Ice Network

Inimitable Hanyu driven to push limits of greatness

Olympic champion unafraid to challenge status quo no matter the stakes
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Yuzuru Hanyu's willingness to test the boundaries of his sport is why the Japanese superstar stands in a class of his own. -Getty Images

Icenetwork will announce its choice for 2017-18 Person of the Year later this month. Here's one of the nominations for that honor from icenetwork contributor Philip Hersh.

Yuzuru Hanyu has never been satisfied with the idea of doing just enough to win.

The Japanese star has always longed to be on the cutting edge of figure skating, to be one of the leaders in the quadruple jump revolution that swept the sport during the four years that followed his first Olympic gold medal in 2014.

That relentless commitment to challenging himself would allow Hanyu to make jump history first in early autumn 2016, when he became the first skater to land a quad loop in competition, and then again the next spring, when he won his second world title by adding a fourth quad -- the loop -- to his free skate at the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships.

And it was that same unrelenting drive that nearly ended his hopes for a landmark Olympic achievement in 2018.

That made Hanyu's February triumph at the Gangneung Ice Arena both melodramatic and brilliant. It was as much a testament to his competitive will as it was to the skating mastery -- both athletic and artistic -- with which he has made a strong case to be called the greatest men's singles skater of all time.

In becoming a man for the ages by winning a second straight Olympic title, Hanyu had to overcome a considerable setback to be the man for this season. That makes him my choice for icenetwork Person of the Year.

"This is my dream stage," Hanyu said of the Olympics in a press conference three days before the men's event. "And I want to give a dream performance."

He did just that, becoming the first man to win consecutive singles golds since Dick Button of the United States in 1948 and 1952.

But Hanyu's second Olympic season almost turned into a nightmare.

He came to South Korea having missed two months of on-ice training after a Nov. 9 injury caused by his efforts to match the quad lutzes being done by rivals like Boyang Jin of China and Nathan Chen of the United States. Hanyu sustained ligament damage to his right ankle after an awkward fall on a quad lutz attempt in a practice session at the NHK Trophy.

His last competitive skate before the 2018 Olympics was at the Rostelecom Cup in late October, when Hanyu landed a quad lutz in the free skate but finished second overall to Chen.

"He came right back to Toronto after the accident, and I asked him, 'What's your goal?'" Brian Orser, who coaches Hanyu at the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club, recalled last week. "He said, 'I want to win the Olympics more than anything.'

"I told him, 'We can rev things up quickly, but we're going to have to make some changes to the (long) program. If you want to go and break records, I don't know if that's going to happen. If you want to win the Olympics, that could very well happen.'

"I was very impressed he listened to his doctors and his physios, and he took the time he needed," Orser continued. "That was remarkable for him. I know him, and he would (usually) push through the pain and train and do stuff prematurely, and it would have been one setback after another. This time, he had a different approach. He never took his eyes off the prize."

He needed plenty of patience. Hanyu would not practice jumps again until mid-January, a month before the Olympics.

"After two months, I still felt some difficulties skating, and there were times when I wondered whether I would ever completely recover," Hanyu said in South Korea.

Bronze medalist Javier Fernández of Spain, who has trained with Hanyu in Toronto since 2012, was among those unsurprised he pulled it off -- and for the simplest of reasons.

"Of course he will be ready to skate," Fernández said. "He's Hanyu."

Yet doubts and questions remained even after Hanyu won the 2018 Olympic short program with a flawless performance that earned the second-highest score ever. (Hanyu got the highest at a B-level event last September in Canada; his Olympic short program was the most dazzling 2 minutes, 50 seconds in history from every standpoint, especially given it took place on his sport's biggest stage.)

But was his fitness level high enough to withstand the demands of a 4 1/2-minute free skate with 12 planned jumps, four of them quads, as he tried to hold onto a 4.1-point lead?

"I was concerned," Orser said. "We have all seen in the past times where he runs out of steam. The long program, even when he was healthy, has been a bit of a challenge. He needs to train."

Yet Orser also was confident that the benefits of the intense training Hanyu did last summer had not disappeared.

"We started (Olympic preparations) back in July and had a big media day at the end of July, with all the Japanese media," Orser said. "I remember telling the media at that point, 'If the Olympics were next week, he'd be ready.'

"He was doing programs by then with the (quad) lutz and the loop and the sal(chow) and two toes (toe loops), and I thought it was too soon," he continued. "When I look back, it was, 'Thank goodness we had all that training in the bank.'"

That experience gave the coach comfort about how fast Hanyu could get into long-program shape. Orser also noted that Hanyu had time to do extra physical training during the weeks he was off the ice.

"What I found remarkable about Yuzu was the intelligent and disciplined strategy he used to recover from his injury enough to get to the Games," said Tracy Wilson, who helps coach Hanyu with Orser. "(That) and the way in which he showed unshakable faith in himself, his plan and his ability once he was there and under intense pressure."

That strategy included Orser and Hanyu allowing discretion to be the better part of valor in South Korea.

They agreed he would eschew attempts at either a quad lutz or quad loop in an Olympic free skate that turned out sparkling even if imperfect. (He was the first man to become Olympic champion without winning the free skate since Scott Hamilton in 1984.)

Hanyu landed three clean quads out of four attempts (two salchows, two toe loops) and had a flawed landing on his final jump, a triple lutz. His spins, footwork and transitions between elements were peerless, as usual.

It wasn't good enough to beat the score Chen earned with a record-breaking quad display (five clean in six attempts, all six fully rotated), but it was pretty darn good for a guy who said a week later that he had needed unspecified painkillers to skate. It earned Hanyu gold by 11 points over countryman Shoma Uno.

"I would like to thank my ankle -- you did a good job," a lighthearted Hanyu said after winning. He would skip the World Figure Skating Championships a month later to give the ankle time to heal fully.

The Japanese media and fan pressure on him (and the ankle) was enormous, as Hanyu has been largely responsible for making Japan into the world's most passionate country about figure skating. The willowy Hanyu also has attracted fans worldwide with his expressiveness, the contrast between his seeming fragility and his utter command on the ice, and his seamless blend of grace and power.

At 23, the only question now about Hanyu is whether he has had enough as a competitor. Given his inner drive, it seems likelier he will be lured by the challenges of trying to add to his 12 world-best scoring performances and his two world titles, of trying to build more landmark jump achievements -- and, ultimately, of trying to match Sweden's Gillis Grafström as the only men to win three Olympic singles gold medals.

After he took an unexpected turn on the ice (with no jumps) 10 days ago in Japan during an ice show he produced, Hanyu said, "I have the desire to compete again," according to Kyodo News.

"Going forward, he doesn't see limits, only possibilities," Wilson said. "He has a lot left to offer, in terms of showing the world what's possible."

Orser said he now has "a sense" Hanyu is going to continue. After all, the skater is talking about trying to land a quadruple axel in competition.

"You can't blame the kid to want to keep challenging himself," Orser said. "That's kind of what keeps him in it. Sure, he wants to win, but he also wants to keep moving the sport forward.

"He doesn't have to be the first with the quad axel, but he probably would be. He wasn't the first to do a quad lutz, but he wanted to do that for himself. I have to let him kind of run with it."

If that attitude leads him to run into trouble again, so be it.

He would not have had this memorable run atop the skating world without pushing the limits of greatness.