Figure Skating | ICE TIME

Moved by Hanyu: A fan’s story of love for the skating legend

by Jack Gallagher

Two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu’s impact on the Japanese public during his career has been profound. This is irrefutable.

One fact many Japanese skating fans may not realize, however, is just how much the magnitude of his greatness stretches beyond these shores.

Ice Time recently came across an American fan who first saw Hanyu skate on television at the Pyeongchang Olympics and promptly fell under his spell.

Nicole Zarate is a travel agent from Raleigh, North Carolina, who describes herself as “being in my late 30s.” She had never been to a figure skating event in her life until November, when she traveled to Helsinki to watch Hanyu skate in person at the Grand Prix event there.

“I first heard of Yuzu about a month before the Olympics, when American TV was promoting Nathan Chen,” Zarate recalled in a Skype conversation on Sunday. “When they mentioned Chen, they talked about his rival and Yuzu was mentioned. I was surprised. ‘Oh, there’s a figure skater from Japan. I’m interested in Japan.’ ”

Zarate, who had been here on vacation just a few months before, then began looking into just who Hanyu was.

“I did a Google search and learned that he was really good,” Zarate stated. “Then I watched some YouTube videos of him and went online to hear what fans were saying about him.

“What really struck me was that he was an amazing athlete, and a really good person, and he was struggling to come back from this injury to try and win a second gold medal, which hadn’t been done since Dick Button.”

Zarate discovered that the respect for Hanyu amongst his supporters was deep.

“I found out that his fans really admired him, not just as a skater, but as a person,” Zarate commented. “In the United States people admire an athlete more for their skills than personality. It was the opposite with Yuzu, so I got really invested.

“I anxiously awaited the Olympics, and it just blew my mind watching him skate, and I have been a fan ever since,” Zarate added.

Zarate’s interaction through online skating forums and Twitter helped educate her about how the skating season is designed and provided the spark for her desire to see the superstar skate live.

“I learned about Yuzu’s assignments for the season,” Zarate said. “I really, really wanted to go, but I didn’t think it would be possible. With the encouragement of the online friends I had made all over the world, I found it wasn’t as challenging as I thought it would be.

“As a travel agent, I knew that I could make the travel arrangements, but was intimidated about traveling around the world alone to go see my favorite figure skater. Especially as a new fan. I didn’t want to stand out or do something wrong.”

Zarate did not have many expectations going into the trip.

“I figured I would just go to the competition and keep to myself. Maybe see the city a little bit,” Zarate stated. “Just enjoy seeing Yuzu perform. What I got was a lot more than I expected.”

Zarate says she was amazed by the friendships she made before and in Helsinki with fellow Hanyu fans.

“Everyone was so heartwarming and so excited to see each other more than I had ever expected,” Zarate noted. “Leading up to the competition, I had ordered a specialty sweatshirt with Yuzu’s name in Japanese and English on the sleeves and a silhouette of him on the back of it.

“Not only were people recognizing me from the online forums because I posted a photo of the sweatshirt. People I had met online were coming up and talking to me throughout the competition. Also, others who just liked it approached me.”

Fans from Japan were especially nice to Zarate in Finland, where Hanyu won handily.

“The Japanese fans were so incredibly kind. I had heard stories, but I was blown away,” Zarate commented. “They would come up and ask to take pictures with me. They tried to strike up conversations. They also gave me gifts.”

Zarate’s experience of seeing Hanyu skate is one she won’t soon forget.

“It was amazing to see him in person. Seeing him live, I felt that there was this energy in the rink,” Zarate stated. “The excitement of wondering how he was going to land a jump, what his score would be, how he would go into his next element. It’s multiplied being around such a huge amount of people feeling the same thing you are.”

Zarate said that Hanyu’s performance in the Exhibition Gala in Helsinki made her emotions flow.

“I was very nervous during his short program and free skate, but I was especially looking forward to seeing his exhibition piece (‘Haru Yo Koi’),” Zarate stated. “It’s extremely beautiful. The music is very meaningful and I knew I could just relax and enjoy it. I wouldn’t have to be anxious.

