For Yuzuru Hanyu, memories of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami and the clear, star-filled night sky in the dark hours afterward are an ever-present reminder of the despair and hope the disaster brought.
The Japanese figure skating icon, aiming for a third straight men’s Olympic gold medal next year, was a 16-year-old high school student on March 11, 2011. He was practicing in his hometown of Sendai when the ice beneath his skates was moved violently by the magnitude-9.0 quake.
With his home damaged, Hanyu and his family spent four days at an evacuation center, all four of them confined to a sleeping space two tatami mats (approximately 3.2 square meters) in size.
“I thought it was not the time to be skating,” Hanyu said, explaining his mindset amid the despair of the first night after the disaster.
His funk did not last for long, however. With his home rink closed temporarily, Hanyu moved to a new training base in Yokohama, some 330 kilometers away, at the invitation of his former coach Shoichiro Tsuzuki.
Just weeks after the disaster, while performing at an ice show in the western Japan city of Kobe, Hanyu discovered a path forward.
Kobe too had recovered from a massive earthquake, a magnitude-7.3 shake in 1995, and Hanyu recalled thinking to himself, “Sendai will make it,” just like Kobe did. Fortified, his performance there drew a standing ovation from the crowd.
It was then, he said, he became convinced he needed to “do his best to live up to people’s expectations.”
The slight youngster began savoring his ice time more than ever, performing in about 60 ice shows over a six-month period, gaining strength as he went. One year after the disaster, Hanyu won a bronze medal on his world championships debut.
Soshi Tanaka, who had coached Hanyu in Sendai, was astounded by his former pupil’s transformation.
“The distance on his jumps had increased by about 50%,” he said. “It made me wonder what had changed him so much.”
Hanyu has overcome a few career setbacks, from pre-existing asthma to abdominal surgery as well as right ankle and left foot injuries, to claim two successive Olympic gold medals in 2014 and 2018.
Yet the memories of 10 years ago — of having a safe haven where he could skate through the tough times — remain vivid.
In December 2019, after finishing second at the Grand Prix Finals in Turin, Italy, Hanyu recognized the woman who helped him bounce back from the disaster while in Yokohama.
“He said, ‘It’s a little late to say this, but I really owe you for what you did, for your help at the time of the disaster,'” Misao Sato remembered Hanyu saying.
“He is a classy individual with good manners. I thought of all the work he must have put in to get where he was.”
Hanyu went some way toward evening the ledger when he conveyed a message of hope to all of Japan when a state of emergency was declared in April last year and the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics were put on hold for a year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I believe there are some lights that you can only see when it’s pitch black, like it was the night of March 11,” he said in a video tweeted by the Japanese Olympic Committee, referencing the power cuts much of Japan experienced.
The health crisis prevented Hanyu from traveling to his training base in Canada, and kept him from training as much as he had hoped. Even so, he was able to win his first national championship in five years last December.
And now, with the Beijing Winter Olympics less than a year away, Hanyu’s still-fresh memories from 2011 remain a guiding light for the two-time Olympic champion — and a cautionary tale.
“Once again, it is a painful reminder that my being able to skate is not a given,” he said.
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