Yuzuru Hanyu and Pooh

It rained Pooh.

And that meant Hanyu was back.

Ever since 2014 Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan went down painfully after injuring his right ankle in October last year, his legions of fans in Japan and around the world have been collectively holding their breath.

 

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TOPSHOT – This picture taken on November 9, 2017 shows Japanese figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu reacting as he falls after missing his jump during a practice of the Grand Prix of Figure Skating 2017/2018 NHK Trophy in Osaka. Japan Skating Federation announced the Olympic champion Hanyu withdraw from the NHK Trophy after injuring his right ankle. / AFP PHOTO / JIJI PRESS / STR / Japan OUT

 

Would the world’s greatest figure skater be able to return to the ice in time for the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. Nobody really knew because he had hidden himself from the probing Japanese media in Toronto, under the guidance of his coaches and Olympic medalists, Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson.

In fact, the current World Champion was not even in South Korea in the first few days of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, and confessed at his press conference on February 14 that he “had a little bit of uncertainty.” For a man of few words, that’s telling.

Yuzuru Hanyu PyeongChang short program 1
Yuzuru Hanyu performs his short program on Friday at the Pyeongchang Olympics at Gangneung Ice Arena. | AFP-JIJI

And yet, as you know now, Hanyu nailed his short routine, scoring the second highest short program score ever – 111.68 points. More importantly, his 4.1 point lead over Javier Fernandez is even greater than his lead when he won gold in Sochi four years earlier.

More significantly, he landed a series of quads, including a a quad toe followed hard upon by a triple toe, all landing on his right leg, after which the NBC color commentator said in mock disbelief, “What injury?”

Hanyu was indeed back….back for more gold. And not just the golden fur of his favorite fuzzy character, Winnie the Pooh.

She was still relatively unknown to the world. But at the 1927 figure skating world championships, the young Norwegian managed to be thick in the middle of controversy. Sonja Henie, at the age of 14, won her first world championships, the five judges deciding 3 votes to 2 that young Henie was the best.

Unfortunately, the optics were poor as three of the five judges were Norwegian, and their votes carried the day, as explained in The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics 2014 Edition. As a result of Henie’s victory, the International Skating Union came to their senses and created a rule that there can no longer be more than one judge from a single country at an international competition.

A year later, Henie showed she needed no partisan assistance at the 1928 Sankt Moritz Winter Olympics. Henie was not considered a favorite as the field was strong with 20 skaters, and yet she won handily, making her the youngest figure skater to win gold at the age of 15.

To get to that level, she clearly had to get started early. Her father, Wilhelm Henie (pronounced like “penny”), was a good athlete who competed as a speed skater and a cyclist, and so encouraged his children to take up sports. At the age of 4, according to this Vanity Fair article, Sonja Hennie was on skis. At the age of 5, she took up ballet, as well as skating, and much to her parents’ surprise, she won a children’s skating competition on borrowed clamped-on blades.

Once Sonja and her parents realized that she was a natural on ice, they placed her on a diet and a program. The diet was “raw eggs and rare steaks,” a lifetime delight, and the program was three hours practice in the AM and two hours in the PM, sans school. Thanks to the resources of her furrier father, figure skating and ballet coaches were at little Sonja’s service.

Sonja Henie was at the 1924 Chamonix Winter Games competing against 7 others, including world champion and eventual gold medalist Herma Planck-Szabo. Despite the small field, Henie finished dead last in eighth place. At the incredibly young age of 11, half the age of the gold and silver medalist and a third of the age of the bronze medalist, Henie was clearly a bit over her head. She was said to have repeatedly skated to the rinkside asking for her coach’s advice during her routine.

Sonja Henie_1924 Chamnoix Winter Olympics
Sonja Henie at the 924 Chamonix Winter Olympics

But the transformation of Henie, from rough to polish, began in those four years between Chamonix in 1924 and St. Moritz in 1928. According to the Vanity Fair article, in addition to the considerable improvement in her technical skills, Henie re-created not only her own image, but the image of the figure skater as beauty and art personified.

