Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to experience Yuzuru Hanyu’s greatness

Yuzuru’s routine to Prince might not have been the best short program of the men’s event in terms of scores, but it was clearly the program of the day, of the Championships maybe, in terms of energy and response of the crowd. The noise was incredible during Yuzuru’s „Let’s Go Crazy” – and how could it not? This was the man most people in the audience came to see – including that lady in white jacket, speaking a soft, reverential English, traveling to Helsinki from a city near Mount Fuji; that lady that I accompanied to the arena before the men’s SP and, as a sign of friendship, she gave me a fridge magnet bearing Yuzuru’s face. She must have been upset that day – at the end of this particular segment of the men’s event, her favorite skater was sitting in 5th place – but she was clearly in awe two days later, when the Japanese performed a beauty of a long program, titled „Hope and Legacy”, broke the World record for the free skate (that he owned) and won the second World gold medal of his career.

by Florentina Tone/Helsinki

Under the Pooh-storm, on the afternoon of March 30 in Hartwall Arena, Yuzuru Hanyu looks disappointed. This wasn’t the start of Worlds that he’d envisioned. For this young man who keeps revolutionizing skating, perfection is the only option – and his short program in Helsinki wasn’t perfect.

Yet, it was a glorious, crazy routine, literally screaming enthusiasm and joy, one to definitely come back to when thinking about the defining moments of 2017 Worlds. One that showed Yuzuru Hanyu has turned into a brilliant performer.

Was it the guitar or the deafening roar of the audience?

At 16:53 on Thursday, the second day of Worlds, the big guns are at the door and, seconds after, on the ice. Yuzuru Hanyu will open group 6 of skaters, the final one – and, jacket on, he hardly manages to sit in line; he wants to move, to run away even from being presented to the audience. An acute sense of urgency accompanies him all throughout the 6-minute warm-up – he’s nervy, you can tell.

And then comes the ritual: shaking Brian Orser’s hand, patting Pooh on its yellow, fluffy head – his longtime companion needs to always be there, on the front row –, pushing his arms against the boards and heading for the center of the rink, for the so-appropriate “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today…”

…to experience some goosebumps.

Feverish faces behind colourful, meaningful banners, behind Japanese flags, thousands of fans are in for act one of Yuzuru Hanyu’s presence at 2017 Worlds.

And so are we, in the media tribune. And since this is such an eye-catching routine, you can only have the time to write down, in a rush, one or two things, to later help you recompose the electric atmosphere of those 2 minutes and 50 seconds.

Yuzuru’s inviting arms into the program.

His nonchalance while going for the quad loop, the flight – a purple, sparkling spinning top in the air of Hartwall Arena, and then the easiness of the spread eagle.

The shoulders moving rhythmically to Prince’s music. The noise. The screaming voices.

The glitch on the quad Sal, and the attempted recovery, arms above his head.

A triple Axel like no other.

And the complete madness of the final minute. Yuzuru’s palms around his mouth, imitating a shout, comes as an invite for the fans – and so people in the arena start to shout, accompanying the step sequence, the spins and the guitar. Turning a program into a memory.

At the end of it, someone writes on twitter: “Forecast: Pooh-bears”.

But under the Pooh-bears, when the euphoria is over, Yuzuru Hanyu looks rather down. Making little steps to the boards – where Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson await and let him be – he knows he’d left some good points on the table. But he also knows he gave it all, performance wise. “I was just happy to skate today”, he’ll later say behind the curtains. “Maybe not all jumps were so great, but I so much enjoyed skating”.

Two days after, he’ll start from scratch, delivering maybe one of the most memorable performances of this year’s edition of the Worlds. A thing of beauty, we should call it. As for the tactics – how do you come back from the disappointment of a 5th place after the short? – he’ll say simply: in the practices preceding the free skate, “I wanted to push myself very hard, but Brian told me not to, and maybe it paid off at the end”. It sure did, since the result was remarkable: “I demonstrated everything I was capable of for the moment, my whole package so to say”.

