What a roller coaster of a week this has been – and I loved every second of it. Of course, through the thousands of seconds spent in Barcelona, at this year’s edition of the Grand Prix Final, some have been more powerful, joyous, emotional than others; so, here it is, a short list of precious moments, wonderful times and memories to cherish at least until the next edition of the event; if not for more.
by Florentina Tone
Not a day had passed in Barcelona, at the Grand Prix Final, and I’d already lived a gorgeous moment, singing „Happy Birthday!” to Yuzuru Hanyu, alongside Japanese journalists. Yuzuru had just turned 20 on December 7th and the journalists decided to surprise him, showing up from nowhere with a birthday cake, at the end of his interview for the Japanese televisions – and I just happened to be there while it happened.
Not knowing a word in Japanese (no, I do know some: „Arigato gozaimashta” and „4 Kaiten”), I just stood there, watching Takahito Mura, Tatsuki Machida and Yuzuru Hanyu talk at the end of their practice session – and trying to guess what they were saying. All of a sudden, a cake appeared somewhere in the back, carefully guarded from Yuzuru’s eyes – and when he finished talking, people starting singing. He did receive his cake with a large smile on his face – and I bet everyone in the room smiled at that point. Is the language of joy universal or what?
The following days, my Japanese joys continued with the wonderful performances of Wakaba Higuchi, a 13-year-old skater from Tokyo, who won the bronze medal in the Junior ladies’ event. Skating an impressive, sparkling “czardas” as the short program and, a day later, a confident, powerful routine to Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F, Wakaba took home a medal and won me as her fan. Such a joy of skating and such a great attitude on ice Wakaba has – I was definitely conquered. She is little indeed – her feet not touching the ground while seated in the press conference room after the free skating – but she’ll grow into becoming an amazing skater, I already know that.
You should have guessed that by now: I’m not at all done with the joyous moments offered by the Japanese skaters in Barcelona. In the Junior men’s event, Shoma Uno was absolutely exquisite, delivering an amazing free program to “Don Juan de Marco”, having an enthusiastic arena on his side and winning the gold, at his first participation in the Junior Grand Prix Final. He’d started the competition with a third place after the short program (to “Violin Sonata No. 9” by Kreutzer) and with a very shaky practice, in the morning of his free skate – a practice that spread anxiety amongst his fans in CCIB arena. Well, hours later, Shoma Uno turned that worrying practice into gold, nailing a foot-perfect routine and becoming the 2014 Junior Grand Prix Final Champion. Years from now – when he’ll be as famous as his favorite skater, Daisuke Takahashi – Shoma will remember Barcelona, I’m sure.
And a colored, lovely detail to end the story: Shoma finished the event exactly as he started it, alongside team mate Sota Yamamoto. On December 10, a day before the official opening of GPF, he watched the seniors’ practice in a stand alongside Sota: they spent their time in the arena paying attention to Rika Hongo’s skate, looking respectfully at Yuzuru Hanyu (wearing headphones and waiting for his turn to enter the ice for practice), making jokes and funny faces to the photographer (yeap, that’s me). Two days later, Shoma Uno and Sota Yamamoto shared the podium of the Junior men (gold for Shoma, silver for Sota), smiling and laughing, seated, again, side by side in the press conference room after the event.
With these moments in mind, let me tell you that Japanese was probably the second most spoken language in CCIB arena, that numerous were the fans accompanying the Japanese skaters at this year’s edition of the Grand Prix Final. And it was definitely a wonderful thing to live and share the joyous moments of the event in a sea of Japanese flags – they do have the reputation of being the most enthusiastic figure skating fans in the world.
Japan had nine athletes in Barcelona (4 in the Senior events in 5 in the Junior GPF) – and a battalion of fans and media representatives. The journalists followed their skaters incessantly, with fervour and curiosity – and even had an improvised studio in the upper part of the arena, where Nobunari Oda, among others, commented the performances. As a European journalist in Barcelona, I was thoroughly impressed with their interest in skaters and figure skating as a whole; now that’s a country that really loves the sport and I for one was ecstatic to be around them – and by them I mean skaters, fans, journalists.
