Preview: Leading after the short program, Hanyu Yuzuru is a skate away from third world title

The two-time Olympic champ is ahead of teenage compatriot Kagiyama Yuma, as well as Nathan Chen, the reigning champ, who sits in third.

By Nick McCarvel
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Training on his own for most of 2020, two-time Olympic and world champion Hanyu Yuzuru said he feels a “stronger connection” to the sport he so loves.

“[Training alone] made me revisit my skating my relationship” with the sport, he told reporters in Japanese after his short program Thursday at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships in Stockholm.

So far, that renewed connection has produced only stronger skating, too, Hanyu winning his fifth Japanese national title in December and now in the lead ahead of Saturday’s free skate at worlds, where he hasn’t won since 2017.

Behind him are two separate challengers: Japanese compatriot and teenage upstart Kagiyama Yuma; as well as two-time and reigning world champion Nathan Chen, who fell in his short program – a first in over two years.

Here, five things to know for the men’s free skate, with a world title on the line ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games. See how the men's standings look after the short program here.

Hanyu looks for third world title

Much like he did at Japanese nationals three months ago, Hanyu came out firing in the short program, receiving positive Grades of Execution for all three of his jumping passes and putting on a show in his aptly named “Let Me Entertain You” program.

He’ll look to entertain in the free, though his “Heaven and Earth” program has a much softer, lighter feel to it, choreographed by Shae-Lynn Bourne via video.

With world titles in 2014 and 2017, he’s looking to add another on the eve of the Olympic season, where he could become the first man in nearly 100 years to win three consecutive Olympic golds.

Kagiyama, Chen chasing – in different ways

Kagiyama and Chen will skate from behind, with Hanyu scoring a 106.98 in the short, six points ahead of his countryman (100.96) and eight points ahead of the American (98.85).

For 2020 Youth Olympic Games winner Kagiyama, his senior world debut has been a coming of age in a year where he’s established himself as a top international skater. He’s coached by his father, a two-time Olympian.

“I thought I’d be nervous and tense, but it turned out I wasn’t,” said Kagiyama, who won the bronze medal at Japanese nationals in December. “Before my performance, I spoke to my father, and we said, ‘We came this far, let’s make sure we don’t regret anything.’”

There seems to be no regrets at all for Kagiyama, though it’s hard to say the same for Chen, whose fall on a quadruple Lutz in the short program was his first in competition in over 120 jumps – since the Grand Prix Final in 2018.

The eight-point deficit is not insurmountable, but Chen said he would rather focus on learning from his mistake in the short and trying to skate better in the free skate, where he said he intends to keep the quad Lutz in his planned program content.

“Medals are things that are out of my control. I feel like I am putting myself in the wrong mental state if I focus on that,” he said. “I'm going to take some time to analyze what happened with the quad Lutz and do it better... Whatever the results are, I want to skate better, be better.” - Nathan Chen on his free skate approach

Men’s field: Kolyada, Messing, Uno, Brown and more

The men’s singles event at worlds this year is a plethora of strong, experienced skaters, and they delivered in the short program, with each of the top eight skaters scoring above 90 points and putting themselves in medal contention for the free.

In fourth if Mikhail Kolyada, followed by Keegan Messing, Uno Shoma, Jason Brown and Cha Jun-hwan, all Olympians, and Kolyada and Uno with a world medal to their names. (Uno is the Olympic silver medallist in 2018, too.)

Kolyada could prove the most dangerous to the top three, as he’s shown resurgent form this season, having switched coaches to Alexei Mishin and come back after missing the 2019-20 season with illness.

He was particularly strong in the free skate at Russian nationals in December.

None of the men are to be counted out, though the free skate offers Brown the challenge of trying to master the quad jump – something he's struggled with throughout his career. He told Olympic Channel prior to worlds he would go for a quad Salchow in the free skate to open the program.

Olympic spots and feel-good stories

Worlds in 2021 is part of the Olympic position qualifying process for Beijing 2022, meaning skaters will be extra motivated to finish as high as possible. (Spots are qualified by country and skaters themselves will be decided next season.)

That goes for France’s Kevin Aymoz, who is ninth after the short program and would like to stay in the top 10 to help his country have two spots for the Games.

His was one of several feel-good stories in the short program: This event is his first international skate in over a year, and first since a dismal short program at Europeans last January.

He said it felt like “redemption.”

China’s Yan Han (12th) and two-time world medallist Jin Boyang (19th) will look for better free skates, while Sweden’s Nikolaj Majorov (20th) said skating at home – even with no fans – was giving him goosebumps.

And Mexico’s Donovan Carrillo – the only Mexican skater at worlds – qualified 23rd of 24 finalists. He said he’d like to continue to inspire a nation to embrace the sport he so loves.

All eyes on Hanyu and Chen

The final group will crescendo into a Chen, Kagiyama and Hanyu finish, which should make for fantastic drama.

Chen hasn’t lost an international competition since the 2018 Olympics, winning nine in a row. But that streak is at stake today.

Olympic Channel’s Meryl Davis had this to say on the Hanyu-Chen dynamic.

"With just over eight points between Hanyu and Chen, this is ground that will be difficult, but not impossible for Nathan to recover in the long,” Davis said. “For Chen, much of the focus will be on honing his approach as we near the Beijing Games. There aren't many opportunities for these two legends to face off ahead of 2022, so I imagine that each will focus on maximizing key learnings and takeaways about their own strategies with every encounter."

"Coming into the free program as the frontrunner can be stressful, but that’s where Hanyu’s experience comes into play. He is no stranger to pressure-filled moments and delivering when the stakes are high." - Meryl Davis to Olympic Channel

The free skate will start at 11am local time in Stockholm. Follow our live blog here.