GANGNEUNG, South Korea — The fans flapped Japanese flags and showered the ice with Winnie-the-Pooh plush toys. They raised signs that read “Fly Yuzu!” and featured caricatures of their idol. Some screamed, some cried, and some screamed while crying. All the while, Yuzuru Hanyu let the celebration pour over him, basking in a moment that seemed too dreamy even when he was injured and relegated to visualization exercises.
Here he was, a defending Olympic champion with a tender right ankle, ligaments still frayed, performing like a maestro figure skater again. From the beginning of his long program, Hanyu was a graceful treat, skating with beauty and ease, exhibiting athleticism and captivating with his expressive style. He wasn’t perfect: Twice he landed shakily but rescued those jumps without putting down his hand. Those were the only signs that he hadn’t competed since October, since he wrecked that ankle in November. Otherwise, Hanyu was a picture of poise and elegance. In a PyeongChang Games overflowing with excellence, he was as prodigious as it gets.
Before he exited his stage at Gangneung Ice Arena, as the flags kept flapping and the Pooh bears kept raining and the emotions kept flowing, Hanyu regaled the crowd with one last gesture. He bowed one more time, and it was as powerful as a music artist who commands an audience with a single movement. That bow, so emotive, deserved its own gold medal.
After Hanyu followed Friday’s brilliant short program with this Saturday effort, there was little doubt he would make history. Fifteen minutes after his skate, it was official: He had won gold again and matched Dick Button’s back-to-back feat from 66 years ago. In celebration, he hugged bronze medalist Javier Fernandez and wept on the shoulders of the Spaniard, with whom he trains in Toronto.
“If you are a protagonist of a comic cartoon, the setting was too well made,” Hanyu said. “If you look at it as a human being, this is really an extraordinary circumstance, really.”
You would think the Olympics is an impossible place to heal, but that’s what happened here. Hanyu hasn’t felt right for nearly four months, and on the emotional end of the pain spectrum, American wunderkind Nathan Chen fell apart and lost his confidence during this competition. Both made miraculous recoveries on this day.
Sometimes you come to the Olympics to prove yourself. Sometimes, as with Chen, you come to find yourself.
It had been a disastrous Olympics for the 18-year-old Chen. Then — as “a sort of an anger thing,” he said — he decided to attempt something never done: a routine that included six quadruple jumps. He landed all six, five of them clean. He earned a 215.08 score, the best of the day, outdoing even Hanyu. He rose from 17th place and led the competition for two hours before finishing fifth.
Now Chen knows all about Olympic pressure. He won’t deny it next time, if he qualifies for the Beijing Games in 2022. He also will handle it better.
“Honestly, I just didn’t care anymore,” Chen said. “I was like, ‘All right, screw it. Just relax, recover.’ If I dwell on the past or think too much in the future, it’s not going to benefit me anyway. Just relax.”
Hanyu, 23, makes it seem as if he never has trouble with composure. He is now a candidate for the mythical title of best men’s figure skater ever. At the world championships, he has claimed two gold medals, two silvers and one bronze. When he won gold in Sochi at age 19 four years ago, he became the sport’s youngest Olympic champion since Button. Now he joins Button in the back-to-back club, and it’s plausible that he could be a medal contender again in 2022.
That’s a lot of Pooh bears tossed onto the ice. Fans show him affection by throwing his favorite stuffed animal. It never gets old for Hanyu, whose spellbinding presence and charisma on the ice contradict his childlike mannerisms and innocence in any other setting. While Shoma Uno, his teammate who won the silver medal, was doing interviews in the media mixed zone Friday, Hanyu fell to his hands and knees and crawled so that he wouldn’t disturb him.
Afterward, Hanyu didn’t boast. He was too focused on complimenting Uno and Fernandez and the other skaters.
“Some have said I have been the pioneer, but I would like to negate that 100 percent,” Hanyu said. “I think I have a lot of shortcomings. Really, I cannot commend myself.”
Okay, he’s right to dismiss any pioneer chatter as hyperbole. But he can’t brush off his legend. Uno called him “my eternal goal, the eternal idol for me.” Hanyu blushed.
Fernandez expounded. Hanyu giggled.
“There are a lot of figure skating idols in skating history; Yuzu is one of the skaters at this moment that you can watch and learn,” Fernandez said. “He knows how to turn a bad moment into a good moment, and he never gives up. It’s something that everyone can also learn.”
I have witnessed two of the great Olympic figure skating performances. In 2010, South Korean delight Kim Yu-na blessed the Vancouver Games with an epic effort, amassing a world record total of 228.56 points. She was flawless. And now I have seen Hanyu make history.
Whose performance was better? For the record, Kim. Definitely, Kim. But Hanyu pulled off the repeat, which Kim was denied in Sochi. She settled for a controversial silver, losing to Russian Adelina Sotnikova in Russia.
With his ankle slow to heal, Hanyu feared he wouldn’t get to compete in PyeongChang.
“My injury was more severe than I thought,” he said.
So he rehabbed and visualized his routine, all the quads and the gorgeous hydroblading and Ina Bauers. It would be inspirational for anyone to imagine performing those moves. But knowing you can execute such brilliance? There was no way Hanyu was going to miss the Olympics.
“I want to thank my ankle,” Hanyu said.
Of course, the ankle held up. The setting was too well made for a resilient champion to bow once more. Throw your Pooh bears in the air. This is really an extraordinary circumstance. Really.
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