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Two-time Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu slightly under-rotated his coveted quadruple axel but was otherwise flawless in Sunday’s free skate as he successfully defended his men’s singles crown at the Japanese national championships.

Hanyu, aiming to be the first skater to land the jump in competition, nailed three other quad jumps in a spellbinding performance that secured his place at February’s Beijing Winter Olympics, where he will again be a gold-medal favorite.

Leading by 9.43 points after his outstanding short program on Friday, the 27-year-old scored 211.05 for his free skate to total 322.36 at the final Japanese qualifying event for the Winter Games.

Pyeongchang Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno was second with a personal-best 295.82, while 18-year-old former junior national champion Yuma Kagiyama finished with 292.41, also a career-best, to round out the podium at Saitama Super Arena.

“I’m honestly relieved,” said Hanyu, who was overcome with emotion as he took the ice in preparation for his free skate.

“I felt as though I was about to cry even before the six-minute warmup.”

Expected to battle American world champion Nathan Chen for gold in Beijing, Hanyu’s hopes for a third straight Olympic title had begun to look shaky following a nagging ankle injury that prompted him to withdraw from both of his scheduled Grand Prix appearances earlier this season.

But after ending an eight-month absence from competition with his spectacular short program, the now six-time national champion maintained his dominant form in the free skate, sticking combinations, including a quad toe loop-triple toe loop and a triple axel-double toe loop.

Hanyu has previously indicated he will attempt the elusive quad axel in Beijing, where he will bid to become the first three-time men’s Olympic champion since Sweden’s Gillis Grafstrom in 1928.

“I will keep practicing hard,” he said.

National champion Yuzuru Hanyu (right), runner-up Shoma Uno (center) and Yuma Kagiyama, who finished third, wave to fans after the men's competition. | KYODO
National champion Yuzuru Hanyu (right), runner-up Shoma Uno (center) and Yuma Kagiyama, who finished third, wave to fans after the men’s competition. | KYODO

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