Explosive entertainer

Surviving the Sendai earthquake in 2011, Yuzuru Hanyu battled hard to become the Olympic champ

Explosive entertainer

Yuzuru Hanyu was skating when the devastating earthquake and tsunami struck northeastern Japan. He was 16, and he felt the ice rumbling and the ground thrusting and his legs wobbling. He ran from the rink in his skates, with no time even to put on skate guards.

There was only panic that day in March 2011, no imagining that in three years Hanyu would become Olympic champion, even after falling on a nervous night. No time for conceiving that he could become the first male figure skater from Japan to win a gold medal. No musing that he might share an Olympic podium, as he did the other day with the silver medalist Patrick Chan of Canada and the bronze medalist Denis Ten of Kazakhstan.

Hanyu’s hometown, Sendai, was near the epicentre of the earthquake. Pipes ruptured beneath his local rink, and the ice melted. The rink remained closed for several months. The walls cracked at his family’s home. He, his parents and his sister were left without electricity or drinking water. They spent three days in an emergency shelter in a gymnasium.

The tremors ceased, but Hanyu kept reliving the earthquake. He relied on visualising his jumps as a training technique, but now all he saw in his mind was disaster. He had feared that he might die at 16, buried under a collapsed rink. Fatalism crept in.

“Everything exists just by luck,” Hanyu, 19, wrote two years ago in his autobiography, "Blue Flames.''

The disaster, he wrote, “totally changed my values.”

Eventually, resignation gave way to purpose.

“More than anything else, I want to make every day count now,” Hanyu wrote.

In December 2012, Hanyu came to Sochi to compete in an important international event, the Grand Prix Final. He and his coach, Brian Orser, took a walk along the Black Sea, and Hanyu said, “I want to win the Olympics.”

When he returned for the Sochi Games, Hanyu jumped and spun with abandon in last Thursday’s short programme and set a world record with 101.45 points. A gold medal was in reach.

“He’s so explosive, and he does the most difficult things in such a way that you feel it’s simple for him,” said Scott Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic champion. “That gets incredible respect.”Yet there was no rest day between the short and long programmes. No time for emotion and pressure to ebb, then rebuild.

On Friday, Hanyu seemed anxious during warm-ups. When his long programme opened, he fell on his first jump, a quadruple salchow, unable to stabilise himself while attempting four revolutions. He then put both hands to the ice on a triple flip. He began to panic and his legs grew heavy.

“I thought the gold was not in my hands,” Hanyu said.

On another night, he might have lost.

Chan, a three-time world champion, trailed Hanyu by nearly four points after the short programme. And there was no Canadian judge on the panel. He decided he could not play it safe. “You come to these Olympics, and you go guns blazing,” Chan said.

He opened with an assured quadruple toe loop, triple toe loop combination, but Chan felt drained. And he has struggled with his confidence in Sochi. His chance to win soon evaporated.

Chan put both hands to the ice on a quad toe loop and a triple axel. He stumbled out of a double axel. His edge in artistry and skating skills could not put him in first place.“At these kind of competitions, it’s who makes the least mistakes, honestly,” Chan said. “I just made one too many.”

Hanyu prevailed with 280.09 total points, becoming the youngest men’s Olympic champion since Dick Button, who was 18 in 1948. Chan, 23, took silver with 275.62 points. No Canadian man has ever won an Olympic gold medal in this event. It is a country left with the repeated heartbreak of finishing second.

Ten, 20, who finished second to Chan at the 2013 World Championships, had his Olympic season disrupted by a skate-related infection that spread through his body. Still, he remained poised and drew himself up from ninth after the short programme to win bronze with 255.10 points. He also gave Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic, its first Olympic medal in figure skating.

While Ten appeared ebullient, Hanyu was subdued.

“I’m not very happy with my performance,” he said. “I was nervous, but I got the gold medal. I got the Japanese flag to put on the flagpole. That’s something I can be proud of.”Three years ago, the result would have seemed highly unlikely.

After the earthquake, Hanyu was left without a home rink for months. He moved his training base to Yokohama, far from the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Still, he found it difficult to attend school. He skated a benefit for victims of the earthquake and, to remain fit, he performed ice shows through the summer of 2011.

“I seriously thought about quitting skating,” Hanyu said. “I had my hands full making a living to stay alive.”

He changed his mind, buoyed by the people of Sendai. Among them was Shizuka Arakawa, the 2006 women’s Olympic champion, who made donations to his career and gave him spiritual support.

“I think I was able to give something good back, return a favour,” Hanyu said.

In March 2012, Hanyu finished a surprise third at the World Championships. To refine his talent, he moved to Toronto to train with Orser, a two-time Olympic silver medalist from Canada who had coached Kim Yu-na of South Korea to a women’s gold medal at the 2010 Vancouver Games.

Hanyu did not speak much about the earthquake, said Tracy Wilson, another of his coaches. But, she added: “When you’ve been through something that horrific, it puts skating in its place solidly. You have a much better perspective on what you’re doing. At such a young age, he had this maturity instantly through that tragedy.”

The devastation became grim inspiration for Hanyu, Wilson said.

“You’re doing it all of a sudden for your country, your neighbors,” she said. “You start to move to a higher purpose and that takes you to that next level.”

At Sochi Hanyu wore bright green and pink rhinestones on his costume, meant for luck. He is superstitious, and, as usual, he squatted and pushed backward from the boards and did not look at anyone else. Then he began skating and he did not have much luck, just enough to win the Olympics.

His victory could not really help the recovery in Sendai, Hanyu said. He felt helpless, he said, as if “I’m not making any contributions.” But now he had a gold medal. Maybe it was a starting point. “Perhaps,” Hanyu said, “there is something I can do going forward.”

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