“The lighting was beautiful. He had the most moving performance, and it struck me that as the performance was happening, the weekend was coming to a close,” Zarate remarked. “This time I had shared with these amazing new people I have met and the once-in-a-lifetime experience of getting to see him skate was ending.

“The combination of that, and the beauty of his performance, I just started crying in the middle of the arena. At first I was a little embarrassed, but I looked around and saw that I wasn’t the only one.”

In closing, Ice Time asked Zarate why she was more attracted to Hanyu’s skating than that of her compatriot Chen.

“They are both amazing skaters. They both have wonderful technical skills, but their performance and their interpretations, and the energy they give off are very different,” Zarate commented. “To me Yuzu’s skating embodies the Japanese aesthetic of grace and beauty, delivered the same way as strength and perseverance. With Yuzu’s skating I see a delicate, elegant, graceful strength.

“Nathan Chen has more of that American energy, which is about confidence, success, strength and physicality.”

Zarate likes what Hanyu projects on the ice.

“Yuzu has an element of mystery when he skates,” Zarate said. “It’s a different energy. Nathan’s is not the kind of energy I am attracted to.”

Grand Prix Final up next

This week the Grand Prix Final will be held in Vancouver, British Columbia. Four Japanese skaters, Shoma Uno, Rika Kihira, Satoko Miyahara and Kaori Sakamoto, are set to compete in the prestigious event.

Uno and Chen will undoubtedly be the co-favorites following the withdrawal of Hanyu due to injury, while Kihira will vie with her teammates and Russia’s Alina Zagitova, Elizaveta Tuktamysheva and Sofia Samodurova for the gold.

Miyahara, who was fifth at last year’s GP Final in Nagoya, spoke about the event after placing second at the NHK Trophy last month.

“For the final, my preparation is as usual. I aim to do (in the competition) what I have done in practice,” Miyahara stated. “The next one is nationals, so I want a performance to link up with the nationals.”

Last season’s world bronze medalist says she is not planning to add anything special for the GP Final.

“For this season, I am not going to add triple axel and things like that,” Miyahara remarked. “It is impossible and I will not do so. Instead, I will do what I usually do. I will work hard and refine my performance, and I want to concentrate on that. In the future, not for this season, I think I need to try such big techniques, so I will work hard with this kind of ambition.”

Miyahara is paying special attention to her jumps and avoiding under-rotations this campaign.

“In the past, I used to be so conscious about landings,” Miyahara noted. “But now, even in practice, I am getting better . . . while paying attention (and being conscious) to avoid under-rotations, I can jump and land. I will be able to do it in competition because I was able to do it in practice.”

Lambiel salutes Miyahara

Two-time world champion and 2006 Olympic silver medalist Stephane Lambiel, who is now a coach and choreographer, was asked recently on the “In The Loop” podcast about which skater had caught his eye this season.

“I really, really enjoy Satoko Miyahara, I think she is a very refined skater,” Lambiel said, according to a transcript of the interview. “What I love about her is that she’s not only executing but she’s really feeling the music and that’s something that is quite rare nowadays because, like we said before, we have so much to focus on during the program that sometimes, the music is kind of next to the program.

“When I see Satoko, I can feel that she’s connecting with the music, connecting with the audience, connecting with herself and that’s something I really enjoy when I watch her,” Lambiel continued. “When we choreograph together, she’s always very receptive; it’s the way she applies and the way she puts the movement in action, (it) shows me she’s a really fantastic artist and a fantastic skater.”

That is high praise for Miyahara, coming from one of the greats.

Shimada set for JGP Final

There will be no Japanese women in the Junior GP Final, but Koshiro Shimada and American Tomoki Hiwatashi will compete in the men’s event.

Shimada, who was third at the Japan Junior Championships last month, placed second and third in his two JGP assignments this season. A solid performance could earn him a medal in Canada.

Ice Time asked Hiwatashi for his thoughts and goals heading into the competition.

“I’m very excited! It is going to be my first time, so I would like to do my best,” Hiwatashi wrote in an email on Sunday. “Goals would be to just relax and enjoy the competition. It would be nice if I can make it on the podium, but for now, I just want to do a program that can satisfy myself and would love the audience to think that I have gotten better than before.”