Yuzuru Hanyu, the maestro

MONTREAL

At Autumn Classic International on Friday, Japanese star Yuzuru Hanyu took a step beyond – in his first appearance of the Olympic season no less.

Returning to an old Chopin routine he had done during the 2015-2016 season, Hanyu, still only 22, so young and so old at the same time, became a maestro.

With every flying movement of an arm or a hand, he was in total control of a packed audience that was, mind you, dominantly Japanese, but it didn’t really matter. Everybody who was there felt it, saw it, bowed to it.

Honestly, he looked like a conductor and the orchestra was the audience. He pulled their strings and their hearts at the same time.

Hanyu did the most beautiful short program – choreographed and rechoreographed by Jeff Buttle – in the most breathtaking way, setting a world record of 112.72 points, even though he decided to leave his quad loop at home this time.

So, inscrutable Yuzuru, how can we possibly describe thee? He skated with patience that comes with confidence. He let fly a quad Salchow, landed with such soft knees, you couldn’t hear it. Judges loaded that thing up with GOE of +3, all across. Same thing with a triple Axel coming out of footwork. (He loves the triple Axel.)

And that quad toe loop – triple toe loop, done with both arms above his head (that’s new) Honestly. When he came down from the heavens on that one, his arms floated down by his sides, such a simple move, so effective. The crowd roared. And oh god, the footwork. And the spins, one of them a sit spin in which his arm and hand constantly floated, turned, and wrote “War and Peace” in a gesture.

His coach, Brian Orser, was speechless in the minutes afterward.

“For this time of year…..” he said. “There is a patience to this program that is comforting to everybody when you are watching it. It doesn’t feel awkward. You can hear a pin drop. You know when the next movement is going to happen. There is a little bit of anticipation for it. It’s really nice to be in that kind of comfort. “

Hanyu left out his quad loop – he became the first to land one in competition last season – because “he was just feeling a little bit of pain in his [right] knee,” Orser said. “It wasn’t one particular thing that made him go ouch. It just started to gradually get a little achy.”

After a little discussion at home, Hanyu decided to drop the loop for the moment, instead of pushing it. If not, he could have developed a more serious problem with his knee that would have been difficult to correct all season. They were smart. They stopped the nag. Orser said by the time he competed the short program on Friday, he actually was in no pain.

Before he was to skate, Orser and co-coach Tracy Wilson advocated the quad Salchow instead. Just think, they told him, it will be easy.
As soon as Hanyu finished the program, he came to Orser and Wilson and grinned: “That was so easy!”

Imagine, doing an easier routine and setting a world record. “It’s all about quality,” Orser said. “It’s the quality of all the elements. It’s the quality of all the skating. It’s the quality of the elements.”

Orser calls Hanyu the best spinner in the world and his step sequence is “magical” when it’s a good night. And it was a very good night.

 

 

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Patrick Chan’s new plan of attack

It’s as if Patrick Chan is sweating his way through a nightmare. Just as he is about to grasp the golden ring, it slips out of his reach. He’s running as fast as he can but it feels like slow motion, as his opponents pull away. We know how it feels, when the bottom suddenly falls out of a dream.

He says that feeling was most true last season, when he made his comeback after a couple of years of doing shows and was taken aback by the new crazy quad world. He had thought that Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu had been hitting the limits of men’s skaters at the Sochi Games. How wrong he was. Hanyu, with his little hips, and inherent ability to rotate like a top, was only starting to push it. And he pushed it more while Chan was gone.

Now Chan feels as if he’s catching up, sort of. He’s had to. He originally never dreamed that he would be including a quad Salchow in a program, but the headlong race to the quad in the men’s event has driven Chan to a new level. However, even with the extra quad, he’s going to have to skate clean short and long programs to make a dent on his competitors,  because he still falls short of the technical arsenal of the others. Although Chan has the best skating skills in the world, it’s the quads that plop the biggest points into the basket.

So at Four Continents last month, Chan found himself watching the top three skaters of the long program while sitting in the green room – that place where the ISU puts them so television cameras can record them squirming – and it changed his strategy for the world championships in Helsinki, Finland next week.

“It was mind-blowing, what these guys were doing, technically,” he said.

It was also interesting for him, just to watch them skate. He never had. He’d always been in the lineup, perhaps after some of the top three. He had never watched their programs from beginning to end, all three of them: Hanyu, Nathan Chen, Shoma Uno.

“It was great to see,” he said. But what he saw was that he was “at a great disadvantage technically.”

