Men's figure skating: from fire of early falls, Yuzuru Hanyu refines gold

Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan fell twice Friday, but Canada's Patrick Chan couldn't take advantage to win his country's first men's figure skating gold. The entire night was error-filled.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu falls as he competes during the figure skating men's free skating program at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics Friday.

There is one image of the Olympic champion – the one that end up on the front of a Wheaties box. It is athletic perfection personified, a performance that strains the bounds of belief in its excellence or strength or sheer beauty.

The gold medal won in men’s figure skating at the Iceberg Skating Palace here Friday was not one of those.

It was an Olympic gold of a different kind, and perhaps one more common than the ideal. It was a gold medal of grit.

In figure skating, the two things can seem incongruous. After all, you will not find “grit” as a judged element among the program components. Nor did the skate by Japan’s Yazuru Hanyu in any way look like the teeth-clenched stuff of bobsled push athletes or cross-country skiers grimacing through every last meter.

And yet, in its own way, it was.

Perhaps Friday's free skate in the men’s figure skating competition will not be labeled for posterity by the figure skating world like the “Battle of the Brians” or the “Battle of the Carmens.” In the end, it was memorable mostly for Canada missing out on perhaps its best chance ever to win a gold medal in the event.

But behind the slips and bobbles and falls of what appeared to be a night of skating scared – with only one skater the entire evening rising up to seize a medal opportunity – there was the story of Hanyu, who did the next best thing: After falling not once, but twice, on his first three jumps, he got up and found a way to skate nearly perfectly the for the remaining four minutes.

On this night, that was the measure of an Olympic champion.  

Competitions are won, said silver medalist Patrick Chan of Canada, by the skater that makes the fewest mistakes.

On Friday, those words could have been embroidered into every athlete’s outfit.

Hanyu’s mistakes were few in number, but huge. His genius on the night was in his ability to completely quarantine them from the rest of his program. On his first and third jumps – a quad and a triple flip – Hanyu crashed. They weren’t step-outs, they weren’t two-footed landings, they were smash-your-rear-end-on-the-ice landing fails. Yet remove those two mistakes from his skate, and it was brilliant.

Earlier in the night, when Estonian Viktor Romanenkov fell twice, the string of his will unraveled utterly. If he could have skated the rest of his program with his hands in his pockets, he would have done so. When he finished, he had fallen several more times and bailed out of a host of other jumps, making them singles or doubles. After the music ended, he wandered aimlessly around the ice for 10 seconds, as though the stadium were collapsing around him.

He finished last.

Somehow, in that same moment, Hanyu found the thread of his program and knit it into something lovely, each hand position unaffected by disappointment or doubt, every spin exact in its execution. He had had a five-point lead from the short program, but against a skater of Chan’s quality, he knew, that would almost certainly not be enough of a cushion.

“I thought the gold was out of my hands,” he said. “Some negative feelings were brewing inside me.”

By his performance, you’d never have known.

Meanwhile, Chan had decided the after the short program Thursday that he’d pay no attention to Hanyu, who skated immediately before him Friday.  

“I was going to focus on myself – how much I love skating, how much I enjoy my program,” he said after the free skate.

By his performance, you’d never have known that, either.

Unlike Hanyu, Chan never fell, never made one catastrophic mistake. Rather, in his 4-1/2 minutes on the ice, he was never able to do much of anything convincingly. He looked precisely how someone bearing decades of a nation's heartache might be expected to look.

He as much as acknowledged that after the event. His first thought after putting together a program that admittedly included a host of mistakes? Relief.

"First, I was relieved to get that weight lifted," he said at a press conference.

In the previous eight Winter Olympics, Canada had taken silver in men's figure skating four times (Brian Orser and Elvis Stojko, both twice) and bronze once (Jeffrey Buttle). Some have dubbed it the "Canada Curse," or perhaps, "The Curse of the Boitano."

But Chan might call it the "silver lining." Despite no small provocation in the media scrum afterward, Chan was unfailingly polite and refused to be drawn into the hand-wringing. Asked who he might call first and what he would want to hear, he said: "I'd call my parents and thank them" for everything they've done.

The night wasn't much better for anyone up and down the program. The only thing approaching a clean skate among medal contenders came from Denis Ten, the Kazakh who skated almost two hours before the finale yet won bronze. He had so much time after his skate that he actually went to the gym to work out. It was only when the last skater, American Jason Brown, gave way to his own mistakes, that Ten realized he might need to be on the podium and sprinted back to the dressing room to put on his outfit.

Ironically, the cleanest skate probably came from Jeremy Abbott, who has built a reputation for not performing well in big moments and whose fall in the short program was so violent that he considered pulling out of the competition. But his skate didn't help him much in the standings, both because he slipped so far down in the short and because he lightened his program's difficulty in the free skate, replacing his one quad jump with a triple. He finished 12th.

Fellow American Brown, who was sixth after the short program, finished ninth overall. That marked the worst performance in Olympic figure skating by the US men since 1936, when the top American finished 12th.

All the men were under no delusions about their performance.

Ten said, "I could see that everyone had to fight hard for their jumps."

But on this night, Hanyu's gold-medal feat was dealing with those feelings when, it seemed, Chan could not. It was a different kind of Olympic fortitude. Hanyu did not merely stare failure in the face, he tangoed with it for a half-minute while the world was watching.

Yet somehow, with his backside on the ice and his program in pieces, Hanyu did what no one else could do. From the moment he rose from the ice after his failed triple flip, he was wonderful. Had you walked into the room at that instant, you would have thought you were watching a gold-medal-worthy performance.

Which, in the end, it was.

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