Ice Network

Hanyu, Fernández carve different paths to Olympics

Tension mounting between training partners as Winter Games approach
  • Ice Network on Facebook
  • Ice Network on Twitter
Javier Fernández and Yuzuru Hanyu finished 1-2 at last week's Autumn Classic International, a showdown that may very well have been an Olympic preview. -Getty Images

The hundreds of Yuzuru Hanyu fans who traveled from Japan to Montreal for the Autumn Classic International last week flew home with mixed emotions. Their angel soared in his short program, setting a new world record of 112.72 points, but fell to earth in his free skate, popping jumps and squandering an 11.5-point lead to place second to training partner Javier Fernández.

Having the winners of the past four world titles square off in the ISU Challenger Series in September is unusual, to say the least. Hanyu has done the event the past two years. This season, Brian Orser, who coaches both skaters in Toronto, added Fernández to the mix.

"I really didn't care about them going head to head, because it doesn't matter at their level," Orser said. "The only reason we are doing this is convenience. It's close to Toronto, we don't have to deal with any jet lag. Javi really needs to go out, get some ranking points and get started early, and this is a good way to get him going."

A coach and training facility -- Toronto's Cricket, Skating and Curling Club -- may be all Fernández and Hanyu have in common. In PyeongChang, Hanyu seeks to become the second man (after Dick Button in 1948 and 1952) to repeat as Olympic champion. Fernández's medal hopes were dashed in Sochi by a quirk of IJS rules -- he did too many triple salchows in his free skate -- and he desperately wants to bring home Spain's third Winter Olympics medal and first since 1992.

"It was a big disappointment last time," Orser said of Fernández in Sochi. "There's some pressure, not from anyone else but from himself. He wants a medal more than anything and is satisfied with any color. I think that's healthy and realistic; he's not going to beat his head against the wall trying to be the one who wins the gold."

Not so for the 22-year-old Hanyu, who thinks strictly of gold and keeps tabs on scores earned and quads landed by his younger competitors, including Nathan Chen, Shoma Uno and Boyang Jin.

"He follows everything everyone does," Orser said. "Last week they were competing in Italy (Lombardia Trophy) and Salt Lake City (U.S. International Figure Skating Classic), and he was paying attention."

The training partners are perfectly cordial, and Hanyu warmly congratulated Fernández on his victory in Montreal. But things are a bit tense around the Cricket Club.

"It's kind of an every-man-for-himself feeling right now with those two guys," Orser said. "I'm getting a feeling of a little bit of tension. They're competitors and it's normal."

"When we are done with this skating stuff, are they keeping in touch? Probably not," he added. "They're friendly, they respect each other. Javi is (four years) older. He lives on his own, does his own cooking and cleaning, he has a cat. Yuzu lives with his mom and lives and breathes skating, and that's fine, too."

Orser and his coaching partner, Tracy Wilson, arranged for ice at another Toronto area rink, where they take Fernández and world bronze medalist Gabby Daleman (who is also coached by Lee Barkell) for some sessions.

"That way, they're not immersed in it all the time," Orser said. "You train together every day, you start to know how to get under each others' skins. They just need a break from each other, especially this season. I'm doing it for Javi and Yuzu and for myself, too."

"I think there has to be a little bit of tension in the practices," Fernández said. "When you can feel a little too much pressure -- not between Yuzu and me, but (pressure from) within ourselves -- Brian takes me to another rink. It's a good way to calm everything down a little bit."

The skaters are taking opposite approaches to their Olympic material, with Hanyu reprising the Chopin Ballade No. 1 short program he competed with from 2014 to 2016, and his "Seimei" free skate of the 2015-16 season. Fernández is showing two new David Wilson programs, although his short is a second take on Charlie Chaplin, a character he played in a 2012-13 free skate.

In Montreal, Hanyu's achy right knee prompted Orser to remove a planned quad loop from his Chopin short. Despite this, the skater glided through an opening quad salchow, performed liquid spins and captivating footwork, and hit a glorious triple axel and quad toe loop-triple toe loop combination in the program's second half. At the end of the program, Hanyu opened his arms and turned to Orser at the boards.

"Doing a quad in the second half, with an entrance from a turn, lifting my arms (over my head), that was a first," Hanyu said. "Plus, I had never done a clean quad in the second half other than in ice shows, so even though it (the first quad in the program) was a salchow, I was like, 'Hey, I've come this far, see? Look at me' to Brian."

Fernández's Chaplin short capitalized on his charm with musical, inventive steps, and his jumps were clean. But he left points on the table, reducing a planned quad toe-triple toe combination to a quad-double and losing ground on grades of execution and program component scores.

"It was some mistakes, a little unbalanced in the step sequence, the jumps were not 100 percent perfect, but I think it was a good start to the year," Fernández said.

The tables turned the following evening, when Fernández debuted his free skate, choreographed by Wilson to selections from Man of La Mancha, based on Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote. The Spaniard commanded the ice, bringing life to the chivalrous knight. He fell on a downgraded quad salchow and doubled two intended triples, but easily won the free skate with 177.87 points.

"I can say it's a great piece of music, and we chose it because it has a little bit of (the feeling) of the best programs of my career," Fernández said. "It's a little bit of Spanish, a little bit romantic, a little bit show. It's good, this Olympic season, to have a program that reminds you of your old programs."

Fernández tried three quads -- a toe and two salchows -- in his free skate. Although the skater has done quad loop in practice, he does not plan to add it this season.

"He is very satisfied with what he has and what he can do," Orser said. "When you look at a free skate like he had in Boston (2016 World Championships), that's a winning program with three quads. Man of La Mancha (could be) a winning program. The quality has to be sensational, that's the payoff. The footwork, the spins, the choreography, that's where you have to step it up and he is."

Hanyu, who has been practicing quad lutz, popped the opening triple lutz in his "Seimei" program and was unable to regain his balance. He fell on a downgraded quad toe and doubled out of several other jumps, placing fifth in the free and second overall.

"I felt it was difficult to start with consecutive triple jumps," Hanyu admitted to reporters. "It's hard not to be able to go full-out and it was awkward trying to figure out the timing and how much power to put in there."

While Hanyu did not try quad lutz or loop in Montreal, Orser confirmed the plan is to have both jumps -- and five quads total -- in his Olympic free skate.

"That (carries) a huge risk for any skater," he said. "But there's also the experience factor. Yuzu has been through the whole Olympic hype. Last Olympics, he was going in as an underdog to Patrick [Chan]; this one, he is going in as the favorite. Shoma and Nathan and the Chinese boy (Jin) are going to be living and dreaming the Olympics, and I just know from experience it's tough. Your body carries a lot of that tension, not just in competition, but day to day."

Translation of Hanyu's remarks courtesy of Momo Kano Polodolsky.