South Korea was a lucky place for Yuzuru Hanyu in 2018, and almost two years to the day since he captured his second Olympic crown, he was back — this time in the hunt for a title that had thus far eluded him.
Hanyu arrived at the 2020 Four Continents Championships in Seoul in early February, armed with two tried and trusted programs (Chopin’s “Ballade No. 1” and Shigeru Umebayashi’s “Seimei”), two new costumes, but just one goal. The programs, which took him to Olympic gold at the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang, were initially dedicated to two of his idols, Evgeni Plushenko and Johnny Weir. This time, Hanyu said, he was skating them for himself.
With the Four Continents title the only one missing from Hanyu’s vast collection, the 25-year-old stated from the outset that he intended to give his best performances in order to achieve his goal of winning this crown. Competing in his fourth Championships in 10 years, Hanyu opened his quest for gold with a mesmerizing short program performance that brought the house down. Clean, crisp jumps combined with engaging artistry were rewarded with 111.82 points, bettering the 110.53 World record he set at Rostelecom Cup in November 2018.
As Hanyu took his bows at the end of his routine, hundreds of Pooh Bears rained down from the stands. Exiting the ice, he saw the army of flower retrievers dashing around picking up the gifts. Hanyu halted his exit and also began gathering them up and tossing them over the boards. “I was happy to skate and to see many Poohs on the ice. So many skaters worked to collect the dolls and I really appreciated working with them,” he said with a wide smile. “I was working as a flower kid in my hometown when I was 12 or 13 years old. It was a first experience for me today and I felt happy. I felt like a child again.”
An obviously relieved Hanyu was also happy that all his jumps and spins were clean. “Today I was skating for myself and it was very delightful to end my program perfectly,” the Sendai native said. “Also, I tried not to lose my flow till my final pose. Today’s performance was the most perfect I’ve ever done. I think I skated with elegance and tried to express my music deeply with feeling. I could jump higher and with more perfection, so I am really satisfied. The more I skate the program, the better it gets.
“I became more confident as the program progressed because I felt so good while I skated. I just skated without thinking. Lately, I have been thinking a lot before jumping and that I should jump clean with an image in my mind. But I just skated without a lot of thoughts today. Therefore, I was so happy to finally produce a satisfactory result.”
When asked about his record score, Hanyu said that prior to the competition he had set a personal goal to earn more than 110 points.
Two days later the Japanese star took to the ice for the men’s free skate. Following the success of his short program — and with a 15.99- point lead — expectations were high that Hanyu would succeed in his quest to claim the title. However, the long program was no walk in the park for the two-time Olympic champion. Hanyu opened his “Seimei” program with a hand down on the opening quad Lutz. Unfazed, he moved on to a quad Salchow and a triple Axel. His next jump, a triple flip, received an edge call, and midway through the program he stumbled out of a three-jump combination (quad toe-Euler-triple Salchow) and then fell on a quad toe loop.
Despite the mistakes, Hanyu was still the class of the field. With 187.60 points for the segment and a combined total of 299.42 he fulfilled his goal of capturing his first Four Continents title and did so with a 24.60-point margin. With this victory, Hanyu has now won every major title in both the junior and senior ranks, the first man to ever accomplish this feat.
“To be honest, I was unusually nervous and it was difficult to concentrate. I can’t say I’m happy about my performance, but I really wanted to win this competition,” said Hanyu. “I tried my best and though I am disappointed with my mistakes, I will be able to prepare for the World Championships by analyzing them.
“I feel a special moment for this long program because I won the Olympic Games with it. I think the fans really want to protect their memory of this program and I actually feel the same. I was afraid to do it again, but I feel totally different between PyeongChang and now. I haven’t yet perfected this routine. I have to put more time into it and I will continue to work on it. I just want to show something and this is important. I don’t care about ranking and points.”
Hanyu said he is constantly amazed by the warm support shown to him by the South Korean fans. “I am really thankful for their support even though I am Japanese. I am even more grateful because I know that such heartfelt and loud cheering from the Korean fans is something that transcends all relationships between Japan and Korea. So I want to say thank you very much to them.
“I feel a little relaxed or relieved about winning this Championship because it was one of the first senior competitions I participated in, but I found it so difficult to win. My first Four Continents Championships was in 2011, just before the big earthquake in Japan … so, to be honest, my memories are a bit shaky.
(Originally published in the IFS April 2020 issue)