Figure Skating | ICE TIME

Pressure on Hanyu to reclaim title, display dominance

by Jack Gallagher

Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu enters this week’s world championships in Helsinki needing to get a big monkey off his back.

It has been three years since Hanyu won his last world title (in 2014 in Saitama) and people are starting to talk. The conversation does not center on the superstar’s ability, which is phenomenal, but on his consistency.

Back in 2015 Hanyu was coming off surgery when he finished a narrow second behind training partner Javier Fernandez at the worlds, so the result was understandable.

Last year Hanyu led after a strong short program only to falter in the free skate and end up with the silver medal for the second straight year after Fernandez uncorked a fantastic free skate.

Hanyu last put together two technically clean programs at the 2015 Grand Prix Final in Barcelona, Spain, where he set world records that still stand. Some of this can be attributed to the Sendai native pushing his technical aspirations higher instead of trying be more conservative and win at other events.

But this time it’s different.

The worlds leading into the Olympic season is extremely important because it serves as a launching pad of sorts, giving the winner momentum entering the most important season of the quadrennial.

Hanyu’s loss to American Nathan Chen last month at the Four Continents in Gangneung, South Korea, has some wondering if Hanyu can repeat as the Olypic champion next year despite the fact that he has won the Grand Prix Final four consecutive years. Ice Time believes that there is no question that he can.

Hanyu needs a decisive victory in Finland to quiet the critics and let his opponents know that he is unquestionably still the man. If Hanyu emerges with the gold at the worlds, he will put doubt into the minds of the competitors who think they might be catching up to him.

A prominent coach once told Ice Time that, “skating is 98 percent mental on this (elite) level because everybody can do the same moves.” So Hanyu must forge through this barrier and redirect the pressure he is encountering back onto his challengers so they are in awe of him again.

Goldenskate.com analyst Ted Flett had this to say about Hanyu in a preview for the worlds:

“After raising the bar to world-record-scoring proportions last season, 2014 Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu has struggled to harness that same threshold this season,” Flett wrote. “Though incorporating the quadruple loop this season and routinely landing the jump in his short program and free skate, a clean performance has thus far evaded the fan-favorite from Japan.”

With all of the talk about Hanyu, Chen and Fernandez, Shoma Uno, who was seventh last year at the worlds in Boston, is almost being overlooked even though he has a good chance to make the podium.

“Japan’s Shoma Uno is itching to break free from his compatriot’s shadow, and this season, the 19-year-old is getting closer and closer to that feat,” Flett observed about the Nagoya native. “Determined to climb the rankings with a consistent quadruple flip this season, Uno upped his game even more by adding the quadruple loop to his arsenal, as well.”

Rockerskating.com‘s Jackie Wong has Chen tabbed as the favorite to win in Helsinki, but acknowledges what most of the experts feel about Hanyu.

“Given two clean programs, Hanyu is still the unbeatable one this season,” Wong wrote in his worlds preview. “Hanyu is tenacious, and you better believe he’s coming into this competition fired up and ready to roll.”

Wong’s take on Uno, whom he forecasts as finishing fourth behind Chen, Hanyu and Fernandez, included a very valid question.

“The potential is very much there — can he (Uno) live up to it on the biggest stage?” wrote Wong.

It will be high drama when the men take the ice on Thursday for the short program at the worlds, with all eyes on Hanyu and Chen. Hanyu needs to keep it close in the short and then use his superior program components to put away Chen in the free skate.

High anxiety: With last week’s news that Satoko Miyahara would be unable to compete in Helsinki due to the ongoing effects of a hip injury, the possibility that Japan’s three spots in women’s singles for next year’s Pyeongchang Olympics were very much in jeopardy became a grim reality.

Japan’s top two finishers at the worlds must be a combined 13th or better to clinch the three slots for the 2018 Winter Games.

Without Miyahara in the lineup, Japan’s hopes are going to rest on senior debutants Mai Mihara, who was outstanding in winning the gold at the Four Continents, and Wakaba Higuchi. Rika Hongo has replaced Miyahara on the Japan roster, but it will fall to Mihara and Higuchi to carry the day for Japan.

This is not going to be easy. In fact, Ice Time likens it to trying to pick up a 7-10 split in bowling. Difficult, but not impossible.

I think Japan’s best chance is for the 17-year-old Mihara to finish on the podium or around fourth, with Higuchi coming in eighth or ninth. That would be enough, but there are so many variables that need to be factored in.

Higuchi is very talented and also very emotional. The 16-year-old is the key to the equation in my view. She has to hold it together and not get down on herself. She certainly has the skills to place in the top eight or nine.

Both Mihara and Higuchi need solid short programs on Wednesday to keep the pressure on their competitors entering the more rigorous free skate where their superior conditioning can make a difference.

“Often overlooked in favor of her younger teammates, Mihara flew under the radar this season by capturing the bronze medal at Skate America in her Grand Prix debut,” stated Flett in his worlds preview. “Equipped with strong skating skills, knee bend, and jump technique, Mai will be a darkhorse for the podium here in Helsinki.”

Ice Time keeps thinking about the night at the Japan nationals back in late 2013 when Kanako Murakami was essentially in a do-or-die situation to make the team for the Sochi Games. She came through with flying colors in the face of incredible stress.

Let’s hope that Mihara and Higuchi can summon the courage to put on performances like Murakami did with everything on the line.

Numbers game: Ice Time is already wondering about the dynamic in the event Japan ends up with just two spots for Pyeongchang in women’s singles.

Based on what has happened this season and the vibe in the skating community, it is difficult to foresee a scenario where junior star Marin Honda is not on the Olympic team in singles next year.

Her fantastic free skate in Taipei at the world junior championships stunned many veteran skating observers. It’s no secret that in addition to her athletic gifts, Honda has the beauty and star power that the Japan Skating Federation likes for marketing purposes.

That would mean just one spot for Miyahara, Mihara, Higuchi, Japan junior champion Kaori Sakamoto, Yuna Shiraiwa and three-time world champion Mao Asada. Trying to pick one from that lineup might be the toughest task of all.

Soaring ambition: Video emerged last week of 14-year-old wunderkind Rika Kihira working on a quadruple toe loop in practice and it quickly became a hot topic online, with most observers impressed by her aptitude for the difficult jump.

Kihira, who finished fourth at the JGP Final in her debut campaign as a junior, is another skater in the Mie Hamada stable with great potential. Kihira placed first (Slovenia) and second (Czech Republic) in her two JGPs this season.

By virtue of her July 21 birthday, Kihira is ineligible to compete in Pyeongchang by just three weeks due to age rules.

Young guns highly rated: Longtime Ice Time reader Asami Miyake of Tokyo forwarded her list of Japan’s top 10 female skaters of all time recently. It’s worth noting again the impact of the emerging youngsters on the opinions of skating fans.

Names like Honda and Mihara are included with exalted stars from the past.

Here is Miyake’s list:

1. Midori Ito

2. Yukari Nakano

3. Satoko Miyahara

4. Mao Asada

5. Marin Honda

6. Shizuka Arakawa

7. Mai Mihara

8. Fumie Suguri

9. Akiko Suzuki

10. Miki Ando