GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA – Yuzuru Hanyu went through his next-to-last training session on Thursday afternoon at the practice rink beneath Gangneung Ice Arena and pronounced himself ready for the men’s short program on Friday.
Hanyu is looking to make history by becoming the first man in 66 years (since American Dick Button) to win consecutive Olympic gold medals. The superstar’s quest to etch his name alongside the giants of the sport has been called into question by the right ankle injury he suffered in November at the NHK Trophy in Osaka.
The Sendai native, who was sidelined by the injury for more than two months and has not competed since October, appeared healthy as he ran through his free skate to “Seimei.” He landed multiple quadruple jumps and triple axels during the 40-minute session.
Despite the presence of fellow medal contenders Shoma Uno, Javier Fernandez, Jin Boyang and Nathan Chen on the ice at the same time, observers in attendance were almost all focused exclusively on Hanyu.
As Hanyu answered questions in the mixed zone afterward, I asked him point blank if his right leg was good to go.
“Would you say your leg is 100 percent healthy now?”
“I can’t really say anything,” came Hanyu’s reply with a big smile, not willing to put a percentage on his physical fitness.
Shizuka Arakawa, the 2006 Olympic women’s gold medalist, was one of the media members on hand. Hanyu asked her what she thought about his readiness.
“Am I alright? What do you think?” Hanyu said to Arakawa.
“Your training looked good,” came Arakawa’s reply. “I think you are fine.”
Hanyu, who finished second behind Chen at the Four Continents in the Olympic rink here last season, mentioned that he has been reviewing video of his skating in that event.
The 23-year-old was clearly in a buoyant mood as he chatted with the media.
“Why are you feeling so bright?” one person asked.
“I couldn’t train for so long. It’s been quite a while since I had no concerns,” Hanyu commented. “I feel so much better now about being about to get out on the ice.”
Hanyu will have one final practice session on the main rink early Friday morning before getting down to business in the afternoon.
He has drawn position No. 25 in the short program, which means he will be the first skater of the final group of six in the 30-man field.
“That is my favorite position to compete in,” Hanyu admitted. “Also this is my third year doing this short program, so I am very comfortable with it. I love the music.”
The real challenge for Hanyu will come in Saturday’s free skate, where his stamina will be challenged after the extended time out of competition. If he is in the lead or close to it after the short program, the adrenaline of Olympic competition and his legendary spirit may be enough to carry him back to the mountaintop.
The determination of the reigning Olympic and world champion was on full display this day.
“I want to win and show my feeling,” Hanyu firmly stated. “I hope I will enjoy my time on the ice now that my condition is good.”