Winner Nathan Chen – with whom Chan trained briefly at the beginning of the season – squashed his opposition with five quads and a stunning final score of 307.46, almost 40 points more than Chan. Hanyu had stumbled in the short program but felt a moment of triumph after his long and a frothy mark of 303.71. But he skated before Chen and the wind went out of his sales when he saw the unassuming, matter-of-fact American kid lay it down. He doesn’t like to lose. At all. Current Japanese champion Shoma Uno fell twice and dropped to third with 288.05, still about 20 points more than Chan.

“It was eye-opening,” said Chan, who fell on two of his three quads in the long. Chan finished fourth in the free, fourth overall. On the outside, looking in. Believe it or not, Chan is the reigning Olympic silver medalist from 2014. Hanyu had skated badly, leaving the door wide open. Chan had skated worse.

Yes, Chan felt frustrated about this most recent test. The results made him want to hold a meeting with his coaches, immediately, on the spot, to figure out how to combat what happened. Eventually they did meet, and the week after Four Continents, Chan flipped around some of the elements in his long program, and changed up some combination passes to improve his chances for next week.

Chan keeps his opening tour-de-force, the quadruple toe loop – triple toe loop, that he enters with the speed and drama of a freight train. The quadruple Salchow becomes the second jump now instead of the third. This, his newest jump, which has evaded him this season in many competitions (as it did at Four Continents) switches places with the triple Axel.

The triple Axel, now third in the parade, gets a facelift because it will become a jump series: a triple Axel – loop – triple Salchow. It had been a jump combination with a triple toe loop in the second half of the program.

Now, Chan will turn a lonely triple Lutz late in the routine into a triple Lutz – double toe loop  combination (now his second-last jump), great for second-half points. There will be a sole triple Axel and a quad toe loop in the second half, too. Finally, there will be a triple flip and a tripe loop.

“We gave it [the quad Salchow] as many chances as we could to see how consistent the layout was,” Chan said. “But it didn’t’ seem consistent enough. We thought it was logical to try a different order.”

“And I decided that I’ve lost out on quite a few points just on not having completed enough combinations,” he said. “I didn’t fill my combination bracket.”

The new arrangement will give Chan slightly higher point totals, but that wasn’t really the full intent of the change. “It was more just to allow myself a new approach and maybe the possibility of having the jumps become more successful” in the heat of competition, he said.

Couldn’t he really be doing something else with his time, instead of chasing something that younger skaters are increasingly capable of? He’s a bright guy. He doesn’t need this craziness.

“We are at a point now where it’s crazy,” he said. But he admits, it’s true. It’s hitting the nail on the head to say he could be opening up a rink in Vancouver to teach skaters or to become part of the finance world, or to do anything. Chan said he’s had many more options for his future opening up to him in the months leading up to the Pyeongchang Olympics than he did before Sochi.

But hope springs eternal. The battle doesn’t halt Chan. It spurs him on. His new sports psychologist has set things in perspective. “It does get to a point where it’s frustrating, where I’m running as fast as I can, but they are just creeping away from me,” he said. “It doesn’t help seeing other people have success. Or to be in the spot that I used to be in.”

So Chan has had to separate the raw emotions of the moment, from the logical thought of tackling the fight at hand. He can’t worry about those other guys. He got his plan of attack for the world championships.

He’s miles ahead of where he was at his first world championship back – at Boston a year ago. He has more confidence and a tougher list of elements. “Last year, I think there was always a lingering doubt that I was behind the eight ball, compared to the other guys,” he said. Coach Marina Zoueva said last year her most important task was to instill confidence in him.

It’s all been worth it, he says. He’s surprised himself at what he has been able to do. Where this will all take him, we shall see next week. Next year? Perhaps two quads in the short program. He can always dream (or plan), can’t he?

Chan’s game plan in the face of all quads

About 3 ½ months ago, at Skate Canada International, Patrick Chan felt the heaviness in his legs during the long program and wondered why.

Yes, he won the gold medal at Skate Canada last fall by almost four points over Yuzuru Hanyu, but it hadn’t gone as well as hoped in the free skate for the three-time world champion from Canada, who is still putting his puzzle together before Pyeongchang.

Hanyu had defeated Chan in the free skate by about seven points, even with a fall on a quad loop and having doubled a quad Salchow. But Chan fell on his new quad Salchow, then doubled some jumps at the end of his long program, as his legs dragged him away from winning that segment. Chan’s components saved him that day. He out-footed Hanyu by about three points for the artistic side. Hanyu defeated him in the free by 10 points.

