At the end of a busy December Saturday, Shae-Lynn Bourne finally had a chance to watch history unfold at the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona.
On her smartphone, Bourne could see just enough from the tiny little figures to know that Yuzuru Hanyu, for whom she had created the free skate, could make no errors. Not possible. “He seems to have real confidence,” she said. “It was quite amazing to see. It was quite something. But I think it will only get better. Once you have a taste of it, it’s hard to lose it.”Only get better?
What Hanyu did astonished anybody who thought he’d stumble under the pressure of what he had created for himself by shattering world records at the NHK Trophy two weeks ago. Imagine him surpassing the short-program record score of 106.33 at NHK, or the 216.07 he put up for his free skate there, or the combined total score of 322.40, which had laid to waste (by more than 27 points) Patrick Chan’s previous world record of 295.27. Hanyu had first signaled that lightning was about to strike when suddenly, he included two quads for the first time in the short program at NHK. And he did three in the long.
Hanyu became the first to break 100 points for the short, 200 for the long and 300 for the total. Beyond belief, right?
Now, nothing seems impossible for Hanyu, a 21-year-old skater who endured the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in 2011. In Barcelona, Hanyu transcended all ideas of what a skater can do or what marks an astonished judge can punch in. Short program? 110.95 (by getting the maximum bonuses possible for both his quads). Long program? 219.48 (by getting the maximum bonuses possible for his first two quads and a triple Axel – double toe loop).
And total score? Hanyu blasted that old record of his, too by about eight points, earning 330.43. Hanyu won the gold medal by 37.48 points, the largest Grand Prix Final victory ever, and left poor training mate Javier Fernandez saying: “If he does a great program, there is nothing I can do.”
“Our free programs are so close technically, with almost the same elements, that if he skates well, it is impossible for me to get 20 points more than him,” Fernandez said. “So I was really calm and thought I am just going to skate and do my best.”
Fernandez also broke the 200-point barrier in the free with 201.43 points and took silver with 292.95. Three-time world champion Patrick Chan finished third in the free skate, earning 192.84, intending to land two quads, but only landing one. And he ended fourth overall with 263.45 points, exactly the same as quad-hopping Boyang Jin, who attempted four quads, but did so rather like a magic hopping machine. The second mark breaks the tie. And that was not Jin’s forte.
This event may have been the greatest, wildest, most electrifying men’s competition – ever – in history. Four of the six skaters broke the 100-point mark in the free skate for technical points only: Hanyu (120.92), 17-year-old Shoma Uno (100.74 with two quads), Boyang Jin (101.86), and Fernandez (104.65, with three quad attempts. His quad Salchow – triple-toe loop effort was so sweet, he almost maximized his points on it, too, earning 17.51 for that one combo alone.)
And Chan was close, with 96.76. Judges didn’t forget him, awarding him seven marks of 10.00 for components. And they rewarded him mightily for that stunning opening quad toe – triple toe, akin to a freight train hurtling down the tracks. It’s beautiful in its power. It was a magnificent comeback, considering Chan admitted afterwards that he just really wanted to go home after his demoralizing short program that has been causing him grief this year (now three poor efforts). The jazzy “Mack the Knife” piece isn’t part of his comfort zone. He said he felt angry at himself, and frustrated. “I was to the point when they announced my name, I didn’t want to be here,” he said. “That’s natural with how my days have been going here. That says a lot about my training…the fact that I was able to do a long program like that, that’s pretty impressive.” He had rocky practices all week and doesn’t know whether to blame his mindset, the ice or jet lag, something he’s always struggled with.
The free skate is a comfort to Chan. Skating to Chopin is “the style I grew up skating with Mr. [Osborne] Colson,” he said.
“That’s what I always did when I was younger,” he said. “That’s where my strengths are. My skating quality was born from that style.” He’s not giving up on “Mack the Knife”, though. It’s supposed to be a routine that combines his competition world with his show performance experience. He hasn’t figured out how to mix them together yet. It’s a work in progress.
Chan returned to the competition wars after a year off touring because he missed training and the regimen of it. But he forgot to put the stressful moments before a competition into the equation. He’d forgotten. “I really didn’t think about that when I came back,” he said. “I was more thinking about 90 per cent of my life and career, which is training. I love the training. I never get tired of it.”
Chan has to get himself back into the competition swing. “I think I’m very, very stressed and nervous at competitions because it’s just unknown to me,” he said. “It’s different. We have different men in the field now…. And Yuzu and Javier have improved a lot, I think, since I left. It’s not comfortable. It’s not fun. I don’t like it, but like anything, my body will adapt.”
Hanyu flooded the rest of them with his scores. Hanyu was given 24 perfect marks of 10.00 out of a possible 45 for program components. Judges mostly lauded his performance and execution, his choreography and interpretation, but not so much his skating skills and transitions, although that’s gnat picking. His lowest mark for those two categories was 9.25 and he received only one of those.
Fernandez got 13 perfect marks, mostly in interpretation and choreography. While the young Uno is highly praised as a future contender, he got marks as low as 7.50 for transitions and linking footwork. He skates a lot on two feet. His component score was far lower than his technical score. Uno was surprised at how high his mark was. “This is not a goal,” he said. “It’s just a starting point.”
If skating was looking for a star, it has found it in Hanyu. Bouncing into Bourne’s Facebook box was a warm message: “Thank you,” a skating friend said. “I watched Yuzu. And I’m excited about skating again.”
Even Evgeny Plushenko didn’t miss the drama on the Barcelona ice. “This is what I am talking about after almost six years,” he said on Twitter, remembering his words at the 2010 Olympics about how wrong it seemed to have an Olympic champion that did no quads. “All the boys, thank you for pushing the sport to no limit.
And this: “Yuzu, you are my hero.”
Plushenko’s highest scores were 91.39 that he set at the Vancouver Olympics for the short program, 175.52 for the long at 2012 Europeans and 261.23 total score, also at Europeans. (And Plushenko still speaks of doing another Olympics against this current lot. Will this event change his mind?)
Hanyu admitted that he felt very nervous before he competed the long program because he heard the loud audience for Fernandez. And of course, it would be loud. Fernandez was competing at home, a rare luxury for him. The event in Barcelona existed because of his ground-breaking success.
“I couldn’t think about scores,” Hanyu said. “I am exhausted now but I did an almost perfect performance today so I am satisfied.”
Satisfied? Hanyu notes that his step sequence got only a level three of difficulty.
He admitted he felt pressure after having set the world records at NHK, but “these were the pressures I put on myself,” he said.
“During the free program, I was actually released from this pressure, and I felt like I can only do what I can do for now. So I managed to perform quite well, I think.”
He won’t think about trying to repeat what he did in Barcelona. He’ll keep his eyes on the day-to-day, practicing and improving. He wants to be perfect in every competition. “I feel like the score is the score and my performance is my performance. These are different things.
“I’m feeling really good today because everybody supports me. I owe my performance to the audience.”
Bourne knows that Hanyu is capable of more, which should scare the hair off everybody else for years to come. “The sky is the limit,” she said.