Looking at Hanyu’s chances of retaining gold in Pyeongchang

by Jack Gallagher

It is the $64 million question.

Will defending Olympic and world champion Yuzuru Hanyu, coming off a significant injury, be able to go to the Pyeongchang Games next month without a competition beforehand and add a second gold medal to the one he won in Sochi?

Ice Time reached out to two legendary skating writers and two coaches to get their thoughts on this question, one that is on the minds of a great many people these days.

In similar cases in the past, injured skaters in other countries have had to prove their fitness before being confirmed for the Olympic ticket. Because of Hanyu’s long list of accomplishments, he is essentially being given a pass by the Japan Skating Federation.

Fair enough, I say.

Hanyu is Hanyu.

The JSF has met with Hanyu’s team and been kept informed about how he is recovering from the ankle injury he suffered during practice at the NHK Trophy in Osaka on Nov. 9.

Phil Hersh, formerly of the Chicago Tribune, who has covered every Winter Olympics since 1980, gave Ice Time his detailed view in a recent email.

“The Four Continents is very close to the Olympic Games, so that is probably a non-starter,” Hersh wrote. “It would be fairer to the other Japanese skaters who might get the spot if he did have to show fitness before a monitor.”

Takahito Mura is the first alternate for Pyeongchang and would get the spot should Hanyu be forced to withdraw.

I mentioned the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding drama back in 1994, where Kerrigan had to recover in a short period of time after being whacked on the knee by a thug hired by Harding’s husband.

Hersh cited a different scenario in his response.

“A closer analogy might be Michelle Kwan in 2006. Her final competition was the 2005 worlds,” Hersh wrote. “A monitoring committee went out to see her between nationals and Turin (some reporters were there as well). But even that is no guarantee, as what happened in Turin proves.

“If Yuzu proves unable to compete at the 11th hour, it is simple to get another skater to Pyeongchang from Japan — simple, that is, compared to flying Emily Hughes in to Turin.

“Kwan withdrew on Feb. 12, a day after her first practice in Turin; the women’s event was Feb. 21 and Feb. 23. Yuzu clearly belongs at the games, but there should be ‘independent’ testing of his fitness. Given the inconsistent level of most men’s skating this season, Yuzu still could be a gold contender at less than 100 percent.”

Hersh then recalled an instance where two U.S. skaters had to show they were physically able to perform before being given the green light for the Olympics.

“In 1992, both Tonya (who competed at nationals) and Todd Eldredge (who did not, bad back) were monitored before getting approval to compete in Albertville.”

An international coach, who requested anonymity, believes Hanyu’s incredible skill and poise will enable him to pocket the gold again without an event in advance of the big extravaganza in South Korea.

“I think he can do it. He is such a great athlete with so many weapons in his arsenal,” the coach told me in a telephone call on New Year’s Eve. “This layoff may turn out to be a good thing for him. There is going to be pressure on Nathan Chen and the others, but Hanyu has already done it once, so his chances are good.

“Presuming that he hasn’t been sitting on the couch for the past few months, I think he will be in good shape. He is so thin that he looks like he would not let himself go. Other skaters might have trouble pulling this off, but I think Hanyu can win again.”

The coach then mentioned Hanyu’s team as being vital in the bigger picture.

“He has one of the best coaches in the world in Brian Orser. I don’t think Brian and Tracy Wilson would take an athlete to the Olympics that they did not believe was ready to compete.”

USA Today’s Christine Brennan, one of the foremost sportswriters in the world and author of multiple books on skating, also called upon the Kwan situation back in 2006 in her response to Ice Time.

“It reminds me more of Michelle Kwan’s situation in 2006 than Nancy Kerrigan’s in 1994,” Brennan wrote in an email. “Kwan was injured for much of the season and could not compete at the U.S. nationals/Olympic trials, yet was put on the U.S. Olympic team anyway — entirely appropriately, I might add. She definitely deserved that.

“She did have to skate in front of a U.S. Figure Skating panel a few weeks later to be OK’d for Turin. She did well and was sent to the games, but then was injured in her first practice and withdrew.”

When pressed on whether she thought Hanyu can capture the gold again, Brennan would not rule it out.

“I’ve learned enough in life to know when I have no idea what the future holds,” she wrote. “It would be unprecedented (at least in my memory) but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.”

A second international coach, who also requested their name not be used, provided detailed responses in a telephone call on Tuesday.

“Based on what Yuzu has done in the past, there is no doubt that he should be on the Olympic team even without a fitness check,” the coach stated. “Even if he is not in perfect condition, the reality is that he will be better than, say, Takahito Mura.”

As to whether or not Hanyu can win the gold again, the coach was more measured in his reply.

“That is a tough one. It is going to be a question of conditioning,” the coach commented. “Just missing one week of training is significant. It will come down to how he has recovered and if he has been able to maintain some level of conditioning.”

The coach then got more specific with his outlook on the situation.

“I think Yuzu can win the gold even without the quad lutz,” the coach said. “The quad toe, salchow and loop should be enough for him to do it.”

The coach believes that Hanyu’s inner strength could be the decisive factor.

“I think Nathan Chen and Shoma Uno will be great. But Yuzu is a tough guy and very strong mentally,” the coach stated. “That is going to be very important.”

With Hanyu not participating in a warmup event before the Olympics, it will be interesting to see if he skates in the team competition that begins on Feb. 9. With Japan’s chances for a medal somewhat long if Russian athletes are allowed to enter as a squad, that could serve as a test for Hanyu.

The men’s team event short program is set for Feb. 9, with the men’s free skate slated for Feb. 12. If Hanyu bypasses the team competition and lets Uno and Keiji Tanaka shoulder the load, he would have another week to prepare.

The men’s singles short program is scheduled for Feb. 16.

Ice Time agrees with both coaches. If anybody can pull this off it is Yuzu.

What also must be considered is that Hanyu’s two primary rivals — Uno and Chen — will be competing in their first Olympics. The spotlight and the pressure will be unlike anything they have ever experienced before.

I’m reminded of Mao Asada’s interview immediately after her free skate at her first Olympics at the 2010 Vancouver Games, where she finished second to Yuna Kim.

“It was over in a flash,” a still stunned Mao told a TV reporter.