Ice Network

Mount Olympus seemingly next stop for Hanyu

Japanese skater was a god among men for most of 2015-16 season
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At times, it seemed like Yuzuru Hanyu stunned even himself with the things he was able to do last season. -Getty Images

Icenetwork will announce its choice for 2015-16 Person(s) of the Year later this month. Here's icenetwork contributor Wei Xiong's nomination.

Before the 2015-16 season, 200 points in the free skate and a total score of 300 were the "magic" numbers for men's figure skating. Patrick Chan came close to those benchmarks, posting a 196.75 in the free skate and a 295.27-point total at 2013 Trophée Eric Bompard.

When this season ended, the bar was raised to 110.95 for the short program, 219.48 in the free skate and 330.43 for overall score. The magic numbers of "200" and "300" were exceeded six and four times, respectively.

The men's field has undoubtedly gone to the next level, and the one who took it there was Yuzuru Hanyu.

There was no sign that Hanyu was about to embark on this record-breaking streak back in October, when the reigning Olympic champion skated probably the worst short program of his senior career and lost to Chan, who skated a lights-out free program, at Skate Canada.

That's when he and his coach, Brian Orser, decided something needed to be done.

"I knew that after Skate Canada we had to make a change," Orser recalled. "My change was a little bit more conservative, and [Yuzuru's] change was more ambitious."

On the last Wednesday of November, the first practice day at the NHK Trophy, Hanyu stunned the media by declaring that he would take the triple lutz out of his short program and replace it with a quadruple salchow, the jump known as his nemesis, and change the solo quad toe into a quad-triple combination, which he had never landed in competition.

What was more stunning was what happened next: a close-to-perfect performance, one that netted Hanyu 106.33 points, a new world record by almost five points.

"I don't think it is necessary to add two quads in the short now. In fact, I was able to get over 100 points by doing only one quad while receiving positive GOEs (Grades of Execution) in all the elements," Hanyu said at the time, "but the rule allows two quads at maximum. If you do two quads and jump beautifully, present your program well, earn positive GOEs in all your spins and steps -- if you can pull off such a program, no one can beat you. Someday, we will have to do it."

The next day in the free skate, the Japanese champion delivered as close to a perfect performance as can be: three quads, two triple axels, all Level 4 spins and steps, and positive GOEs on all of his elements. The result was a score of 216.07, another world record, smashing the old one by almost 20 points.

But he still wasn't satisfied.

"The score will become a new barrier for me," Hanyu said. "This is not PyeongChang Olympics or the next Olympics, and this is not my retirement competition. From now on, I will train harder, in order to deliver a better performance."

In the second week of December, the defending Grand Prix Final champion redefined "perfect" with two more back-to-back surreal performances. Hanyu rewrote the record book again, with scores of 110.95, 219.48 and 330.43. People in the Barcelona International Convention Centre chanted his name, as if it was Camp Nou (home of the FC Barcelona football club) a few miles away.

"I used Viktor Petrenko as my motivation; he must be looking at one of the gods on Mount Olympus for his motivation," Kurt Browning commented. "What's the rest of the group going to do to pull him back?"

They followed; they had to.

One month later, reigning world champion Javier Fernández upgraded his program layouts at the European championships by adding a second quad in his short program and a second triple axel in his free skate.

In February, at the Four Continents Championships, three-time world champion Patrick Chan went for a second triple axel, the jump that for years has been his bugaboo, in his free skate. Olympic bronze medalist Denis Ten added a quad salchow in his free skate in preparation for the world championships. The next month, Japanese silver medalist Shoma Uno became the first man to land a quadruple flip in an ISU-sanctioned competition, doing so at the Team Challenge Cup.

Every top gun is upping the ante now.

"The competitiveness of the men's field now is probably the highest of all the categories," Chan said. "It is scary, but that's what makes figure skating fascinating."

Hanyu predicted this trend back in 2014, when, after winning the gold medal in Sochi, he said, "To aim for PyeongChang Olympics, there is no doubt that the bar of difficulty needs to be raised. Not only that, I think our generation of skaters needs to lead the development of the sport."

But when I asked him at the NHK Trophy how many quads and how many types of quads would be necessary to win in PyeongChang, he didn't have a concrete answer. After spending almost six minutes talking about the history of the technical development of men's figure skating, and analyzing the basic values of jumps and the pros and cons of adding quads to a program, Hanyu concluded, "I don't think there is only one right answer. But for me, I want to make my best efforts and work hard for more difficult quads, and higher-quality quads.

"I don't know [what] an unbeatable program will look like," he continued. "I don't know, and I think this is what makes the sport so enjoyable. I want to enjoy my improvement every day and keep challenging my own limit."

But this constant need to stretch the boundaries of the sport is also what makes it painful at times.

While he might be looking at the gods on Mount Olympus as motivation, at the end of the day, Hanyu is mortal. No one except those closest to him knew that he had been experiencing pain in his left foot for months, an injury that worsened as the season wore on. In fact, the pain became so acute since the new year that he couldn't practice his quad toe for almost two months.

After the world championships in Boston, where Hanyu settled for second, the skater revealed the injury to the media, and then went to Canada for treatment. The pain stemmed from a damaged Lisfranc ligament, and he has to be off the ice for two months in order to recover.

"I think the reason (for the injury) lies in the way I train," the skater said in Boston. "It may come from the impact my foot receives over the years, and adding a quad toe in the second half of the program may impact not only the muscles but also the bones and ligaments."

With the field upping the ante, the risk of injury increases.

"I kind of feel that the technical development has reached a level that the human body cannot follow yet," Hanyu shared. "However, with further development of techniques, maybe we will find a way to reduce the impact to our bodies. Or maybe the wave (of increased difficulty) will calm down suddenly, like at the Vancouver Olympics. Every era has a trend."

Nevertheless, Hanyu has shown no sign of slowing down.

"Although there is risk of injuries, I feel proud of myself for having raised the bar," he said. "Though I only got second place at this event, as the holder of current world records, I want to be the man who further opens new doors for the field."

Just like us mortals, the gods on Mount Olympus are eager to see what the future holds for men's figure skating and its unquestioned leader, Yuzuru Hanyu.