Here was a huge visual shift—from masculine to feminine, from prose to poetry. Just as the ballerina’s pointe shoes were pink, suddenly the female ice skater’s boots were white, redolent of fairy and folk tales, of youthful purity and Nordic power. Sonja had single-handedly pulled figure skating into the realm of metaphor—and where there is metaphor, there can also be art. In “The Pavlova of the Ice,” film footage shot in 1928 (and available on YouTube), she is skating outdoors, her slow-motion leaps and spins set against snow-dusted mountains that are nothing short of Wagnerian.

The most significant part of this “visual shift” was parting ways with long skirts that all the women skaters wore to very short ones. Not only was Henie’s short skirt stunning and sensational to spectators used to more modest wear, it was revealing in ways that showed off the power and technical level of her spins and spirals, “and allowed her to perform tricks – the single axel, for instance – that had previously belonged to male skaters.”

Sonja Henie_1928 St Moritz Winter Olympics
Sonja Henie at the 1928 St Moritz Winter Olympics

At the age of 23, she had been to four Olympics, won three gold medals in three consecutive Olympiads, and 10 consecutive world championships in a row, and was arguably one of the most famous people in the world. And yet, her rising star was yet to hit its zenith.

The Salchow – You hear it every Winter Games, and you still can’t figure out what it is.

For non-skaters like myself, quickly grasping the differences between a Lutz, a Salchow or an Axel is not easy. Fortunately, there are a lot of videos that show you what the moves look like. The Olympic Channel has a great 6-minute video on the evolution of the Salchow jump called “How the Original Salchow Changed Figure Skating.”

First, it’s pronounced “sal – cow.” For short, skaters will call it a “Sal.”

Second, it’s a skating technique where you jump off the back inside of the back foot, rotate, and then land on the back outside edge of the other foot. This is distinct from the Axel technique, which is a jump from the front skate.

Third, the first person to demonstrate this jump was a Swedish man named Ulrich Salchow, all the way back in 1909.

Ulrich Salchow

As you can see in the Olympic Channel video, skaters have been taking the Salchow to new heights for over a century. The first person to achieve a double Salchow was another Swede, Gillis Grafström, who would win gold in singles figure skating in three straight Winter Olympics. Decades later, at the 1956 Cortina d’Ampezzo Winter Games, American Ronnie Robertson, was the first ever to land a triple salchow, on his way to a silver medal in singles figure skating.

By the end of the ’80s, skaters had mastered the triple, symbolized by Brian Boitano‘s gold-medal winning performance at the 1988 Calgary Olympics. At those same games, silver medalist, Kurt Browning attempted to shock and awe with a quadruple salchow. He fell to the ice in the attempt, but he started the obsession of the 1990s – the perfect quad. Skaters would attempt, but end up under-rotating, landing on two skates, or simply crashing to the ice.

But skaters were oh-so-close. Many were hitting the quad perfectly in practice, but it took Russian skater, Ilia Kulik, at the 1998 Nagano Games, to finally land a quadruple salchow in Olympic competition, earning him gold in the singles figure skating competition.

Ilia Kulik
Ilia Kulik winning gold at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics

For nearly 20 years, the quadruple salchow has become a standard technique for the very best. So the question begs – will we see a quintuple salchow in our lifetime? According to this Scientific American article, entitled “Is the Quintuple Jump in Figure Skating Physically Possible?” the short answer is, um…maybe.

A biochemist from the University of Delaware, James Richards says no. “The quad is the physical limit. To do a quint, we would have to have somebody built like a pencil, and they can’t get much smaller than they already are.”