Chan spoke the next day to Elvis Stojko about the heavy feeling in his legs, and Stojko gave him advice on conserving NO energy while training, so that when stresses of big competitions befell him, he’d have something in reserve.

But Chan also began to consider something else: a sports psychologist. Even though he is 26 years old, has competed at two Olympics and seven world championships and is a nine-time Canadian champion, he’s never had one.

After a practice at Skate Canada, his coach Marina Zoueva asked him if he knew any breathing exercises to combat the tightness he felt in his upper body that seemed to drain the strength from his core. He didn’t. And then he began to think that he should. “It doesn’t hurt to try everything,” he said. “I don’t want to leave any stone unturned.”

Judy Goss, Skate Canada’s go-to sport psychologist, recommended that Chan see Scott Goldman at the University of Michigan, only a 20-minute drive from the rink at which he trains. Goldman is a director of high performance psychology at the university, with a history of athletic enhancement, and confidence building. All good stuff for Chan.

Chan met with Goldman just before the Canadian championships and had great opportunities to try out some tools, especially since he had to deal with long waits to compete: he always skated last. His calm coach Oleg Epstein told Chan he had 40 minutes before he was to skate after he came off the warmup. Chan didn’t hurry to take off his skates. Then he found a table, climbed aboard and began some breathing exercises, accompanied by some visualization. There is no exact science to this, no defined formula to stave off unproductive thoughts.

Mind you, it wasn’t an extremely high pressure situation at the event in Ottawa, because Chan led by 10 points going into the free skate. And he knew there wasn’t a herd of competitors about to unleash a string of quads at him, other than Canada’s Quad King, Kevin Reynolds, who attempted four quads in the free.

But there will be at the upcoming Four Continents championships in Pyeongchang, which serves as a test event for the 2018 Winter Games. Quads will be flying. More than anybody has ever seen.

He’ll have to face his young friend, Nathan Chen, who dazzled a nation (the world too) with his spectacular free skate at the U.S. championships where he landed five deft quads. The sky seems the limit.

And just last week, came word from China that Jin Boyang plans to do five quads, too, in his free skate, up from the four he used to win the world bronze medal last March in Boston. He aims to blitz the rink with a quad Lutz – triple toe loop, a quad Salchow, a quad loop, a quad toe loop and a quad toe loop – double toe loop.

Chen has a slightly different repertoire. He doesn’t do the quad loop, but he does do the quad flip, which is worth more points. (Quad loop is worth a base mark of 12 points, a quad flip a trickle more at 12.3. The quad Lutz? Now there’s a jump. It wasn’t so long ago that Chan didn’t think it possible. It’s worth 13.6 points. And now several skaters are doing it. Junior skaters are training it. Hey, even 12-year-old Stephen Gogolev, Canada’s new junior champion, has tried them.)

Chan has re-entered a crazy world indeed, rotations ablur. Now in his second year of a comeback, he’s had to face a growing list of competitors who do more and more difficult quads. As scintillating as his win was at the Canadian championships (he did land only two quads in the free, and a third turned into a triple toe loop), he seemed to be going in the right direction. And then Chen unleashed his fireworks at the U.S. championships a day later.

It’s a crazy exercise to compare Chan’s marks with Chen’s at two national championships, not judged independently by international judges. But perhaps they tell a story.

Chen’s free skate score was 212.08. Chan wasn’t all that far behind him with 205.36, only about seven points. Chan could have almost closed the gap if he had landed a quad toe loop instead of a triple.And with some bonus points, he could have edged ahead.

Without a doubt, Chen’s element score outpaced that of his northern neighbour, Chan. While Chen earned 121.08, Chan got 106.88. Chan also got as close as he did by maximizing his grade of execution marks. Judges gave him plenty of +2s and +3s as bonus points. Yes, Chen was getting some +3s, too, but many more +1s.

As for the component mark, Chan rules this category and he did that week, too. Canadian judges gave him 98.48 points. Chen got 91.00. While Chen didn’t crack 10, Chan got 22 marks of 10.

Okay, okay, lest there’s an uprising over the idea that Canadian judges may have been heaping rewards on Chan so that he could go off to the international wars with their backing, let’s look at the Grand Prix Final. It’s not so easy to compare different competitions, because Chan didn’t skate his best in Marseille, and Chen won the free skate over more seasoned competitors, including Hanyu and Javier Fernandez, both world champions.

