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Olympic champion Hanyu embraces role as hero to millions

Sendai native displays maturity, humility that belies his years

by Jack Gallagher

Staff Writer

It was not as majestic as it could have been, but the morning after the reality is that Yuzuru Hanyu is the Olympic champion.

Hanyu struggled through his free skate at the Iceberg Skating Palace on Friday night, but emerged victorious after Canada’s Patrick Chan was unable to seize the moment.

After Hanyu’s second fall, it looked as if the gold had slipped away, but Chan came apart when he took the ice and the rest is history.

The triumph was due in large part to the fantastic short program that Hanyu had on Thursday night, when he amassed a world-record score of 101.45 points, and opened up a nearly four-point lead.

In winning, he became the youngest man to accomplish the feat in 66 years.

What Hanyu’s victory lacked in artistry was made up for in symbolism.

The 19-year-old is a highly intelligent and thoughtful young man, who is popular among fans, the media and other skaters.

The story of the Sendai native running out of his home rink with his skates still on when the March 11 disaster hit in 2011 is well-known, but what may not be is the sensitive nature of the new gold medalist.

“It’s a very difficult subject for me to talk about,” Hanyu said, when asked about the devastating earthquake and tsunami at the press conference after his victory. “I think my service to all those who were affected by the earthquake starts today, now that I’m an Olympic champion.”

At the pinnacle of his young career, Hanyu then revealed how deeply the tragedy had affected him.

“I lost my skating rink because of the earthquake and I was literally struggling to live at that time, let alone try to keep skating,” he stated. “I really thought about quitting skating then.”

Though the media is always quick to grab onto a story line, whether it is real or imagined, Hanyu recognized that he is and will continue to be an inspiration to many in Tohoku and throughout Japan.

“I had the support of so many people to get here, and I want to pay them back somehow,” he commented. “I was on top of the podium carrying the hopes of thousands, millions, and I feel great about that.”

While skaters in other countries often quickly retire and cash in after winning the Olympic gold, Hanyu knows that he has a much deeper obligation going forward.

“I have been picked to represent Japan for the world championships and I take that responsibility seriously,” he said. “I have been only been on the podium once at the worlds before (as the silver medalist in 2013), so I really want to win it this time.”

Hanyu is a throwback to a different era. A time when being honest, wholesome and ambitious were admirable qualities.

His coach, Brian Orser, recalled a walk that he and his prized student took along the Black Sea back in December of 2012 when the Grand Prix Final was held in Sochi, for the Chicago Tribune’s Phil Hersh.

“We started talking about the Sochi Games, and he just blurted out, ‘I want to win that Olympics, and I want to win the next one,’ ” Orser said to Hersh.

These days many people Hanyu’s age are looking to get attention in just about any way they can. But Hanyu is different. He already understands that from this point on he will be looked at a certain way for the rest of his life.

This can be both a blessing and a burden. He will certainly reap the benefits of his hard work, but will also know that he can never let his guard down because he is a role model for many.

There is a message for all youth in Hanyu’s victory: If you work hard, do what you are told, and behave appropriately, you are giving yourself a greater chance for success.

Luck — good and bad — is part of life. That is the reality. But you don’t get into the position that Hanyu did solely by good fortune.

Fourth-place finisher Javier Fernandez of Spain, who trains with Hanyu in Toronto under Orser, reinforced the point.

“I’m very happy for him (Hanyu),” said Fernandez. “He works hard every day. He deserves it.”

Fate dealt Hanyu a good hand on Friday night. I’m just happy that I got to see a fine young man, from a good family, excel at his passion on the grandest stage possible.