One week into the Winter Games, 19-year-old Yuzuru Hanyu took to the ice in Sochi’s Iceberg Skating Palace to deliver his short programme routine. Two minutes and 50 seconds later, he had announced himself to the world with a truly astonishing performance. To the sounds of Gary Moore’s Parisienne Walkways, he executed a quadruple toe loop, triple axel, and triple lutz-triple toe loop combination. His display earned him a world record score of 101.45, and he broke the 100-point barrier for the first time in history. He rose to the top of the standings, with a four-point lead over Canada’s Patrick Chan.
The following day, Friday 14 February, Hanyu unexpectedly fell twice in the opening minute of his free skate programme, choreographed to Nino Rota’s Romeo and Juliet. Demonstrating the mental fortitude for which he is known, he recovered in admirable fashion, producing 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 his delighted coach, Canadian Brian Orser. Born on 7 December 1994 in Sendai (Japan), Hanyu became his country’s first male 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.”
Caught up in the natural disaster of 11 March 2011
Hanyu’s life was marked by a dramatic event that occurred when he was 16. The 2010 world junior champion was in the middle of a training session at his local ice rink on 11 March 2011 when a devastating earthquake struck off the coast of his home town, Sendai, in the Tohoku region, triggering a devastating tsunami. Hanyu, with his ice skates still on his feet, barely had time to evacuate the building before the waves struck. He spent 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.”
The disaster totally changed my values. I want to make every single day, every practice and every competition count Yuzuru Hanyu
- Yuzuru Hanyu
In 2012, Hanyu won a bronze medal at the World Figure Skating Championships in Nice. Shortly afterwards, aged 17, 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, Hanyu 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 Winter Games.
Two months before Sochi, Hanyu won the ISU Grand Prix final, staged in his home country in Fukuoka, for the first time. Having become a national star after winning the Olympic title, he was crowned world champion in March 2014 in Saitama (Japan), becoming the first skater to win the treble in the same year since Russia’s Alexei Yagudin in 2002. He then pushed on again, going ever faster, higher and stronger to become, in the eyes of many observers, the greatest figure skater of all time. He became the first skater to win the Grand Prix final four times in a row (between 2014 and 2017); the first to score over 200 points in the free programme and break the 300-point mark in the combined total; and the first to land a quadruple loop in competition. In 2017, he reclaimed the world title in Helsinki thanks to a sublime free programme.
A second historic title at PyeongChang 2018
Then came the PyeongChang Olympic Winter Games. On 16 February 2018, at the Gangneung Ice Arena, the Japanese star produced a superlative display in the short programme, taking a significant lead over the rest of the field. He followed this up the next day with a very solid free skate 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 Fernández, on 305.24. Hanyu pulled off no fewer than four quadruple jumps in his free programme, kicking off with a risky quadruple salchow and quadruple toe loop, before executing a triple axel. He rounded off his routine with another quadruple salchow and a quadruple toe loop that he came close to landing perfectly. The 23-year-old, performing to the sound of Shigeru Umebayashi’s Seimei, was at the very top of his game, to the clear delight of the cheering crowd.
Having recovered from the injury he sustained in training in November 2017, Hanyu became 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’s victory on 17 February 2018 in Gangneung also saw him go down in Olympic history as the winner 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 on 26 January 1924. After sealing the gold, Hanyu fell into the arms of his training partner Fernández, and cried on his shoulder. “It’s the most beautiful day of my skating career,” he 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.”
First male skater to complete career “Super Slam”
Since the PyeongChang Winter Games, the Japanese maestro has continued to break points records. But he has also had to deal with ankle injuries, and has come up against a formidable opponent in the shape of the USA’s Nathan Chen, who beat him at the 2019 World Championships in Saitama in March, and in the final of the Grand Prix in Turin in December, where Hanyu nevertheless landed five quadruple jumps in the free skate for the first time, on the day of his 25th birthday. On 9 February 2020, Hanyu won his maiden Four Continents title in Seoul to become the first male skater to complete a career “Super Slam” of all the major competitions, having already claimed titles in the two main junior competitions, the ISU Grand Prix, the Olympic Winter Games and the World Championships. At the Four Continents Championships, he set another short programme world record (111.82 points) to take his overall score to 299.42 points after the free programme.
Hanyu does not yet know whether he will be in Beijing in 2022 seeking a third Olympic title. His main focus is currently to stay fit and maintain his form – only then will he think about taking on what would be an unprecedented challenge.