Yuzuru Hanyu - past, present and future

December 7, 2012
By Anna Zeitlin, Yuka Ichikawa, consulted by Reut Golinsky
Partially based on Yuzuru Hanyu’s "Blue Flames", published by Fusosha Publishing Inc., Tokyo, 2012
Photo © Absolute Skating by EMJO, Munenori Hashimoto, Joy, Ia Remmel, Nana Suzuki, Anna Zeitlin

Articles in English about Yuzuru Hanyu are scarce, although his popularity in the West grows, as well as in his home country of Japan. His autobiography "Blue Flames" was published in Japan earlier this year (April 7th, 2012), and all of his royalties, as well as a portion of the proceeds, were donated to the ice rink in Yuzuru’s home town of Sendai, which was damaged by the Great Earthquake in March 2011. The book came out after his bronze medal win at the World Championships in Nice and prior to the significant changes his life and career had taken during the off-season – the transition to coach Brian Orser a bit later and the subsequent move to Canada.

We wanted to follow the timeline and major events of Yuzuru’s life and career, looking at them through the quotes from his book; and then see what has changed for him lately as he answered our questions at the first Grand Prix event of this season, Skate America.

Past
Yuzuru started skating at the age of four - like many other skaters he following his older sibling (a sister) to the rink. "Back then, I used to hate practice, but I loved competitions where lots of people in the audience watched me skating," he recalls in his book and adds more details about the first competition he won. "It was the Daiei Cup held at an ice rink in Shin-Matsudo City, Chiba Prefecture, and I was 6 years old then. When winning the competition, I had no front teeth. But I tried hard to smile during my program because my coach told me 'Smile!' It is totally funny when I watch the video of my performance now! In the video, I was trying hard to skate with a smile, and at the end of the program, I was counting - one, two, three, while holding the finishing pose. That's because my coach told me 'Make sure to keep posing for three seconds'... When I stood on the podium at the Daiei Cup, I lifted my trophy up high, showing it to the audience. Despite wearing a childish sweat suit, I was totally pretending to be just like Plushenko. And I was smiling with no teeth!"

Even though at some point he hated practicing and considered switching to baseball, he eventually realized that he liked figure skating and wanted to stick with it. He won the Japan Novice National Championships in the Novice B category in 2004, when he was in 4th grade of elementary school. But shortly thereafter his home rink was closed due to financial difficulties, which drastically reduced the time Yuzuru could spend on ice, training. "After losing my rink, I realized once again how exciting figure skating was. It was about that time that I came to think that way; I finally realized that I can't do without figure skating after all."

The Ice Rink Sendai reopened in 2007 and that same year Yuzuru’s hometown hosted the NHK Trophy (Grand Prix) event at the Sendai City Gymnasium. Yuzuru participated as a flower boy. He could devote himself to figure skating again, which almost immediately resulted in a gold medal at the Novice Nationals in the A category, and later in bronze at the Junior Nationals.

And just a couple of years later, in 2010, at the age of 15, he became the Junior World Champion. "I was really happy to have won the Junior Worlds! But more than anything else, I was happy that I was able to deliver the best performances of the season at such a major stage," he said in an interview from that time. "Even though I felt some pressure by being the only male skater representing Japan, I managed to skate my programs without mistakes, nailing the most difficult jumps, which were the triple Axels... I am where I am today because of my coach Nanami Abe, who has worked with me since around the time I lost my home rink in Sendai... I have always trusted her, worked with her, and skated the programs she made for me, that's why I was able to win the Junior Worlds."

In the season 2010-2011 he already transitioned to the senior level - an exceptionally early move for a skater who could’ve continued competing as a junior until age 19. Moving up to the senior level also meant that Yuzuru was now competing against the most elite skaters - especially Daisuke Takahashi, whom he idolized, and Patrick Chan, whose skating skills Yuzuru utterly admired. He was also very keen to continue the rivalry with his peers from the junior days, especially with Artur Gachinski and Nan Song, who stood beside him on the Junior World Championships podium in 2010. "I've been working hard to improve because I want to win. And I want to win because I have good rivals," he said.

Yuzuru didn’t medal at his first senior Grand Prix events, but got silver at the Four Continents Championships in February 2011. He was glad that he was able to finish that difficult season on a high note: "This year has been a great year where I achieved good results while overcoming problems. More than anything else, I was able to perform very well at my last competition of the season, which was the ISU competition (Four Continents). I think this is something you can be proud of for years to come." Still he continued being hard on himself, trying to find out what he could improve on: "Even though I won a silver medal, I think that I still have a long way to go... One of my weaknesses, that I have to overcome in order to go higher up, is physical strength. I have to work more on running and skating during the off-season."

Unfortunately his off-season was very different from what he had planned. Only three weeks after his season ended, the Great Earthquake hit eastern Japan, including Sendai City where he lived. Yuzuru was training when the earthquake started, and, recalling the earthquakes of his childhood, he froze with an awful sensation of the building shaking around him: "Even now, when I close my eyes, I remember a lot of things - the feeling of the ice shaking, the shaking of the ground being pushed up, how terrible it was that my legs were shaking from the earthquake... I can still vividly see everything when the rink was damaged."