Looking in retrospect at the entire panel of events in Barcelona, there was a particular one that gave me goose bumps in its entirety and not through individual performances (as it usually happens): the Senior short dance. The audience greeted the dancers with tons of enthusiasm and delight, and rightly so: the dancers were about to skate Flamenco/Paso Doble in Barcelona – and what better public to witness this than the one in CCIB arena? “We are skating for a public that knows the Paso, so they make good judges”, said the French ice dancer Guillaume Cizeron on the day of the short dance, and this particular phrase is actually an indicator of the overall atmosphere.
People shouting “Olé!”, “Torero!”, “Guapi!”, ladies waving fans and throwing stuffed toys on the ice, Spanish flags everywhere in the arena – that was a memorable short dance for both the skaters and the public. There you have some of the ice dancers’ impressions, written down moments after their performances; they had definitely felt the public’s support. Paul Poirier on twitter: “Ramblas, tapas, cathedrals, but nothing compares to performing the Paso Doble in Spain. Thank you Barcelona for the warm welcome!”. Alex Shibutani on twitter: “Barcelona, Maia Shibutani and I loved skating for you last night. Thank you for the incredible atmosphere. We felt your energy!”
I have a confession to make: my camera fell in love with Elena Radionova, I just couldn’t stop it from incessantly taking pictures of this lovely young lady from Russia, who is about to turn 16 on January 6. Actually, regarding her age, Elena said in all seriousness during the press conference after the free skate: “I’m not so young now, I’m nearly 16 and there are younger girls doing triple-triple combinations, so I’m not doing anything extraordinary”. This particular answer proves how mature she actually is – and you could sense that even during practices in Barcelona, with Elena rehearsing her elements over and over again and, at the same time, enjoying the experience of the Grand Prix Final with all her heart; and with a large smile on her face.
Her Rachmaninov free program is too a proof of maturity; some say this music is too big for her – I say it’s a gorgeous choice, matching wonderfully her style of skating, her long lines and posture on the ice. And watching this particular program, both in practice and on the day of the free skate, proved to be one of the most memorable moments of this edition of the Grand Prix Final: that much I like it, that much it moves me. My addiction to Sergei Rachmaninov’s music might have something to do with it, of course, but this routine, so dense, so intense, gave me goose bumps and I see in Elena Radionova one of the greatest skaters of the future. You might have noticed that with your own eyes (and I do understand the power she has on me and my camera): this (almost) 16-year-old Russian skater, with her smile and her little bun on the crown of her head, fills the frame whenever the camera is following her – and fills the ice too with enthusiasm and emotions.
The men’s event was – as it usually happens – the highlight of the entire GPF in Barcelona. Weeks before the Grand Prix Final, there were no tickets left for Saturday, the day hosting the free programs of all the Senior skaters; and the presence of the Spanish Javier Fernandez might, of course, have had something to do with it…
Well, two days before this particular day, during the men’s short programs, the enthusiastic, noisy audience had crashed Javier: not at all familiar with the reaction of the home public (it was Javier’s first skate in front of the home crowd during a figure skating event such as this one), the 23-year-old skater from Madrid fell into pieces: Javier failed to land his opening quad Salchow, turned his triple Lutz-triple Toe combination into a double-triple one and even seemed to stumble at a certain point; as if someone had poured him lead in his legs. “Javi, te queremos! Javi, te queremos!” [Javi, we love you!], the public shouted while Javier was heading disappointed to the boards. One thing crossed my mind then: Yuzuru Hanyu should have advised his team mate Javi how to deal with the pressure; after all, the Japanese skaters receive this kind of enthusiastic support from the home crowd every time they step on to the ice. Javier hadn’t been ready for that – and, days later, he’d confess: “It was my first time skating in such a big competition in my country and that’s maybe why I was a little bit shocked in the short program when I came to the ice. By the free program I was already expecting it. These guys [pointing to Yuzuru Hanyu and Sergei Voronov] are used to it but for me it was the first time”.
The free program – as Javier said it – was a completely different story: knowing what to expect, the Spaniard tried really hard to turn the power from the crowd into his program; and, for the most part, he succeeded, delivering a powerful performance that led him eventually on the second place; and witnessing Javier’s joy, in an arena full of Spanish flags, was probably one of the best moments of this year’s edition of the Grand Prix Final. Olé!
