SAPPORO – Reigning Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu will essentially be competing against himself at this weekend’s NHK Trophy.
After setting three world records in two nights a year ago at this event, the final leg of the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating series, the fans at Makomanai Ice Arena will be expecting no less than Hanyu’s best.
Though a repeat may be too much to ask for, as he has raised his own bar with a more challenging program, Hanyu is determined to brush off the threat from skating powerhouses Russia and the United States to return to his familiar spot atop the podium at the Nov. 25-27 competition.
Hanyu isn’t looking to just give the home audience a case of deja vu.
“I don’t intend to perform the same way I did last year. It’s a different venue, and I’ll be skating to a different song. I’ll do the best I can at this time, and hopefully that means better quality,” he said.
Hanyu, who turns 22 next month, only needs to place among the top three to secure a place in the Grand Prix Final, the event he has won for the past three years, but qualifying for the Dec. 8-11 season finale in Marseille might not be as easy as it appears.
Despite becoming the first skater to land a quad loop in competition at October’s Autumn Classic International, Hanyu still seems to be affected by a left-foot injury that delayed his on-ice training at the start of the season.
After being outdueled by Canadian Patrick Chan and finishing second at last month’s Skate Canada, Hanyu said he has brushed up on his moves and made adjustments to his choreography, which he believes has made his long program “more worth watching.”
The risks of including two quadruple jumps in the short program and four in the free program are high, but the rewards even higher should he surpass his 2015 NHK Trophy performance in Nagano.
Hanyu skated flawlessly for a score of 106.33 in the short program and 216.07 in the free program for a total of 322.40 points — all world records at the time — until he rewrote them en route to the gold at the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona two weeks later with 110.95, 219.48 and 330.43.
American skaters Jason Brown and Nathan Chen are also medal favorites, while Russia’s Mikhail Kolyada is a dark horse after finishing a surprising fourth in his world championships debut in April.
Keiji Tanaka and Ryuji Hino will also represent Japan in the men’s competition and make an effort to steal the limelight from Hanyu. Hino makes his Grand Prix debut as a replacement for Sota Yamamoto, a last-minute withdrawal due to a broken ankle.
Hanyu has shared a friendly rivalry with Tanaka and Hino since the three of them competed in the novice category, and the joy of skating together with them in a senior-level competition might help Hanyu deal with the pressure of carrying the weight of a nation on his shoulders.
“They’re rivals but I don’t consider them enemies. We were born in the same era. I’m really glad that we’ll finally be able to skate together on the same stage in the same category,” said Hanyu.
In a women’s field lacking fan favorite Mao Asada, two-time national champion Satoko Miyahara will attempt a triple-triple combination late in her short program in hopes of defending her NHK Trophy title and helping Japan reach the Grand Prix Final in the women’s discipline for a 16th straight season.
Miyahara will be pushed by Russian rivals Anna Pogorilaya, this year’s world bronze medalist, and 16-year-old Maria Sotskova, the 2016 world junior silver medalist.
“Of course I want to take part (in the Final), but for now I’d like to focus on the NHK Trophy and put on a solid performance that will leave no questions,” Miyahara said.
Two other Japanese teenagers will compete among the women this weekend in their second senior Grand Prix events. Wakaba Higuchi finished third in Paris two weeks ago, while Yura Matsuda was sixth in Moscow at the beginning of the month.
Sumire Suto and Francis Boudreau-Audet are the only team representing Japan in the pairs discipline, while two teams — Emi Hirai and Marien de la Asuncion, and Kana Muramoto and Chris Reed — will be competing for the host nation in ice dance.
A total of 56 skaters/couples will be featured in the three-day event with prize money of $180,000 in each category.