Yuzuru and his family were safe, spending a few nights in an evacuation center, but the rink was indeed damaged. Yuzuru was so shaken by the earthquake experience; he doubted if he should skate at all when a disaster of such magnitude had hit his country: "When I got a little calmer, I felt 'Why is my skating life like this?'... You know, the disaster which is said to be a once in a 1000 years earthquake occurred, and my rink was damaged... I wondered, over and over again, why this had to happen to me. I was thinking about many things during the four days I was at the evacuation center and also for about a week after leaving it.
...I often feel that things you take for granted are not always guaranteed. You are here, you still have a home, and your family is there for you; you can't take them for granted. Everything exists just by luck. Because I almost lost a lot of things, I came to feel this way. I'm only 17 years old, but the disaster totally changed my values... The Great East Japan Earthquake was such a big event."


Yuzuru had to go to a rink in another city, because the Ice Rink Sendai was damaged by the earthquake. He joined his coach from the elementary school time, Syoichiro Tsuzuki, in Higashi-kanagawa, though he still couldn’t train much. He had to work up his muscles again as they had weakened during the days he hadn’t skated. He also had to deal with his mental issues: "What bothered me for a while were the memories of the disaster. I always try to visualize, and really focus on visualizing going through my jumps in my mind. When I am in the best shape, I can see everything; a 360-degree image from every angle. Since I had always tried to visualize things, I saw and memorized everything that happened during the earthquakes... Every time I closed my eyes, for a while after the disaster, I could see everything."
It was not easy for a young boy to find his motivation again, after going through so much personal suffering to continue with a tough everyday battle on ice. It was about that time that he was invited to a charity show, which made him want to skate again. He took part in about 60 ice shows during the off-season and used the shows as an opportunity to train. When the shows were held on weekends, Yuzuru got to the rink on Wednesday or Thursday, as early as possible, in order to train. He asked for advice from more experienced Japanese skaters and overseas guest skaters, and even tried quad jumps and combination jumps during the actual shows. "I started this season after the Great East Japan Earthquake. I even thought I would die at this young age of 16," he writes in his book. "I was in fear at the very moment the disaster struck; the buildings were being damaged, and I was in fear of being buried under the building and killed, thinking that my life was so short... But now, I'm able to skate again even after such a terrifying experience. More than anything else, I want to make every day count now. I want to make every single normal day, every ice show, every practice and every competition count. That's what I have been thinking about the most since the day of the earthquake."

He continued training at his home rink when it reopened in July 2011, preparing for the next season. And he didn’t want to get any condolement for the fact that his summer preparation was ruined: "I wouldn't like to hear people say '’Hanyu can't skate well due to the earthquake,' when the next season starts... I will never lose my pride in representing the disaster areas, but I want to grow stronger and compete as an ordinary skater, regardless of my circumstances. I have to keep working. All I can do is to go straight for my goals, aiming higher."

As the season started and progressed, Yuzuru had won the Nebelhorn Trophy and eventually, after placing fourth at the Cup of China and winning the Cup of Russia; he qualified for the Grand Prix Final. "One of my strong points," Yuzuru emphasizes, "is that even if I don't do well at competitions, I don't really get depressed. I even get totally motivated after a bad competition. The more frustrated I get, the more I concentrate on practice to skate better at the next competition."

The Japan National Championships [photo below] were held at the end of the year. Yuzuru had a tough start, finishing only fourth in the short program, but he placed third overall after winning the free skate. This meant he was going to the World Championships!

"I made the World team. I have finally reached what I have been aiming for most of this season..." he said back then. "I'm filled with a sense of accomplishment right now. But you shouldn't be satisfied only with participating in the World Championships. I want to do my best, aiming for a higher ranking.
This past year has been unforgettable for us... It is the year when the Great Earthquake occurred. It was hard for us skaters to start this season as we couldn't practice at some ice rinks due to the earthquake. But I am now able to perform again thanks to the support from people... I want to keep doing my best, to give good performances, with all my heart."


Worlds didn’t start well for him as he narrowly missed the chance to be in the final group for the free skate by placing 7th in the short program (he nailed a clean quad toe –double toe combination and a triple Axel, but singled the Lutz). But he came back strongly in the free skate, and had the audience on their feet by the end of his truly sensational performance. He placed second of the night and third overall, winning the bronze medal at his first ever World Championships.

Shortly after that he decided to leave his longtime coach and choreographer Nanami Abe and went to train in Canada with Brian Orser. His programs this season are created by different choreographers: the short program by Jeffrey Buttle, the free program by David Wilson and the exhibition number by Kurt Browning.

Present
This season is important for Yuzuru, not only because it’s the last season before the Olympic fever hits. This year is the first time he might finally be on the same ice with the two skaters who always inspired him the most: Evgeny Plushenko and Johnny Weir. Although he has skated in many shows with Evgeny, and Johnny even designed his costume for the free skate in the 2010-2011 season, this is not the same as competing against them.

