Figure skating 101: Hanyu puts on clinic in shortChan sits 3.93 behind leader; Brown within striking distance of podium
Yuzuru Hanyu, who seems to have arrived in Sochi riding a bolt of lightning, lit up the Iceberg Skating Palace with a spectacular short program that scored 101.45 points.
The 19-year-old Japanese champion eclipsed his own world record and leads Patrick Chan by nearly four points heading into Friday's free skate at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games. He is now four-and-a-half minutes away from becoming Japan's first men's Olympic figure skating champion.
On a wild night that included Evgeni Plushenko's theatrical withdrawal with a back injury and a scary, head-first fall by Jeremy Abbott on a quadruple toe loop, "Yuzu" grabbed the spotlight.
Skating with abandon, playing to the crowd and pushing his blades to the edge, the skater flew through each element of his "Parisian Walkways" program. His jumps, including an opening quadruple toe loop, were high and smooth; his spins, liquid and fast.
"I think I went to a good point," Hanyu said through an interpreter. "I think I performed about 90 percent of my best performance. I haven't hit my peak yet."
The teenager, who trains under Brian Orser in Toronto, has astounded observers by reeling off quad toes and Salchows -- as well as letter-perfect steps and spins -- in practices that are the talk of Sochi's figure skating community.
"I got him when he was 16, and just like any 16-year-old athlete, he wanted faster, bigger, more, more, more," said Orser, who has coached Hanyu since April 2012. "The challenge was to organize him better so he could be reliable on competition day."
In 2010, Hanyu won the world junior title; he was fourth in the world last season after winning world bronze in 2012. In December, he defeated Chan to win the Grand Prix Final.
Orser attributes his student's rapid progress to consistent emphasis on improving his skating skills, including frequent exercises and drills.
"Even when Yuzu is getting ready for a big competition, Tracy Wilson, David Wilson and I work on his skating skills," Orser said. "It's not just doing run-throughs, which is the way I grew up."
The emergence of such a formidable competitor, on the cusp of what seemed likely Olympic victory, is a nightmare for Canada and its three-time world champion Chan, who is trying to break the so-called "Canadian curse" and become the first Canadian to win Olympic gold in men's figure skating.
Three Canadian world champions -- Orser (1988), Kurt Browning (1992 and 1994) and Elvis Stojko (1998) -- arrived at Olympics as world champions. None won gold; Orser and Stojko each won two silver medals.
"It's never been done before, and it's there for me to grasp, and it's tangible, and it's tough not to think about it at the end of the day," Chan, 23, said. "No human being can deal with that pressure. You set yourself up for trouble if your goal, when you step on to the ice, is a gold medal. I learned that in Vancouver (2010)."
Chan had a superb skate to Rachmaninoff's "Elegie in e-flat minor," showing his matchless edges, flow and musical phrasing, but an overrotated triple Axel cost him any chance of the lead. His 97.52 points put him 3.93 points behind Hanyu heading into Friday's free skate.
The triple Axel has long been the biggest crack in Chan's armor, but he tried to turn his mistake on the jump into a positive, explaining that it had grown so large it was difficult to control.
"My triple Axel was huge; I'm getting so confident in my Axel," Chan said. "I looked at the replay, and you can tell it's way higher. I'm glad I didn't fall."
A few moments later, he threw down the gauntlet to his younger opponent.
"Tomorrow is a new day," he said. "I'm confident with my long program, I've had a great season with it, and I know how to pace it.
"Olympics is not the place that is supposed to be easy. I like being in second, like being in the chase. Now I can go out and enjoy my program. Yuzu has a bit of a target [on his back] he's not used to having. We'll see how he handles it."
The irony of eight-time Canadian champion Orser coaching the man who could extend the Canadian curse was not lost on Chan, who grew up skating at the Cricket Club under legendary Canadian coach Osborne Colson.
"I'm striving for something [Orser] didn't achieve, and he's working against me in a way, but it's all fun," Chan said. "In the end, figure skating is an individual sport. You're not thinking about besting each other. It's about pushing your own limits, doing the best you can do. At the end of the day, you're battling yourself and kind of your inner demons."
The rest of the field lagged behind the top two skaters by more than 10 points. Skaters in the third through sixth positions lie within a point of one another, with another group of six close behind.
Javier Fernández, Spain's two-time European champion, turned out of his opening quadruple Salchow and the second jump of a triple Lutz-triple toe combination. His 86.98 points put him third heading into the free.
"I wasn't feeling great, but I still fought for everything I have in my program," Fernández, 22, said. "These guys (Hanyu and Chan) are points ahead, but it's really tight behind me, so tomorrow I have to have my mind on skating and try to be a little bit more focused on skating and what I have to do."
Orser, who also coaches Fernández, said he would have a long talk with his skater.
"He didn't have that fire in his belly," Orser said. "He was nervous. He didn't come out of the gate strong enough."
Like Hanyu and Chan, Fernández is attempting to make history in Sochi. His would be only the third Winter Olympic medal won by Spain and the first ever in figure skating.
Daisuke Takahashi fought through a right knee injury to earn 86.40 points for fourth place. Japan's 2010 Olympic bronze medalist had his quad toe downgraded by the technical panel.
In a surprise, German champion Peter Liebers had the skate of his life, including a strong quad toe-triple toe combination, to place fifth with a personal-best 86.04 points.
He doesn't have a quad, but U.S. silver medalist Jason Brown finds himself in the final warm-up group (top six) and within striking distance of a medal after a sensational outing of his short to Prince's "The Question of U."
The 19-year-old Brown hit all of his jumps -- including a triple Axel and a 'Tano triple Lutz in the second half of the program -- to perfect beats of his music. His memorable step sequence was punctuated by twizzles, kicks and leaps, and his three spins rated Levels 3 and 4. Judges awarded Brown with 86.0 points, a new personal best.
"Each time I've gone out and performed this program, it's gotten better," the ebullient skater said. "Every time I step out on to the ice, I feel I get stronger."
"It's even better in practice," Brown's coach, Kori Ade, said. "I've seen him a little looser, faster, less conservative. But then again, under Olympic pressure, you're supposed to be a bit conservative if you want to medal."
For Jeremy Abbott, it was a far less successful night. After a disappointing team short program, the four-time U.S. champion moved to a hotel and streamlined his daily activities in an effort to prepare better mentally for competition.
It all came to a crashing halt, though, on his first jump, a quad toe loop. The 28-year-old did not get enough height on the move, came down far too early, fell head first and then slid into the boards, which fortunately were padded for an earlier short track competition.
After lying on the ice for about 15 seconds, Abbott finished the program, fighting for the landings of a triple Lutz-triple toe and triple Axel, and gaining Level 4's on two of his spins and his step sequence. He earned 72.58 points and sits 15th, the same placement he had after his short program at the 2010 Vancouver Games, where he finished ninth overall.
"It was quite painful," Abbott said, clutching an ice bag to his left hip. "I still have quite a bit of adrenaline going, but I'm sure I'm going to have a big lump on my hip tomorrow."
Abbott credited the Sochi crowd with helping to give him the strength to continue. As he lay on the ice, he considered going to referee Mona Jonsson to ask for a two-minute injury timeout.
"The second I stood up, the whole audience screamed for me," he said. "I thought, 'Forget it, I'm going to finish this program.'"