One word from coach Brian Orser to his prized pupil said it all following Yuzuru Hanyu’s record-breaking free skate at the world championships in Helsinki on Friday.
Facing immense pressure after placing just fifth in the short program, Hanyu roared back to capture his second senior world title by vaulting past four of the best skaters on the planet.
It wasn’t just that Hanyu did it. It was the way he did it.
Eurosport announcer Simon Reed was blown away by Hanyu’s free skate to “Hope and Legacy.”
“What a mesmeric performance that was,” stated Reed. “The man is a phenomenon.”
I dare say that anybody who watched Hanyu’s free skate that was not moved had better be checked for a pulse. Several fans were visibly in tears as Hanyu finished at center ice. It was that kind of pulsating show.
There is nothing that sports fans love more than seeing a great athlete summon a supreme effort when the pressure is immense and the odds are against them.
That is exactly what Hanyu did Saturday night at Hartwall Arena.
As Ice Time detailed in last week’s column, Hanyu needed a dominating victory to quiet the critics who had seen him miss out on the previous two world titles and also give his young opponents a reality check.
Mission accomplished on both accounts.
Hanyu now takes massive momentum into the coming Olympic season, which establishes him again as the man to beat.
The exchange in the “Kiss and Cry” between Hanyu and Orser after the free skate was revealing.
“That was fun to watch,” said Orser as they waited for Hanyu’s scores. “Just beautiful.”
“I worked hard these days,” Hanyu replied.
“You were calmer, not so intense,” Orser then noted.
“I was feeling that I didn’t have enough energy,” Hanyu came back.
Orser, the 1987 world champion, concluded the exchange with the profound advice of a man who has been around the sport for decades.
“Just trust your training,” Orser said. “You trained hard.”
In the end it was compatriot Shoma Uno that Hanyu held off to claim the gold. Hanyu headed into the free skate nearly 11 points behind training partner and two-time defending world champion Javier Fernandez and it didn’t look good for the Sendai native.
But Hanyu essentially turned the tables on his opponents with his epic show of athleticism and artistic impression as the first skater in the final group of six.
The pivotal moment came when the Olympic champion cleanly landed his quadruple salchow/triple toe loop combination jump just past the halfway point of his program. The ensuing roar from the crowd made it sound as if the roof might blow off.
Legendary skating writer Phil Hersh, who has been following the sport for 37 years and was covering his 20th world championships in Helsinki, sent Ice Time his thoughts on Hanyu’s free skate in an email from Finland on Sunday.
“Magnificent artistically and athletically,” wrote Hersh. “By far his best in 16 months. And his best ever at a global championship. For first time since 2015 GPF (Grand Prix Final) he seemed in total command.”
Hanyu admitted at the press conference on Saturday that he was down after Thursday’s short program, when he had trouble with his quad salchow/double toe loop combination.
“After the short program I was quite depressed, but I think my fans and my team believe in me so I was able to pull off this performance today,” Hanyu stated, according to the ISU website. “I demonstrated everything I was capable of for the moment, my whole package so to say. I wanted to do five quads but did not have enough energy.
“Great to beat my own (free skate) world record with three points, I think I can get even higher scores,” Hanyu continued. “This whole season I have been thinking about breaking the world record, and felt some pressure because of that.”
Ice Time predicted last week that Uno was in danger of being overshadowed by all of the focus on Hanyu and American champion Nathan Chen. Uno was in the run-up to the event, but once he uncorked his scintillating short program to “Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra,” more eyes were opened to the 19-year-old’s staggering potential.
Uno surpassed the 200-point mark in his free skate for the first time to finish just over two points (321.59 to 319.31) behind Hanyu and mark the second time that two Japanese men have taken the top two spots at worlds.
“He is such a talent,” said NBC analyst Ryan Bradley after Uno’s short program. “Shoma Uno is so well-rounded. He is adding quads to the repertoire and he is growing as an artist still.”
“It was a beautifully complex program,” added Bradley’s NBC colleague Tanith White.
“What’s really amazing to me is the fact that this entire program he’s in character,” continued Bradley. “He is so strong. He has this amazing presence.”
Despite earning his first senior worlds medal, Uno sees room for improvement.
“Yuzuru’s performance was perfect and I made some minor mistakes, so there is some room to catch up,” Uno noted Saturday. “But this was one of the best I’ve ever done, so I’m quite happy about it.
“In the last world championship I failed (he finished seventh last year) and I didn’t want it to happen again,” added the Nagoya native. “Everything I’ve been going through since the 2016 worlds brought me to this competition. The effort paid off and I’m happy to finish this season in a best way. I can’t ask for anything more.”
Ice Time was spot-on with his view that Japan’s bid to secure three slots in women’s singles for the Pyeonchang Olympics would come down to how Wakaba Higuchi fared.
The 16-year-old gave it her best shot but came up just over four points short in her bid with teammate Mai Mihara to finish a combined 13th or better at the worlds. The unfortunate timing of Satoko Miyahara’s hip injury put senior debutants Mihara and Higuchi under great stress in Helsinki.
Mihara rallied from a calamitous short program to place fifth, which meant Higuchi had to come in at least eighth for the equation to work. Higuchi was ninth after the short program, but slid to 11th in the final standings.
Russia’s Maria Sotskova was eighth with a total score of 192.20 to Higuchi’s 188.05. So this means Japan will have just two places in women’s singles next year for the first Olympics since 2002.
While that is unfortunate, it is also really complicates the race for who the two skaters will be. The field of contenders will be deep, including Miyahara, Mihara, Higuchi, three-time world champion Mao Asada, plus rising star Marin Honda, Kaori Sakamoto and likely Yuna Shiraiwa.
The ISU is considering increasing scores for expression following the Pyeongchang Games, Kyodo reported last week. Concern over the trying to maintain a balance between artistry and jumping ability has prompted the potential move.
Though this is likely targeted more toward offsetting the explosion of quad jumps by the men, hopefully it will also level the playing field for the women.
A perfect example of this came two weeks ago at the world juniors in Taipei, where Honda’s sublime free skate to “Romeo and Juliet” should have been enough to give her a second world junior crown, but she ended up having to settle for second after Russia’s Alina Zagitova earned bonus points for performing all of her jumps in the second half of her long program.
Fuji TV has caused outrage this season by blocking YouTube videos of Japanese skaters immediately after events the network airs. Online protests erupted quickly after the network pulled both the short and free skate videos of Hanyu and Uno at the worlds.
It’s hard to see where Fuji is coming from on this. They air highlights on their news programs and morning shows after the skating is completed, so they must see this tactic as an attempt to restrict viewers to watching it only on Fuji in the short term to pacify their advertisers.
Whatever audience Fuji thinks it is losing by not doing this would be miniscule compared to the colossal numbers they are certainly pulling in when the events are shown.
What Fuji is also doing is blocking (at least temporarily) the viewing of Japanese skaters that networks in other countries have aired (like Eurosport) in other languages. This is not right.
Somebody needs to explain to the folks at Fuji that skaters like Hanyu and Uno are revered globally and denying fans the chance to watch them and listen in a language they understand is not the right call.
If Fuji needs any evidence of the massive appeal of Japanese skaters, they should take a look at Ice Time’s recent book giveaway contest for “Team Brian 300-point Legend” about Hanyu, Orser and Javier Fernandez.
The final numbers showed that there were entries from six continents and 39 countries for a book in Japanese that most would not be able to read, but still wanted to get their hands on.