GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA - In incredibly dramatic fashion, Yuzuru Hanyu rose to the occasion in the short program at Gangneung Ice Arena on Friday afternoon.
Hanyu’s score of 111.68 points, an Olympic record for the short program, has him in first place heading into Saturday’s free skate and halfway to skating immortality.
It has been 66 years since American Dick Button won the second of his two consecutive gold medals at the 1952 Oslo Games, a feat Hanyu can equal with a victory here.
The reigning Olympic champion skated a fantastic program to Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 under the most intense pressure imaginable. He opened with a quad salchow, executed a great triple axel, and then topped it off with an amazing quad toe loop/triple toe loop combination jump.
In front of an audience that included a large number of Japanese fans, Hanyu was exquisite from start to finish. His poise in the face of all the questions surrounding the right ankle injury he suffered three months ago was absolutely phenomenal. He just didn’t blink.
Hanyu went through one element after another with the style and panache we have come to expect from the skating giant, earning massive roars from the crowd as he ticked off each one. When it was over, the ice was enveloped in Winnie the Pooh soft toys.
The 23-year-old put on a majestic show for the ages. It was a superb exhibition of technique and showmanship that left many in attendance in awe of Hanyu’s combination of power, grace and artistic prowess.
“I just felt happy to skate,” Hanyu stated. “I just felt satisfied with my every element. I am really happy because I was really feeling the music, too, and the ice.”
When asked about his comeback from the injury, Hanyu talked about his contentment.
“Just doing my best,” Hanyu commented. “I wanted to say to everyone that I am back here. And I am really happy today. I just want to say thank you for cheering and I am back.”
Hanyu’s winning score in the short program at Sochi was a world record of 101.45. Hanyu had a lead of nearly four points going into the free skate in 2014. His lead here is slightly larger.
Only three men (Sweden’s Gillis Grafstrom, Austria’s Karl Schafer and Button) in Olympic skating history have won the gold two consecutive times. Grafstrom won three straight (1920, 1924, 1928), while Schafer triumphed in 1932 and 1936.
When questioned about repeating as champion, Hanyu demurred, but showed his appreciation for the support of his compatriots and relief at being able to do what he loves most.
“It doesn’t matter,” Hanyu said. “I don’t think about it. I am just focusing on myself. I’m very happy that there are a lot of (Japanese) in the audience, but I couldn’t perform for the last three months, so I am very happy to be back.”
Spain’s Javier Fernandez was very solid in his skate to “Modern Times” and is in second place with 107.58. The two-time world champion, who finished fourth in Sochi, showed he is determined to leave here with a medal.
Fernandez, who trains with Hanyu under coaches Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson in Toronto, went with a quad toe loop/triple toe loop combo at the outset of his program, before hitting a quad salchow and a triple axel. The Spaniard’s presentation was as sublime as ever.
“It was a good performance,” Fernandez noted. “It was a well-done program — 107 points is a lot of points heading into the free program. Yuzuru is ahead of me and we have one more day to go and I want to try to catch up to him.”
Fernandez saluted Hanyu and admitted the challenge he is facing will be tough.
“He’s an amazing skater,” Fernandez stated. “He’s very talented and I know if he skates good, it’s very hard to beat him. So I’m glad — at the end of the day the competition is good for everybody. The more exciting it is for everybody, the more fun everybody is going to have.”
Shoma Uno is in third place with 104.17. Uno competed to “Winter”and began with a fine quad flip, then pulled off a lovely quad toe loop/triple toe loop combo, before hitting a triple axel.
The 20-year-old, skating in his first Olympics, showed he will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come by not buckling under the stress of the titanic event.
Uno received level-fours on all of his spins and a level-three for his step sequence.
“I’m happy I could skate clean,” Uno said. “That why did the ‘guts pose’ when I finished.”
Uno claimed he did not come up with any special plan for the Pyeongchang Games.
“For this competition, I have been practicing as usual, so I did not do anything too different to prepare,” Uno commented. “I didn’t do anything special just because it was the Olympics. My practices here have been shaky, but that’s pretty much the usual for me.”
Button, who tweeted throughout the short program, was full of praise for the man trying match his achievement.
“Great choice of music. Beautiful edging in and out,” wrote the 88-year-old Hall of Famer. “Marvelous triple axel and forward edge. Music supports his skating, and skating supports music.”
Button, concluded his tweets on Hanyu with more superlatives.
“Beautiful programs, beautiful choreography,” Button remarked. “It looks like its raining teddy bears.”
Button has been an admirer of Uno for a while, and his tweets reflected that fact.
“Quad flip, great deep edging, soft knees,” Button wrote. “Great theatre — Marvelous tight spinning in the air. Doesn’t have the elegance of Hanyu, but a very strong secure program.”
China’s Jin Boyang competed to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and put his prodigious jumping ability on display. He is in fourth place at 103.32.
Boyang was the only member of the final group of skaters who did not appear for the morning practice on Friday.
“I went to practice last night, but none of the other skaters in the group came,” Jin pointed out. “I thought it is better for me to rest more. There would not have been so much time between the morning practice and the competition.”
The Olympic Athlete from Russia’s Dmitri Aliev (98.98) is fifth.
Patrick Chan, the silver medalist behind Hanyu in Sochi, had some unfortunate luck. The Canadian skating legend opened with a beautiful quad toe loop to “Dust in the Wind,” then hit a triple lutz/triple toe loop combo, but fell on his triple axel.
The 27-year-old Chan, a three-time world champion stands in sixth place on 90.01.
“I felt really good, more in my legs, and I felt like I had ownership of the ice, which wasn’t the case for the team event short,” Chan said. “I have had a stroke of bad luck with the axel. I did not grow up with the basic technique for the axel, so I had to go back to the basics of the axel and it’s harder when you are older.”
Korea’s Cha Jun-hwan (83.43) put on a nice show before the home crowd to “Gypsy Dance.” He is in 15th.
American Nathan Chen struggled in his routine to “Nemesis,” falling on his opening quad flip, then having to brace himself with both hands to prevent himself from going down again on his triple axel.
Chen’s score of 82.27 was a shocker, as he was targeted as a serious medal contender coming into the Olympics. He is out of the picture in 17th.
The 18-year-old from Salt Lake City, who also had a poor short program in the team event, is searching for answers as to what has gone wrong with his skating.
“It was rough again,” Chen commented. “I still need some time to think about it. It happens again and I guess I try to move on from here. Honestly, it was bad. I made as many mistakes as I possibly could have.”
Keiji Tanaka, dressed in all black, competed to “Memories” and went down on his opening quad salchow. Tanaka recovered to land a triple flip/triple toe loop combo and a triple axel.
Tanaka (80.05) is 20th.
Kazakhstan’s Denis Ten, the bronze medalist in Sochi, had a dismal outing, earning a score of just 70.12. He finished 27th and did not qualify for the free skate.
The top 24 skaters from the short program advanced to the free skate.