GANGNEUNG, South Korea – During an outstanding practice in which he looked as healthy as ever, defending Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu joked with coach Brian Orser. He exchanged high-fives with other coaches, and they shared some hearty laughs.
When the Japanese star entered a news conference, he bowed, chuckled when he saw more than 150 media members in the room, and looked as relaxed as any figure skater can while in the Olympic environment.
He even joked about his Winnie The Pooh collection.
So if the damaged ankle ligaments that had Hanyu sidelined for about two months were still bothering him – or if he thought they’d be a factor at all at the games – he sure did well hiding any doubts he might carry.
“It can be described as pressure, but I am really happy I’ll be able to skate,” Hanyu said Tuesday through a translator. “I am feeling the expectation and can accept it and include it in my own energy.
“I want to show the performance that makes them feel it was worth the wait.”
Judging by his first training session in Gangneung, Hanyu’s mindset is exactly where it needs to be. He practiced four quadruple jumps and his program run-through was spot-on.
Considering how uncertain his prospects had become after he withdrew from the NHK Trophy event in Japan in November, it was refreshing and revealing to see his positive performance and attitude.
“He is mentally in a great place and his spirits are high,” Orser said.
Hanyu was off the ice for nearly two months, hardly the kind of preparation an elite athlete prefers heading toward the most important event on the schedule. He needed to look at his cellphone to answer a question about when he began attempting the tougher jumps. The answer was three weeks ago for triples, two weeks ago for quads.
He knows he’ll need everything in his repertoire to beat two-time world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain, who also trains with Orser, and two-time U.S. champion Nathan Chen, the quad king who plans as many as five in his free skate. Not to mention Hanyu’s countryman, Shoma Uno, who won the short program for Japan in the team competition last week.
“My focus when I came back was to jumping,” Hanyu said. “It was a long time before I was able to be back to the ice. I did a lot of the jumps on a regular floor, building good images. So when I was back on the ice, I had these positive images.
“I am still conditioning myself, my jumps, and the elements I have not performed yet. I am going along with a plan.”
Hanyu’s biggest adjustment has been enhancing his stamina and physical strength. He denied being slimmer than in recent years, although he sure looks it.
As for wondering what he will be capable of come Friday’s short program and Saturday’s free skate, Hanyu’s reply was what is expected from a champion.
“I was a little uncertain, but after a month of being able to practice and (then) being here, I am ready for the Olympics, and that’s all that matters,” he said. “I’ve been busy doing what I’ve needed to do and building up things I needed to do. I’m not worrying about many things now.
“Many negative thoughts came to me, but right now sitting before so much media, I am able to show this is a positive time. I want to skate my dream performance.”
Hanyu finished his news conference in the same light manner it began. When he walked on to the riser, he checked the nameplate to make sure it was for him, then smiled broadly. At the end, he thanked media members – in five languages: Japanese, Korean, English, Russian and French.
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