retain the Olympic men’s figure skating title since the USA’s Dick Button, who won gold at St Moritz 1948 and Oslo 1952. The Japanese also went down in Olympic history as the victor of the thousandth medal event at the Olympic Winter Games, a story that began with the USA’s Charles Jewtraw winning the 500m speed skating competition in Chamonix (SUI) on 26 January 1924.
After sealing the gold, an emotional Hanyū fell into the arms of his training partner Fernandez and cried on his shoulder. “It’s the most beautiful day of my skating career,” the Japanese later said. “These tears are from the heart. I’m so happy that I’m lost for words. There’s nothing on my mind but skating. I’ve been thinking about nothing else but this day and night for a week and I stayed confident.”
With age still very much on his side, there is every reason to expect Hanyū will return at Beijing 2022 and bid to complete an unprecedented treble.