But in Marseille, international judges were a little more reluctant to dish out high GOEs to Chen, almost three points less. And his component marks were 84.42  in Marseille, 6.58 points lower than what he earned at U.S. nationals.  Still, there’s always the argument that he had progressed by the U.S. championships, too.

Chan fell four times at the Grand Prix Final free skate, so obviously he had improved by the Canadian championships.

So perhaps there’s hope for Chan, if he gets his mental hamsters under control. And if he delivers. Still, it’s most important that he delivers a year from now. And it’s important that he has included the quad Salchow this year. He says the next step is to put two quads in the short, which could go a long way to having him reach his goals.

At the beginning of the year, Chan said he saw himself as a skater who could fall into third, fourth or fifth position, not first, or maybe even second.  “And that’s okay,” he said. “It helps me to focus on what I have to do and not think about : ‘Oh I’m head to head with Yuzuru or I’m head to head against Javi and I’ve got to do as many quads as they are.’” Now he has a few more names to add.

Where is it all going to go? What is the limit? “We don’t know,” Chan said. “We’re going to keep pushing the boundary until something has to give. Either you will have skaters that will not last very long due to injury or maybe the presentation side of the sport gets affected. I leave it up to everyone.

“I’ve said it over and over again: the skating is more important. It’s cool to see the other guys pushing the boundaries. It’s amazing to see them rotate these jumps. I’m in awe. I’m going to stick to my plan. I’m not going to change it, according to that. But it’s going to be interesting to sit back and see where it does top out and where the limit is.”

How much does artistry suffer when a program has four or five quads? “I see a lot of two-foot skating, which is not bad,” Chan said. “It means they are centred. They are balanced. Whereas I feel like I ebb and flow from one leg to another. I transfer my weight from one to another.”

It also makes it more difficult to maintain balance. It creates a lot of flow in Chan’s skating, but he sometimes gets off balance and has to set himself up for a jump. There are pros and cons. “It depends on how a judge interprets that,” Chan said.

Chen almost seems to be alone in delivering endless amounts of quads without a lot of falls. Everybody else has been slip-sliding this year at one moment or another. Hanyu has taken lots of falls. Stojko, a two-time Olympic silver medalist, can see how it’s all building to the 2018 Games.

He told Chan, since everyone is now working on quads, that he has one season only to get this right. He must add the quads now. “I told him, you are going to make mistakes, bro,” Stojko said. “You may have to give up competition and wins for it. Hanyu did. The last couple of years, he tried quads and fell. How many performances have you seen him just splat everywhere? And then all of a sudden, last year he does that almost perfect program. He’s starting to do it.

“Nathan Chen, same thing. A young kid coming up, they are going to splat all over. People only see that one performance and say quads shouldn’t be in. But you don’t see the big picture of what they’re doing. They’re trying to learn how to do these things under pressure in competition. You’re going to make mistakes before it becomes perfect.”

Still, don’t expect Chan to add some quad loops or flip or Lutzes into his repertoire in the next year. Epstein thinks he can learn another one. Chan doesn’t think it’s necessary.

Firstly, it’s pointless to set ridiculous goals that only serve to discourage you and then you get mentally stuck and achieve nothing, Chan said. Secondly, Chan wants to remain healthy.

“Nathan and Shoma [Uno] are going to be 26 and 28 at the end of their career and not be able to ever do any other sports. They are going to be so banged up,” Chan said.

Chan values his post-career activities. He wants to be able to go to the back country and ski. He wants to go rock climbing, sky diving too.

The first thing he‘s going to do when he’s finished is buy himself a pair of powder skis and find a mountain to climb. For now, he’s climbing another one.

To do it, he’s reading “The Rise of Superman,” a book that details a rather magical mental state allowing one to accomplish the impossible, or at least the difficult. It’s called flow. Or being in the zone, when time seems to stand still.

The psychologist is “a leap of faith,” Chan said. “I had to find a way to get myself not to focus on what all the other skaters are doing.”

The Four Continents will be an important test along the way.

Is the quad Axel the next frontier?

A story I wrote for Yahoo Canada recently:

 

Over the past year, male figure skaters have been loading their programs with more and different kinds of quadruple jumps, choosing airborne power over spins and fancy footwork.

But nobody has touched the giant of them all, the quad Axel, a jump that by virtue of it being an Axel, has an extra half rotation to it. Anybody tackling a quad Axel would have to rotate 4 ½ times in the air. And since a typical quad takes about a second to do, is it even possible?