Yuzuru’s first competition this season was the Finlandia Trophy. He fell on the quad in the short program, but skated a great free, impressively winning the competition. But after finishing the free skate he suddenly lay on the ice, exhausted. It was later reported that he still experienced some pain in the ankle he’d injured in March, and his asthma has exacerbated with the season change. Because of this, he was totally out of shape and had lost a lot of weight. When competing at Finlandia, he was even too skinny to wear his new costume, which was now too big for him. "I think I'm the kind of skater who always puts my utmost effort into everything I do, pushing myself aggressively," he describes himself in his book and we see it at each and every competition.


A few weeks later he looked to be in better shape in the short program at Skate America, the first Grand Prix event of the season, receiving a world record score for his performance. Unfortunately, he couldn’t repeat his success in the free skate, falling three times and placing second overall. He still had a good chance to qualify for the Grand Prix Final, and he did just that at the season’s last Grand Prix event, the NHK Trophy, winning both the short (with a clean quad toe and slightly improving his own world record score) and the free skate (with another clean quad toe and a wobbly, but fully rotated, quad Salchow).

After Yuzuru’s energetic exhibition number at the Skate America gala, he came backstage, still panting but very excited. He sat down, talking expressively to his team members, when a few Japanese kids approached the backstage curtain, asking for autographs. Yuzuru immediately got up, as he was, still wearing one skate and one sock. He kneeled on the floor (it’s kind of hard to stand with only one skate on) and began signing notebooks, albums and photographs. A little later he agreed to answer our questions, while preparing to go on the ice again for the final gala group number.

Tell us what a usual day looks like, who the people you're working with are, on and off the ice, and how your time is divided between skating lessons and all the rest.
Well, since I still don’t speak English well, it is kind of difficult for me to adjust to life in Canada, but I’m really enjoying training there. I do on-ice training with Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson, and off-ice training with my ballet instructor. I skate for three to four hours every day and take ballet lessons for an hour to an hour and a half. I’m really enjoying them and working hard. I think training in Canada will improve my skating a lot.

What are the things you like the most about your move to Canada - both on and off the ice?

What I like the most about training in Canada is the fact that there are many ice rinks out there and that there are so many people on the coaching staff there. You can learn different kinds of things from them.

As for off-ice stuff... (takes time to think) Don't know really. I miss my family...

What has changed in your preparation routine?
Now that I train in a better environment, I have a lot more ice time than before. When I was training in Sendai, there was not enough ice time due to reasons like the earthquake. I used to train only for an hour to two hours a day on-ice, but now I can train for three to four hours. I think I now have full and proper training.

Is your English getting better?

(laughs) I hope so. It is very hard for me to communicate in English. I want to work on my English and improve it so I can communicate more smoothly with Brian.

What about your programs this season, the idea behind them, the music...

My choreographers chose the music for both of my programs. The music I use for my short program is a very difficult piece to skate to ("Parisian Walkways" by Gary Moore), but I had a great performance here at Skate America. The music for the free program is also very difficult and emotional ("Notre Dame de Paris" by Richard Cocciante), which is not easy for me to perform to. I have to polish my skills to interpret the music well.

Who decided to work with the choreographers that created your programs this year?

Brian chose those three choreographers for me (Jeffrey Buttle, David Wilson and Kurt Browning). They are the ones he trusts and chose for me, so I want to perform the programs they choreographed for me well.

How would you evaluate your first competitions, the Finlandia Trophy, and now Skate America?

I skated well in the free skating but didn’t do well in the short program at Finlandia. And this time, it was the opposite; I had a great short program and a bad free. Since I haven’t been able to deliver two great performances yet, I want to work harder to skate two clean programs in competition.

You're graduating from school next year - what would you like to study in college?
I want to study human factors. It is the study of how humans behave physically. I’m very interested in sports and the human body, and want to major in it in college.



Future

Very soon Yuzuru Hanyu will compete at the arena destined for the Olympics - this year’s Grand Prix Final is held in Sochi, Russia. He will then face the challenge of the Japanese Nationals, where the battle will be more fierce than ever when five or six skaters (four of which have qualified for the GPF) will fight for the three spots on the World team. We don’t know what will happen, we can only wish Yuzuru the best of luck and hope for great performances from him.

"What figure skating means to me... Well, first of all, we enjoy skating. Also, we work hard because we want to win at competition. In either case, we continue skating in order to achieve good results for ourselves. But our performances make the audience feel something. I think figure skating has magic. You hear someone you don't even know saying 'I'm impressed by your performance.' or 'Your performance cheered me up.' That's a great thing about this sport...
I can skate because of those who support me, but I think that when you have come this far, things such as rivals, the earthquake, training situation, losing or winning something are not the issue. It's about challenging yourself. You have to set goals for yourself and go for them...
I'm glad I still have a long way to go to improve. Yes, I still have to work on many things. That means you can train harder and become stronger. I will keep this attitude and continue to work harder until I win the gold medal at the Olympics."


The Olympics are just around the corner, but for now we can only look at the present and the past and wonder what the future will bring Yuzuru Hanyu.

Editor’s note: You can buy Yuzuru’s autobiography, a 167 page book with 110 beautiful pictures, on amazon.co.jp.






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