Ice Network

Hanyu delivers dazzling short in competitive return

Fernández, Uno in medal positions; American Chen places disastrous 17th
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Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu gave a simply breathtaking performance of his short to Chopin's "Ballade No. 1," complete with two quads (one in combination) and a flawless triple axel. The reigning Olympic champion received a score of 111.68, and he enters the free skate in first place by 4.10 points. -Getty Images

Any questions about Yuzuru Hanyu's fitness after a three-month layoff due to an injured right ankle ligament were answered at Gangneung Ice Arena on Friday, when the defending Olympic champion delivered a spectacular short program that scored 111.68 points, some 10 points higher than his winning short program four years ago in Sochi, Russia.

Performing to Chopin's "Ballade No. 1," the Japanese superstar caressed the ice with intricate lyricism before exploding into perfect jumps, including a quadruple salchow, triple axel and quadruple toe loop-triple toe loop combination. Though not as difficult as some of his competitors' elements, Hanyu's were performed without excessive preparation and landed with ease. His spins and steps were liquid gold, earning Level 4's and all +2 and +3 Grades of Execution, and he gained ten perfect 10's for program components.

"I felt pressure, but the pressure is energy for me," the 23-year-old Hanyu said. "I didn't feel nervous and shaking. I (am) just satisfied with everything, each moment and each element."

Hanyu arrived in PyeongChang with the odds seemingly stacked against him. He had not competed since the Rostelecom Cup in late October and, after straining a ligament in his right ankle in early November, was off of the ice for two months. He began landing triple axels just three weeks ago; quads, a mere two weeks ago.

"We could not have asked for better," said Ghislain Briand, who assists Brian Orser in training Hanyu at Toronto's Cricket, Skating and Curling Club. "He's worked hard, the recovery was long. At his level, you want to go, go, go and he couldn't, because of the injuries. He was patient."

Due to a conflict with Olympic sponsors, Hanyu could not bring his faithful mascot, Winnie the Pooh -- the yellow stuffed bear that holds his tissues -- to the Gangneung Ice Arena. But hundreds of fans, many from Japan, threw stuffed Pooh bears onto the ice as they stood and applauded.

"I had the support and encouragement of a lot of people," Hanyu said through an interpreter, then added, "Physically, I may not be so strong, I can catch colds. But mentally I can be strong, in order to meet the expectations of my fans. They pushed me to do a good performance."

Asked how many quads he would try in his free skate Saturday, and whether he would include a quad loop, Hanyu equivocated a bit.

"I have to see conditions tomorrow," he said. "There are many different kinds of quads and you need to show variety. Probably (I will do) salchow and toe, and go from there."

Hanyu has a bit of wiggle room, but not much. Longtime rival and training partner Javier Fernández sits 4.10 points behind after an inspired outing of his Charlie Chaplin routine that was sophisticated yet whimsical, featuring more Chaplin-like steps and gestures than earlier this season.

The Spaniard, too, had near-perfect jumps; when he landed his quad salchow just a few feet away from Orser at the boards, the coach thrust his arms into the air.

"I didn't know (Hanyu's) score, because I was warming up," said Fernández, who skated fifth in the group. "At the end of the day, we do our job and we know what we have to do. It doesn't matter what you do, if he skated better than you, then he will win. I always try to do my job and keep myself in place."

The two-time world champion, who told reporters he plans three quads in his Don Quixote free skate on Saturday, claimed he would be satisfied with any color medal here.

"I will fight all the way, but first, second, or third, I will be happy," he said. "I will be happy if tomorrow, I am in this position. I train to be first but I know how tough Yuzuru is."

Shoma Uno, Hanyu's 20-year-old Japanese teammate who won world silver last season, performed with passion and speed to Vivaldi's "Four Seasons." Unlike the top two skaters, he performed a quad flip in his program, as well as a quad toe-triple toe combination and triple axel. But both his Grades of Execution (GOEs) and program component scores were a shade lower than Fernández', and he takes 104.17 points into the free skate.

Uno earned 13.73 points for the quad flip, a jump that has troubled him in practices here.

"My practices have been shaky, but that is kind of normal for me," Uno said. "I am planning four quads in the free skate. I want to aim for quality jumps and presentation."

China's Boyang Jin is just 0.85 points behind Uno after an aggressive program to selections from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon that included the highest-scoring element of the event, a quad lutz-triple toe combination earning 19.76 points. His technical element score was second only to Hanyu's, but his program components were far lower.

Skating a majestic short to "Masquerade Waltz," Dmitri Aliev, an Olympic Athlete from Russia (OAR), hit a quad lutz-triple toe and sits fifth with 98.98 points.

Once again, three-time world champion Patrick Chan of Canada was victim to his triple axel, falling on the jump in an otherwise clean outing of his short to Kansas' "Dust in the Wind." He earned 90.01 for sixth place.

"When you're in the moment, things go so fast through your head and your body tends to fall back into bad habits, and I have a lot of bad habits when it comes to triple axel," Chan said. "That's just how I grew up unfortunately. I've been blessed with good skating skills but not good triple axel skills."

Rippon earns top U.S. score as Chen falters

Skating first in the penultimate warm-up group, Adam Rippon began his short to Ida Corr and Feddy LeGrande's "Let Me think About It" a bit tentatively, and had to fight to hold his triple axel. But after safely landing his triple lutz, he cut loose in his step sequence and gained cheers from the crowd with a lovely layback position in his combination spin. His 87.95 points put him seventh.

"It's relief, I'm so happy with what I was able to do," Rippon said. "I am so prepared for this moment and for me to be able to go out there and really deliver on what I wanted to do, I'm so happy, I'm so proud. I want to show the world what I am made of."

"I want to show the world why I fell in love with skating and it was because of awesome and inspiring Olympic performances and performances that were different," he added. "That's what I wanted to bring to the Olympic Games. So far, I'm two for two (including the team event)."

Vincent Zhou, who sits 12th, gained a season's best 84.53 points for his short to Snow Patrol's "Chasing Cars." Skating in the first warm-up group, the 17-year-old made history by landing the first quad lutz and quad flip in Olympic history, although the second jump of his quad lutz-triple toe combination was under rotated and he turned out of the landing of the quad flip.

"I hoped that I would have better quality on all of my jobs but for the most part I got my job done," Zhou said. "I can't say I'm disappointed. I would say I am pretty pleased with the way I skated. There are always things that can be better, but for the most part, I met my expectations."

"He fought for a couple of things, he didn't give up, that's his personality," Tammy Gambill, one of Zhou's coaches, said. "He's not going to go down without a fight. The (quad) lutz was beautiful, the toe was a little bit under, the (quad) flip was a good fight, the (triple) axel was a good fight, spins were wonderful. He presented himself well."

Zhou plans five quads -- two lutzes, a flip, a salchow and a toe -- in Saturday's free skate.

"He's been training that every day and that's his plan and he's going to go after it," Gambill said. "Salchow, toe, flip and two lutzes. He does it every day, that's just what he does, that's Vincent."

Nathan Chen, undefeated this season and expected to contend for a medal, saw his 2018 Olympic dreams evaporate with an error-riddled routine including large missteps on the landings of his quad lutz and quad toe, and a fall on his triple axel. His 82.27 points buried him in 17th place.

"I am going to talk to my team and figure out what the best approach is and try to move on from it," said Chen, who appeared nervous and uncertain in his press conference on Thursday.

"It just was rough. I did all the right stuff going into it; it should have been different, but stuff happens. Take it for what it is and move on."