Figure skating champion Hanyu a new sporting hero for Japan

Japan has a new sporting hero in 19-year-old Yuzuru Hanyu, whose gold comes three years after he lost his home and rink in earthquake

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 February, 2014, 10:53pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 February, 2014, 10:53pm

A journey that almost ended three years ago when Yuzuru Hanyu watched in horror as the ice cracked beneath his blades and the ground shook violently, culminated in glorious triumph 8,000 kilometres away at the Sochi Olympics.

The magnitude 9.0 earthquake near Hanyu's home city of Sendai in March 2011 not only destroyed his training arena but set off a huge tsunami and nuclear disaster that ultimately claimed nearly 20,000 lives in Japan.

With memories of that day, when he had to crawl off the ice to flee the collapsing building, still fresh, he said he had been close to giving up on the dream that would lead him to become the first Japanese skater to win the men's Olympic title.

I was on the top of the podium carrying the hopes of thousands, millions, and I feel great about that
Yuzuru Hanyu

"It's a very difficult subject for me to talk about," said the 19-year-old, who became the second youngest man after Dick Button in 1948 to win the top prize. "I lost my skating rink because of the earthquake and I was literally struggling to live at that time, let alone to try to keep skating. I really thought about quitting skating then."

With their house wrecked, Hanyu's family sought shelter in a gymnasium, where they slept shoulder-to-shoulder on the floor for several days among scores of other people.

When the water pipes under the rink exploded and the ice melted, it seemed his skating career had also been washed away.

But some 10 days later he was back on the ice at the rink near Tokyo where he had trained in primary school, alternating with a rink three hours' drive north from his home. Concerns about radiation and where he would go to school remained.

To get more ice time in Japan, he appeared in some 60 shows around the nation before the rink was finally repaired in July 2011.

"I think my service to all those who were affected by the earthquake starts today, now that I'm an Olympic champion," said Hanyu, who did a double-take of the screens hanging backstage at the Iceberg Skating Palace when his victory was confirmed.

"I had the support of so many people to get here, and I want to pay them back somehow. I was on the top of the podium carrying the hopes of thousands, millions, and I feel great about that."

Just what he is capable of was apparent when he became the first skater at an international meet to smash the 100-point barrier in the men's short programme with an electrifying display to Gary Moore's Parisian Walkways. Twenty-four hours later, his performance was not quite as compelling but his rivals slipping and sliding, Hanyu overcame two mishaps in the free skate to strike gold.

It was a performance that was worth 280.09 points to the judges but was priceless to Japan's 127 million inhabitants.

"I'm so proud of this feat as a Japanese. The Olympics is so wild. I've never been this nervous for a competition in my entire life. I'm upset with the performance I had, but I left everything I had out there," said the country's new sporting hero.

Hanyu's boyish good looks and slender frame, at 1.72 metres and 54kg, conceal a steely determination that has helped him overcome not only the disaster but also the asthma that at one point limited his strength and training time.

Having skated since the age of four, Hanyu excels both at the athletic side of the sport - including the quadruple Salchow and quadruple toe loops that have become his trademarks - and fluid, elegant moves that highlight his long legs and arms.

In 2012, he began training with Brian Orser and switched his training base to Canada.

It was a relationship that Hanyu said "started with nothing but confusion" due to the language barrier. But he chose to persevere with the man who had not only won two Olympic silvers as an athlete but also guided Kim Yuna to the women's gold medal four years ago.