Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu and three-time world champ Mao Asada will be looking to add to their already illustrious resumes at the Grand Prix Final this week in Barcelona, Spain.
Hanyu, fresh off his electric performance in victory at the NHK Trophy in Nagano, will attempt to become the first man to win the prestigious six-man event three consecutive times when action gets underway on Thursday at the International Convention Centre. Hanyu, along with Evgeni Plushenko and Patrick Chan are the only men to claim the GP Final title two straight times.
Mao, who finished a disappointing third at the NHK Trophy, will try to become the first woman to capture the GP Final five times. She is currently tied with Russia’s Irinia Slutskaya for the most victories in the competition with four.
Hanyu will also be trying to keep another streak going with a triumph. If the Sendai native prevails again, it will mark the fourth straight year that a Japanese man has stood atop the podium. Daisuke Takahashi took top honors back in 2012 in Sochi, with Hanyu doing the same in 2013 and 2014.
The GP Final was first held during the 1995-96 season in Paris and won by Russia’s Alexei Urmanov, the Olympic champion at the 1994 Lillehammer Games.
Hanyu and compatriots Shoma Uno and Daisuke Murakami will try to make Japan just the second nation to sweep the men’s GP Final medals. It has only been done once before, back during the 1998-99 season when Alexei Yagudin, Urmanov and Plushenko achieved the feat on home ice in St. Petersburg.
Reigning world champion Javier Fernandez, Patrick Chan and China’s Jin Boyang are also in the loaded lineup, with Hanyu the prohibitive favorite.
It will be another big week for Hanyu, who turned 21 on Monday. Even though 10 days have passed, the skating world is still buzzing about Hanyu’s phenomenal effort at the NHK Trophy, where he set three world records (short program, free skate, total score) in two days.
The praise has continued to pour in for Hanyu from all corners. The Guardian’s Richard Williams wrote a thoughtful piece comparing Hanyu’s free skate to the magical night that Britain’s John Curry won the gold medal at the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria.
In a column entitled “Yuzuru Hanyu offers a timely reminder of John Curry’s grace and greatness,” Williams wrote ” … Hanyu unfurled a long program that fulfilled all the promises Curry had ever made about the potential of his sport to attain the condition of art.”
Williams saluted not only the brilliance of Hanyu’s performance, but also cited how it moved the masses and was the product of incredible dedication.
“The swiftness, the flow and the precision of the Japanese champion’s movements, in a program containing three quadruple jumps and seven triples, had the same effect on his audience as the Englishman’s game-changing displays of grace, poise and exquisite line,” Williams wrote. “And for both men, the beauty of their performance provided an elegant cloak to hide all the countless hours of hard work that had gone into the creation of such supreme athletic prowess.”
Curry was ahead of his time in bringing artistry to skating with his arm movements. He was a true trailblazer who saw the future of the sport and embraced it.
It is hard to believe that Curry has been gone for more than 20 years now. He died tragically of AIDS at 44 in 1994 nearly penniless.
In the space of 50 incredible days back in 1976, Curry won the European, Olympic and world championships. His name still stirs emotions in the skating community and in the United Kingdom, where it was said that 20 million watched his free skate in Innsbruck on television.
Ice Time mentioned the fantastic biography “Alone: The Triumph and Tragedy of John Curry” written by Bill Jones in a column earlier this year. Any skating fan who has the chance should find time to get this tome and read it. The research and writing are absolutely extraordinary.
NBC analyst Tara Lipinski, the gold medalist at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, singled out the fluidity in Hanyu’s performances as being particularly special.
“What to watch for with Yuzuru are the transitions in and out of his jumps,” she said on the broadcast of the NHK Trophy. “They just melt into the choreography. You can never tell a jump is coming.”
Lipinski thinks Hanyu is on a level by himself at this point.
“If he continues to put out performances like that, nobody can touch him,” she commented at the end of Hanyu’s free skate in Nagano.
Johnny Weir, a three-time U.S. champion and also an NBC analyst, was equally moved by Hanyu’s free skate at Big Hat. He also feels no other skater is even close to Hanyu now.
” … Patrick Chan, Javier Fernandez. Nobody can combine the component side of skating with the technical prowess and beauty that Yuzuru has the way he does,” Weir said.
Mao, despite her struggles at the NHK Trophy, will be the favorite on the women’s card that includes world silver medalist Satoko Miyahara, Americans Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner, and Russia’s Evgenia Medvedeva and Elena Radionova.
Mao has been victorious at the GP Final in 2005, 2008, 2012 and 2013. The first two of those wins were especially noteworthy. Mao was just 15 when she took the gold in Tokyo in 2005. She came from behind to beat Yuna Kim in South Korea with two titanic triple axels in the free skate in 2008.
It will likely come down to the triple axel again for Mao, as it usually does. She hit them at the Cup of China and won, but could not at the NHK Trophy and settled for third.
Reigning Russian world champion Elizaveta Tuktamysheva did not qualify for the GP Final due to some bad luck. After taking second place at Skate Canada, Tuktamysheva had a poor short program at the Trophee Bompard last month (finishing fifth) and never had the chance to improve on it in the free skate after the remainder of the competition was canceled following the terror attacks in Paris.
Ice Time thinks this is an injustice that the ISU should have rectified by expanding the field of six skaters. The ISU slightly amended the qualification rules for the GP Final to allow for a seventh skater only if that competitor was seventh in the GP standings and had participated in the Trophee Bompard.
Tuktamysheva finished eighth, behind Rika Hongo, who is the first alternate in case of injury. The bottom line is that skating fans have been denied the best field for the event due to an arbitrary decision.
Junior lineup: The Junior Grand Prix Final will run concurrently with the senior GP Final in Barcelona, with the competition also starting on Thursday. Japan has four competitors in the JGP Final.
Yuna Shiraiwa, Marin Honda and Mai Mihara comprise half of the women’s field, with Kaori Sakamoto the first alternate. Sota Yamamoto is the lone man representing the Hinomaru.
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