But Tom Zakrajsek, a figure skating coach, believes it is, but with considerable risk to the physical health of the skater. To quote the Scientific American article:

Still, Zakrajsek is confident that certain skaters have the body build and skills to achieve it. But even so, many coaches don’t allow skaters to attempt the quintuple due to the risks associated with falling while spinning at such high speeds and with such force. Even falling on a quadruple jump can take a serious toll on the body, Zakrajsek said. “In a quadruple jump, you are landing with seven times your body weight,” Zakrajsek said. “That is a lot of force. When they fall on a jump like that, some say it feels like their intestines end up in their throat.”

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On October 31, Evgeni Plushenko stated that Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan would likely win gold in the men’s individual figure skating competition at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics.

On November 9, Hanyu fell awkwardly after attempting a four-revolution jump during a training session, and announced the next day that ligament damage to his ankle would prevent him from participating in the NHK Trophy competition that weekend, a tournament Hanyu had won the previous two years, as well as the Grand Prix Final, which Hanyu has won the past four years.

You can see the painful fall below at about the 30 second mark of the video below.

 

The question is, more significantly, will the reigning Olympic champion be able to defend his championship at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics? According to this analysis from The Sports Examiner, men’s figure skating has seen a revolution in the quadruple jump that will continue to put pressure on Hanyu.

Yuzuru Hanyu has prided himself on trying to keep up with the recent quadruple jump outburst in men’s figure skating, an explosion in numbers and types of quads since 2015 for which the Japanese star credits China’s Jin Boyang as having been the spark.

When Hanyu won a second world title last year, he alluded to the quad exploits of Jin, Nathan Chen of the United States and Shoma Uno of Japan – all of whom have pushed the jump revolution – when he said, “I am trying to keep up with many of the strengths of the other skaters.”

In this article of Globetrotting, Philip Hersh explains that it may not be necessary for Hanyu to keep pace with the other quadruple jumpers as his overall game has made him a champion in the past, and in fact, his desire to try new things may get in the way of an Olympic championship defense.

The trick will be convincing Hanyu to rein himself in. His desire to meet the quad standards set by rivals speaks to a fierce and admirable competitive spirit.

“Yuzu told me that what motivates and inspires him is trying new things and challenging himself,” Tracy Wilson, who helps Brian Orser in coaching Hanyu at the skater’s Toronto training base, said in a Tuesday text message. “He told me that he wants to push the sport and this approach keeps it interesting for him.

“This has been his stance since the beginning of last season when he decided to add the (quad) loop. He didn’t need the loop last year and did it on his way to record-setting performances.”

Hersh emphasized that if Hanyu is able to recover in time for the 2018 Winter Games, he may need to ignore his competition and their adoration for a particularly arduous technique called the “quad lutz.” If Hanyu recovers his time and finds the right balance of athleticism and form, he could be the first man to win consecutive gold medals in individual figure skating since Dick Button did so in 1952. If not….

Hanyu said at Autumn Classic he was bothered by knee problems that affected his quad loop.  He kept working on the lutz, and it was one of the two quads he landed cleanly last month in Russia (in what International Skating Union fact sheets said were five planned attempts; one became a triple, another a double.)

At this point, apparent risk for continuing with the quad lutz substantially outweighs the reward, which seems essentially to be personal satisfaction for Hanyu. Persisting may not only endanger him but the sport itself, for a 2018 Olympics with Hanyu in subpar condition – or without him entirely – would be diminished.

Sasson and El Shehaby
Or Sasson of Israel extending a hand to fellow judoka Islam El Shehaby of Egypt, to no avail.

The man in blue lay on the mat, a victim of a well-played seoi-nage, staring at his fingers for over ten seconds, while the man in white stood waiting.

When they faced each other, the Israeli, Or Sasson (in white) looked to the referee and bowed to the Egyptian, Islam El Shehaby (in blue). El Shehaby did not return the bow, which is essentially a requirement at the end of a judo bout. Sasson, who eventually won bronze in the  +100kg class, then walked up to El Shehaby and extended his hand, but the Egyptian judoka turned away and refused to shake his hand.