As it is, skaters have dipped their toes cautiously and gradually into the quad realm. But suddenly last year, the quad rush began in earnest. And it came from skating youth. Chinese skater Jin Boyang, now 19, was the first to put that crazy quad Lutz in combination with another jump, a triple toe loop during  the 2015-2016 season. And he was the first to land four quads in a single long program, which helped him win a bronze medal at the world championship last year. At the U.S. championships this year, 17-year-old Nathan Chen landed five quads in his long program to win his title by more than 55 points.

 

 

 

 

The quad Axel is the final frontier. Some of the sport’s leading minds are pondering the possibility of a skater landing one, especially leading into the 2018 Olympics. It will definitely be a Games in which figure skating becomes a race conducted in the air.

So is it possible?

Mike Slipchuk, winner of the Canadian men’s title 25 years ago, currently high-performance director for Skate Canada:

“To me, it’s just a matter of time before someone does one. I don’t know how soon. Not in the too-distant future. There are some skaters out there who have really good triple Axels that could probably get that other turn if they had to.”

Canadian Kurt Browning was the first man to land a quadruple jump – a toe loop – at the 1988 world championship. But a decade lapsed before Tim Goebel of the United States landed a different one, a quadruple Salchow. Another 13 years passed before Brandon Mroz, an American, got credit in 2011 for landing an extremely difficult quadruple Lutz in competition. But now the quads are coming thick and fast.

Tom Zakrajsek, U.S. coach of Brandon Mroz and former U.S. champion Max Aaron:

“Having worked the past two years with Max Aaron for brief periods of time on the quad Axel and watching 2015 world team member Josh Farris resume performing his beautiful triple Axel which flies effortlessly through the air, I definitely think it’s possible and will surely happen someday.

“Even Chen, when asked by a journalist about a quadruple Axel said: ‘The quad Axel is not impossible. I’ve seen Max Aaron do a quad Axel.’”

Conrad Orzel, 16, new Canadian junior silver medalist who landed a quadruple toe loop in his long program at the Canadian championships this month (January):

“The way skating is, I wouldn’t be surprised. I think the sport has gone up and inspired so much that we now see people in Canada in juniors that do quad Salchow and quad toe loop. So it’s crazy.

“That would be something to think about in the future. I landed a quad Lutz [in training] so I guess the next step would be quad Axel.”

Brian Orser, 1987 world champion and coach of 2014 Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, two-time world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain and 2010 women’s Olympic champion Kim Yu Na, of South Korea, his first student:

“A quad Axel is a tall order, but never say never.”

At 17, Chen is the Western world’s answer to Jin. Chen has landed quadruple toe loop, quadruple Salchow, quadruple flip and quadruple Lutz. The only four-rotation quad left was the loop. And last September in Montreal, Yuzuru Hanyu, the 2014 Olympic champion from Japan, became the first to land that one. Current Japanese champion Shoma Uno (Hanyu was out with the flu) at age 19, was the first to land a quad flip earlier this season.  

But the quadruple Axel is another matter altogether. On the scale of difficulty, it is beyond the pale. The quadruple toe loop is considered the easiest quad (and the most common), while the others range in order of risk: quad Salchow, quad loop, quad flip and quad Lutz. Some skaters  find the triple Axel – a t 3 ½ rotations – sometimes trickier to master than the easiest quad. It is the jump that 1988 Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser ushered into common use in 1980 as a junior.

Why is the triple Axel – or any Axel – so difficult?

Kurt Browning, four-time world champion:

“The Axel is hard. It’s a lot of momentum off an edge going forward, with a swinging foot, not assisted by a toe pick. And it’s not a transfer of weight like other jumps. And with other jumps, we’re used to going backward [into them]. The Axel is the only jump that you enter going forwards. It’s technically half a rotation more.

“The triple Axel is still the king of jumps.”

Brian Orser:

“There are different ways to do an Axel. You have those that go in off an edge. You have those who skid into an Axel. There is no way better than another.  Javi [Fernandez] has a skid. Yuzuru has an edge. Stephen [Gogolev, 12, who has landed a quad Salchow this season] has an edge. I had a skid. Some coaches prefer to teach a skid, some prefer to teach an edge. There’s a lot of torque in the foot with a skid, and it kind of releases your rotation.”

Michael Slipchuk:

“It’s obviously a tougher one for people to do because of the time you need in the air and with the triple Axel being as hard as it is. It’s a thing you will see. There are some skaters out there who have really good triple Axels that could probably get that other turn if they had to.

