Men’s short program scramble

Tough day for some at the world figure skating championships in Saitama.

There was poor Kevin Reynolds, trying to hold the world up on his narrow shoulders like Atlas, after a season of boot problems that still aren’t solved. Last year, with boots that fit like heaven, he was third in the short program. On Wednesday (depending on where you are in the world), he was 15th , his narrow heels slipping and sliding in his boots. Imperfect boots have been a theme this year. Heck, Denis Ten, felled by them early in the season, didn’t even make it to Japan.

Reynolds felt that he had rotated everything, but he was docked for underrotations for all three jump passes. Still, he said he felt happy about his performance. “I felt that I really gave all and that’s all I could really ask for.”

And with young Nam Nguyen, junior world champion extraordinaire, a step behind him in 16th, and with three-time world champion Patrick Chan taking a break (we think), it’s not looking likely that Canada will keep its three men’s spots for next year’s worlds in Shanghai.

Nam was beside himself with joy at being at the world championships. “Wheeeeeee!” was in his face all week. He admitted he got a little overexcited when he landed on his butt doing a simple move at the start. The fall surprised him, but he put it behind him. “I’m here just to gain experience,” he said. “I have no expectations coming in and I just want to have fun. My dream had been to represent Canada at worlds.”

Hanyu wasn’t happy at all with himself for falling on his opening quad toe loop. “Actually, I’m a little bit angry,” he said. He wasn’t happy with his free program at the Sochi Games, either. “There are still certain elements that I cannot forgive myself about,” he said. “I’m hoping that the day after tomorrow [depending on which time zone you’re in], I’ll be a happier guy.”

So he made one mistake. It was a big one and it set him back to third. Was it any surprise that Tatsuki Machida, with much less on his shoulders, slipped up to finish first with a truly awe-inspiring routine, even if it was his first world championship? Machida said he became motivated when Hanyu won the Olympic gold medal.

Machida earned 16.54 points for his quad-triple combo alone, with a spate of high GOE marks. Everything was big, everything was perfect, everything was from his heart. All this from a guy that wasn’t on the radar a year ago, who lacked confidence, who knew that he had a big hill to climb just to get to the Olympics. And he did. He was taken aback by his score of 98.21, for him stratospheric.

Machida competed like no other. He did not feel fatigue after Sochi. From the moment he returned to Japan, he felt invigorated, figured out what he could improve [“It was kind of a duty I imposed on myself,” he said.] and he felt himself grow in the three weeks leading up to worlds. “I am different,” he said. “I think I evolved.” The Japanese are in first, third and sixth place, a powerful representation.

As he finished his short program, he could hear the emotional level of the crowd rising. That drove him harder. He earned a standing ovation. He gave them a slight smile. It was all in his heart.

And Javier Fernandez was due, with those lovely big jumps and the big personality, too. He looked so disappointed to be second, but he’s less than two points behind Machida. He had a slight edge on his base value marks for elements. “I’m really happy with my performance,” he said. “This season was not the best one I ever had.” He said he was happy after he finished the Olympics. “I gave all. It just didn’t really happen,” he said. It was easy for him to return to training. He felt motivated, too, well, at least for a week. Then his coaches had to push him a little.

My favourite moment was seeing Tomas Verner, as pleasant a chap as I’ve ever met, triumphing after YEARS of underachieving. This is the guy that finished 21st at worlds last year, 16th the year before, and 26th at his first worlds in 2002. (He was fourth in 2007). Yet he also was a European champion in 2008. He’s had so many ups and downs, mostly downs, that it was fascinating to see him cast off the bugs and be Tomas Verner at his charismatic best. Verner actually had the third highest technical mark, ahead of Hanyu, the Olympic champion. What a way to go out!

I’ve seen those quads of his at his peak, when they were the best in the business and he could get higher marks on them than Evgeny Plushenko. And his charisma! What would bombastic Bruno on “Dancing with the Stars,” have to say about that?

Verner felt like he was in a dream. He saw “more than 20,000 people” stand up at the end. He said he was well prepared for the Olympics, when he finished 11th. Training with coach Michael Huth and Carolina Kostner motivated him more. “I rediscovered my courage,” he said.

Verner initially did not intend to compete after the Olympic Games. He had signed up for Evgeny Plushenko’s tour, but the tour was cancelled because of the Russian skater’s surgery, freeing Verner up for Japan. And he was in good shape. “This was like a show, but so much better,” he said, of the crowd reaction.

Maxim Kovtun, having to fill Plushenko’s shoes, hoped for a minimum score of 90 points. But he got 84.66 after putting a hand down on a quad Salchow (underrotated) and then squeezing out a quad toe – double toe loop. That set him back to seventh place. He fought to the end. “The short program is always very hard, very tense and you don’t have room for error,” he said. “I always said that I don’t care which placement I get. My only wish is to skate as well at this point.”

Takahiko Kozuka of Japan picked up the spot left by Daisuke Takahashi, who opted out of worlds with an injury, and finished with a season’s best of 85.54, buoyed by the crowd who began to clap to the beat. “That gave me an uplifting feeling,” he said. He had only three weeks to prepare. He was left off the Olympic team in favour of Takahashi, who finished behind him at Japanese nationals, but Takahashi sent him an email on Kozuka’s way to the arena. “I believe he wanted to be in this competition,” Kozuka said. “So my thoughts are with him.” He’s in fifth place.

U.S. champion Jeremy Abbott, skating in his final competition is in eighth place after falling on a quad, while Max Aaron, 2013 U.S. champion, is ninth after underrotating a triple Axel and gutting out a quad Salchow – triple toe loop. They’re not in line to get three spots at worlds next year, either, but the free program is still to come.

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