Hanyu earns shot at 3rd straight Olympic gold by winning natl title

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Yuzuru Hanyu performs his free program at the Japan Figure Skating Championships at Saitama Super Arena on Sunday.

SAITAMA — Figure skating star Yuzuru Hanyu will get a chance to leap and spin his way to a third straight Olympic gold medal.

Hanyu was named to Japan’s team for the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics on Sunday, basically a formality after he overwhelmingly won the men’s title at the Japan Figure Skating Championships at Saitama Super Arena.

Hanyu, 27, will be joined in Beijing by Shoma Uno, 24, and Yuma Kagiyama, 18, the second- and third-place finishers, respectively, after the Japan Skating Federation announced the figure skating team members following the end of the competition.

Expectations will be high that Hanyu can add to his Olympic triumphs in Sochi in 2014 and Pyeongchang in 2018.

In a near-flawless performance that put him nearly 27-points ahead of Uno, Hanyu came up just short in an attempt to become the first skater in history to complete a quadruple axel in competition during his free program on Sunday.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Champion Yuzuru Hanyu, center, poses with runner-up Shoma Uno, left, and third-place finisher Yuma Kagiyama following the medal presentation. The three will represent Japan at the Beijing Winter Olympics.

“The biggest reason for making up my mind to go for the Beijing Games is that I wanted to make the quad axel,” Hanyu said. “I will do my best to win by nailing a quad axel, which I’ve been so committed to successfully doing.”

In the free program, he landed the quad axel attempt on both feet and failed to finish the final half-rotation.

“The 4½-spin jump is about the only thing I can add to my performance right now, so I will work in practice to get it right,” he said in an online interview Monday.

On the women’s side, the top three in Saitama filled Japan’s berths for the Beijing Games, led by 21-year-old champion Kaori Sakamoto. She is joined by runner-up Wakaba Higuchi, 20, and third-place finisher Mana Kawabe, 17.

In ice dancing, the federation picked Misato and Takeru Komatsubara to fill Japan’s lone berth after the husband-and-wife team won their fourth consecutive national title. Takeru, born Tim Koleto in the United States, has become a Japanese citizen.

Pursuing the quad axel

Following the championships on Sunday, Hanyu spoke of his determination to win a third consecutive Olympic gold.

“I’m the only one in a position to win a third in a row,” he said at a press conference. “I’d like to bring a different strength to the Olympics than I did the last time and the time before that.”

Prior to the competition, Hanyu refrained from openly stating that he was aiming to appear at the Beijing Games. What possessed the star was achieving the quad axel, which remains the Holy Grail of figure skating.

At Pyeongchang 2018, he became the first man in 66 years to win a second straight Olympic figure skating gold. “I dreamed about being there since childhood,” Hanyu said of his first two Olympics in Sochi and Pyeongchang, where he pursued his dreams of gold and made them come true.

Having fulfilled those goals, he did not see himself on the road to the Beijing Games. “I didn’t spend much time thinking about a third straight [Olympic gold],” he revealed.

Last season, with the COVID-19 pandemic raging, Hanyu had no coach in Japan and was forced to practice on his own. He experienced a slump in which at one point he could not even perform his specialty, a triple axel, a difficult jump with 3½ revolutions. He looked for various ways to get out of the slump — watching videos of men’s gymnastics champion Kohei Uchimura, and even studying the training routines of track-and-field athletes.

What finally fired him up was the quad axel, which calls for 4½ revolutions. A right ankle injury this season only added to his funk and left him wondering if he should quit. It was only shortly before the national championships that he found the resolve to go for it.

“If I’m the only one who can do [a quad axel], then my mission is to perfect it,” he decided.

That gave him the incentive to make the Beijing Games became his next objective.

“Seeing as how I will appear [at the Games], I want to go for the win,” Hanyu said. “I’ll do my best so that I can use the 4½-spin jump as a weapon.” he said.

In the online interview on Monday, Hanyu revealed feeling pressure as the two-time defending champion.

“I’ve already won two times in a row, so there’s a fear of losing [my streak],” he said. “But I have to go for the win.”

He said that when he put on the national team jacket after his free program, it further boosted his determination to bring home another gold.