Of course, this particular list of joys would not be complete without expressing my utter admiration for Yuzuru Hanyu, this 20-year-old skater from Japan who doesn’t cease to amaze me. It has been a terrible season for Yuzuru prior to the Grand Prix Final: his horrendous accident in Cup of China, when he and Han Yan crashed into each other during warm-up, put the skating world on hold, with so many people showing their concern to both of the skaters’ health. Three weeks later after Yuzuru skated in Shanghai with a giant bandage wrapped around his head – and you do know my opinion on that – he showed up at NHK Trophy not completely recovered from the accident, barely managing to clinch to the fourth place, 0.15 of a point in front of the American Jeremy Abbott. Those 0.15 opened the door of the Grand Prix Final for Yuzuru Hanyu, whose efforts to get into the final six skaters in Barcelona were, here and there, almost painful to watch.
But he did manage to squeeze in – and, in Barcelona, at this year’s edition of the Grand Prix Final, Yuzuru Hanyu was almost a different person; the Yuzuru Hanyu we all know from the previous seasons, the Olympic champion who found his enthusiasm and joy while skating. Though not absolutely perfect in his short program – he failed to land his triple Lutz-triple Toe combination – Yuzuru Hanyu skating to Chopin’s Ballade no. 1 was an absolute joy to watch. This particular program is one of my favorites this season – and I’m thrilled I could watch it live in Barcelona. Yuzuru himself was happy: “I felt happy with the skate because when I did NHK and China I was not focused on my condition and body, but today I felt very comfortable and relaxed and I was very focused for this competition”. As for the music, that ethereal, soothing music, like rain drops falling on a clear surface of water, Yuzuru said in all sincerity: “I don’t think I could have skated to this music when I was young at all. When I was given this piano music for the first time I thought it was just beautiful, but, at first, skating to it and feeling the three beats was not easy, especially as I have no experience playing the piano. But today I felt that the music was with me. I love this music and I really enjoyed performing to it”.
A day later, after he’d skated an “almost perfect” free program, to music from the “Phantom of the Opera”, Yuzuru Hanyu’s joy was almost palpable: seeing the giant scores for his performance, Yuzuru hugged his coach, thrust his fists in the air and thanked every part of the arena for the support he’d received during the routine. It was redemption time for Yuzuru after such a worrying start of the season – and part of his joy surely came from the fact his friend and team mate Javier Fernandez won the silver medal on home ground. During the medals ceremony, the public in CCIB arena went absolutely nuts, shouting, clapping and showing their support for all three medalists – Yuzuru Hanyu Javier Fernandez, Sergei Voronov – and, looking back, this might have been one of the most joyous medals ceremonies I have ever attended.
For me, the Grand Prix Final ended exactly as it began, as if I were drawing a complete circle in Barcelona: back against the wall, facing three TV cameras, Yuzuru Hanyu, the star of this edition of the GPF, answers the Japanese journalists’ questions, 15 minutes before the Gala. “Aprendiste japonés?” [Have you learned Japanese?], a Spanish journalist asks me with a smile – and we both laugh. Actually, I haven’t – but, in a way, I feel like I did, so familiar this language has become during the week spent in Barcelona.
During the Gala, Yuzuru Hanyu has a particular (and surprising) task to carry on: wearing a t-shirt in Spain’s national colors, he amusingly introduces Javier Fernandez to the audience in CCIB arena. In Spanish. Yes, in Spanish: “Hola, Barcelona! Medalla de plata, de Espana, Javier Fernandez!” And Javier Fernandez does the same for Yuzuru at the end of the Gala, describing his team mate as a “conquistador nato” [a born conqueror]. They laugh, we all laugh. Later during the afternoon, while preparing for the official gold medalists’ picture, Yuzuru Hanyu – as if he were the host – helps Shoma Uno fit in and relax: the 2014 Junior Grand Prix Final Champion looks out of his element, so Yuzuru takes Shoma’s right hand and puts it on Sergei Mozgov’s shoulder while posing for the photographers; but the stubborn hand still can’t find its place and stays somehow suspended in the air (and I wish you could see this particular picture from the back too…). During the tour of honor, Shoma still feels out of place, so Yuzuru steps in again, raising his younger colleague’s hands in the air and teaching him to wave to the public, as if he were passing a torch to the 17-year-old… And he does one more thing: he pushes Javi on the ice for an additional tour of honor: the Spaniard deserves it, the audience deserves it too. So, thank you, Yuzuru Hanyu, you’ve been a wonderful master of ceremonies in Barcelona. And what a joyous week this has been – I’m so grateful to have shared it with so many people loving figure skating. See you all next time.