When you see skaters learning quad toe loop, and quad flip, you can see the triples develop with room for the quad. But I don’t think many people have worked a triple Axel to find that space for an extra turn.”

What is the lure of doing such a formidable jump as the quad Axel? Isn’t the quad Lutz enough?

Kurt Browning:

“There is only one quad left. And it’s kind of interesting because there’s only one left and there’s a little notoriety in who does it.”

Michael Slipchuk:

I think we will start to see a different Axel, where you start to see room [to do an extra rotation.] Everyone always wants to be the first to do something.”

Tom Zakrajsek:

“To put it into perspective, the quad Axel is worth 15 points if landed, roughly one-fifth of the average man’s technical element score for the long program (75 points) and a little less than half of the average man’s [technical] score for the short program (35 points). [With four points off for a fall], the quad Axel is still worth more than a landed quad Salchow or quad toe loop and almost as much as a quad loop or quad flip. Clearly, the International Skating Union has made it worth the risk.”

Kurt Browning:

“I’ve tried it, when I was a kid. I spent three or four days on it. Not a full week. Out of curiosity. It was kind of bragging rights. Can I do it?

“I don’t think I got real close to it. It literally felt like I was in the air forever. And that I must be done by now. And I kept coming out of it early. I wasn’t hitting the ice short [of complete rotation.] I was actually opening up just too darned soon. Had I stayed on, I might have been close, but I would have been short on rotation. I only tried five or six in my life.

“And then it got close to competition and my coach went: ‘What are you doing? You are going to hurt yourself. Stop that.’

“So I stopped. So is it possible? I must have to say yes, because I was trying the darned thing. I wouldn’t have tried it if I thought it was impossible.”

Tom Zakrajsek:

“Videos of quad Axel attempts in the pole harness can be found on the internet by Max Aaron and Australian Brendan Kerry…But probably the best attempt is by Russian Artur Dmitriev Jr. – whose father is two-time Olympic pair champion of the same name – off the pole and clearly with enough rotation all on his own.

“Brandon and I had many conversations about learning them [quads] – even the Axel – especially on days when his triple Axel was feeling easy and floating and the timing was effortless.

“During the last month, I have been helping 16-year-old Vincent Zhou [second at the U.S. championship this January to Chen], with many of his quadruples and there are days when I can see it in his triple Axel.  As soon as he is stronger to achieve a bit more airtime, the timing, technique and super-tight rotation position are already there, as is the desire!”

Kurt Browning:

“So if somebody did it, who would it be? Generally, everyone gravitates to Hanyu. He carries a lot of speed into his triple Axel and he has the ability. His Axel is beautiful. It looks like there might be room for it. I’m not sure his triple Axel is high enough. But I don’t think he’s trying to get it higher. Maybe he could. Maybe it only has to be this much [a couple of inches.]

“How talented is he? So talented that I didn’t fathom that he could be that good. Like when I see his stuff online, the stuff that he does at the end of shows, like a triple Axel – triple Axel [combination.] Just goofy stuff. But it’s the edgework as he goes into these beautiful things. It’s the way he shifts his weight. It’s like watching an animal. It’s like you are staring down into the water. You can see a fish and then it’s gone. And you don’t really how how that fish left. I put Hanyu on a pedestal.”

Brian Orser:

I don’t know how many people you would put into the ability pool. Yuzuru would be at the top of the list. If anybody could do it, it would be him. I think he tried one in the finale of a show [in Japan.] He splatted on it. But it was not a bad attempt. His triple Axel is so good. It climbs. It’s powerful. He’s in charge on that jump.

“All of a sudden now, you see all quads. Mabye one of these young guys will do it. Stephen [Gogolev, Orser’s student] is doing [in training] a quad Lutz and a quad toe loop and a quad Salchow. I think Conrad Orzell is trying a quad Lutz and then there are guys in senior who are doing quad flips and quad Lutzes. It’s exciting.”

Conrad Orzel:

“You have lots of a talent like Stephen [Gogolev] who will probably pull it off.”

Michael Slipchuk:

“Who could do it? Off hand, no one that I could say right now.

And quintuples? You never know. Maybe someone will do that before they do quad Axel. Younger kids are learning quads earlier, trying maybe to be the ones that will do it.”

Tom Zakrajsek:

“Skating fans all over the world will be waiting for the day when the quad Axel is landed in competition and quintuples are added to the ISU scale of values.”

 

 

 

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.