Was this a personal gripe? Was this a geo-political spat? However you look at it, El Shehaby earned significant points in quest of the title of Rio’s Biggest Sore Loser.

Close behind is American goaltender, Hope Solo, who was in net when the vaunted and heavily favored US women’s soccer squad lost to Sweden on penalty kicks. She was rightly proud of her team for showing “a lot of heart” for coming back to tie Sweden 1-1 late in the match, but then lost control of her emotions (again) by saying post-match that the Swedes played like “bunch of cowards.”

When we perform at the highest levels and win, win so often that losing is hard to come to grips with, words and actions can sometimes be unpredictable at best, shameful at worst. At the 2010 Winter Olympics, reigning champion in men’s figure skating, Evgeni Plushenko of Russia, lost to American, Evan Lysack. Plushenko’s reaction: “I was positive I won. I suppose Evan needs a medal more than I do. Maybe it’s because I already have one.”

Back in 1964, at the Tokyo Olympics, South Korean boxer Dong Kih Choh was suddenly disqualified in the first round of his bout against Stanislaw Sorokin of the Soviet Union. He was so peeved that he grabbed a chair, and refused to leave the ring for about an hour.

Dong Kih Choh 1
Dong Kih Choh, south Korean Featherweight, from XVIII Olympiad Volume 10

And then there is the infamous American ice hockey squad. In 1996, the NHL and the IOC came to an agreement that enabled NHL pros to participate in the Olympics. At the 1998 Nagano Winter Games, the Americans, which included such stars as Brett Hull and Jeremy Roenick, performed miserably, winning only one game against a weak Belarus squad. After getting thumped by the Czech squad, the eventual gold medalists, the Americans are said to have washed away their sorrows in alcohol. Not sated by liquor, they turned to vandalism: smashing chairs, chucking fire extinguishers off the balcony, and causing several thousand dollars in damage. Equally distasteful  – no one on the team acknowledged any bad behavior.

A few weeks later, team captain Chris Chelios sent the Nagano Olympic committee a check for $3,000, and wrote in a letter, “I want to take this opportunity to apologize to the people of Japan, the Japanese Olympic committee, the USOC, and to all hockey fans throughout the world. Bitter frustration at our own level of play caused a few team members to vent their anger in a way which is not in the tradition of NHL/Olympic sportsmanship.”

Well, at least they apologized.

I kinda doubt we’ll see an apology from El Shehaby and Solo…..

Sandra Bezic on the cover of Asahi Graf, February 18, 1972
Sandra Bezic on the cover of Asahi Graf, February 18, 1972

“With fame, you know, you can read about yourself, somebody else’s ideas about you, but what’s important is how you feel about yourself – for survival and living day to day with what comes up.”

So said Marilyn Monroe, that candle in the wind.

Sandra Bezic was 15 years old when she competed in the pairs figure skating competition at the Sapporo Olympic Games in 1972. Sandra and her brother Val finished ninth, and were in a frame of mind in which winning a medal was out of the question, which meant they could enjoy their lives after the competition.

Their parents decided that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a country – Japan – they may never come back to, so before the 2-week competition ended, they went on a family holiday to Tokyo and Kyoto.

And one day, while walking along the streets of Kyoto, the ancient seat of government, they came upon a magazine rack at a shop that had “rows and rows of me” – a magazine with a cover graced by the youthful face of the figure skater from Canada. “We bought up a whole bunch of copies,” Bezic told me, “and just laughed and laughed.”

But Bezic was not a candle in the wind. She had a plan post-Olympics. She found a niche as a choreographer for figure skating long before specialists were a part of a coach’s toolkit in shaping future Olympians. Such skaters as Barbara Underhill and Paul Martini, Brian Boitano, Kristi Yamaguchi and Tara Lipinski had routines designed by Bezic.

Bezic went on to become a commentator for NBC during