Royal Yuzuru

At 14:05 on Saturday, the Japanese opens the final group once again. And what follows is joy for the senses – with Yuzuru skating as if he were a beautiful haze in the forest, a breeze between the leaves. And even if one doesn’t know the story of the program, he’ll still perceive the lightness of it, the softness, the continuum.

“To focus for today’s performance I imagined myself somewhere at the river, I thought about nature”.

A performance that draws you into it. So different from the Prince routine, and yet so easily addictive.

“My free program music is rather quiet, it’s not the type of music that makes people excited too much, but I could hear the audience cheer for me. Especially in the last part, after the spin to the end, I was able to hear how everyone applauded”.

The Ina Bauer and then the final jump, the Lutz. The burst of joy, excitement – he’s done it, a perfect program – and his face in the ending pose, saying it all.

And then the roar. The flying gifts. The utter frenzy.

The girl that cries, fists pressing against her cheeks. The one that keeps throwing little toys from a bag. The one that mumbles over and over again, a big smile on her face: “Arigato! Arigato!”

As if no one can believe they have seen what they’ve just seen.

And when the scores show up, and it’s a World record for the free skate, Yuzuru Hanyu plunges his arms in the air with the little power he has left, and he seems like he’s about to cry. History was made again, and signs are he’ll continue to challenge his own records. In the press conference later on, he’ll address the unaddressable: five rotation-jumps, the “yonkaiten Axel”. With a smile, of course: “Someone told me that, scientifically, five rotations in the air are possible, but ISU hasn’t set a score for that yet. For myself, I would like to try a quad Axel in the future. I’m not sure if I would ever perform it in a competition, but I would like to try it”.

Who’s trying to catch who?

In between the constant noise made by the cameras’ shutter buttons being pressed in the media center, you also hear Yuzuru praising his opponents. “There is no doubt that Boyang pushed us all, because he did the quad Lutz and a clean performance. So people realized that it is possible, we can do the quad Lutz – it’s humanly possible. So he is responsible for pulling us all up to the level where we are today”. And then, when asked about the Olympic season’s challenges: “I’m pretty sure everyone will try out all sorts of different kind of things”. But then again, “after the short program here, we all know that Jason Brown did quite well without a quad and he was able to put himself in a pretty good position. So that really proved us that quads are not everything in figure skating”.

And then there’s this, his modesty, feet on the ground, when asked how is it to be the one the others try to catch: “People say that other skaters are catching up with me, but you can see that in the short program I actually tried to catch up with them. Today, neither Javier, nor Patrick were able to perform perfectly and they didn’t come here, but after the short program, Javier was in first place and Patrick in the third place, and also the younger skaters like Shoma, Boyang, and Nathan, they are all talented and everyone has their own strenghts. I am actually trying to catch up with many of the strengths of the other skaters”.

Sitting on his right, Shoma Uno smiles while listening to Yuzuru’s answer, and then shares his vision candidly: ”I have been practicing very hard, and my only motivation was to exceed Yuzuru’s skating. That was the only motivation. In the end, I feel I don’t have the complete package yet, so I just want to keep on growing, keep on practicing”.

Distinctive feature – a yellow teddy bear

…as if both Yuzuru Hanyu and Winnie-the-Pooh were going over the short program, seconds before the Japanese took the ice for the warm-up on March 30. The truth is the yellow teddy bear became Yuzuru’s ally – and almost his personal trademark. The fans know it, and act accordingly.

Among the final questions in Helsinki, one is about the Poohs – the immense quality of yellow bears Yuzuru received at Worlds, just like in any other competition he attends. He laughs, stops for a while to think, and answers with a smile: “I did not pick them up myself, but I feel happy that I got so many. The number of Poohs shows how many supporters I have”.

And they did colour the arena in yellow, Yuzuru’s fans.

No wonder, one of my last images from Helsinki consists in a pair of yellow teddy bears, pendants hanging from two ladies’ suitcases, in the airport, on Monday. A sign we shared the magic. And more than that, a symbol: the Championships might have ended a day before – but Yuzuru Hanyu’s story (and his fans’ commitment) surely goes on.


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