Yes, he can. His Majesty Yuzuru Hanyu

Yuzuru Hanyu Practice December 12 (14)

And now it’s 110.95, the World record score for the men’s short program, 219.48 for the free and 330.43 for the combined total. And for those asking themselves if Yuzuru Hanyu would ever replicate his heavenly performance from NHK Trophy, here’s your definitive answer: Yes, he can. And not on Japanese soil, breathing that special, je ne sais quoi air in the Olympic arena in Nagano, but in Barcelona, at 2015 Grand Prix Final, the fifth final of his career – and the third one he wins in a row, a feat that has never been done before. But CCIB arena in Spain sure looked a bit like one at home for Yuzuru Hanyu, with tens of red dots, aka Japanese flags, and encouraging posters showing up from nowhere at the beginning and the end of his programs – two masterpieces entering the history of the discipline.

The truth is Yuzuru Hanyu is definitely a generous, inspiring young man, continuously offering emotions, and feeding himself with the response of the public. „I owe my performance to the audience”, he said, humbly, during the winner’s interview in Barcelona, adding with that childish, natural spontaneity that made him adored by his legions of fans: „I was a flower boy at NHK Trophy when I was little. I was dreaming to be like Plushenko or Johnny Weir or Alexei Yagudin, some top skaters. So please, please don’t give up skating, practicing or dreaming”.

by Florentina Tone/Barcelona

In Barcelona, at this year’s edition of the Grand Prix Final, Yuzuru Hanyu seemed readier than ever, showing the utmost focus and determination even during practice sessions, not missing a single jump and landing quads right under the nose of the Olympic silver medalist, Canada’s Patrick Chan; and for those studying the art of war (in skating), this might have been one of Yuzuru’s tactics to shatter his opponents’ confidence even before the actual competition. Because the 21-year-old Japanese is a warrior on skates, that’s undisputed – and those fierce eyes, among his powerful weapons.

Yuzuru Hanyu Practice December 12 (12)

A raindrop – and the incredible response of the audience
And when the music started, that airy, soothing piano „Ballade no. 1”, raindrops falling on a clear surface of water, Yuzuru Hanyu was one with Chopin’s music, a raindrop himself. The ineffable beauty of this particular program – one blending the athleticism and artistry – will forever remain as one of the biggest moments of this edition of the GPF, and each of the 5.000 people in the audience, lucky and grateful for being a part of the magic. Because that really was magical, Yuzuru’s performance – magical and efortless, warming the viewers’ hearts.

And the arena erupted like a volcano at the end of the routine – and Yuzuru himself took the time to applaud what he’d just done, and then he raised his hands parallel to the ice, as if he wanted to embrace each and every one in the public; from the Kiss and Cry area, Brian Orser responded to the imaginary embrace. He’ll hug his student later – for now, he’s applauding his own way, hitting ritmically the boards with his right palm; the left hand carries Yuzuru’s jacket and blades’ covers. „Wow!”, the coach looks in complete amazement when Yuzuru hits the boards, and then Orser goes assisting his other student, Spain’s Javier Fernández, the last one to take the ice for the short program. „Vamos, Javi!”, Yuzuru yells, punching his fist in the air and asking the audience to quiet down and let his teammate concentrate.

Yuzuru Hanyu SP 2015 GPF December 10 (5)

Yuzuru Hanyu SP 2015 GPF December 10 (8)

A golden bear - aka Winnie-the-Pooh that Yuzuru Hanyu loves so much - landed in the judges' area, but found its way to the ice eventually...

A golden bear – aka Winnie-the-Pooh that Yuzuru Hanyu loves so much – landed in the judges’ area, but found its way to the ice eventually…

…and just because they needed to put a scores tag on Yuzuru’s short program – the rules of the game, of course – the judges gave him 110.95 points, the highest of all times, and only positive GOEs (out of the 63 GOEs awarded, +2 was given for 14 times; the rest were only +3, the maximum). As for the 10-s, the perfect 10-s, the Japanese received no less than 22 of them, most of them for Performance/Execution, Choreography/Composition and Interpretation. But this is all mathematics, and we should leave mathematics aside – because Yuzuru Hanyu was by far the king of the castle on December 10: at the end of the night, the second-placed skater, Javier Fernández, was way behind (19.43 points, to be exact).

Shoulder to shoulder
At the press conference after the short, the teammates are shoulder to shoulder. Literally. And, very quickly, the inevitable question pops in: how was it for the Spaniard to skate after Yuzuru’s World record score performance? Javier smiles, Yuzuru smiles too – and everyone’s waiting for the answer; which is open, candid, showing a great sense of comradery between the two. „To skate after Yuzu is always hard and tricky, as there is always so much stuff on the ice and he always skates really well, and people are amazed…”

That’s it, that’s exactly it, one of our dearest images from this edition of the Grand Prix Final, Hanyu affectionately following Javier’s answer. Under the scrutiny of the journalists in the room, under the curious, warm eyes of Yuzuru, the Spaniard continues: „It’s hard to say if I was a little bit more nervous skating after Yuzu, seeing those scores and thinking: It doesn’t matter what I do, I’m not going to get higher than that. It is hard. And the first thing I did stepping on the ice was fall. Put my toe pick on the ice and Boom!…” He laughs: „But you never know, every competition is different… Yuzuru is a lot of points ahead – and I hope I’ll have a good performance tomorrow. I know he is very consistent, but I’ll try anyway”.

Press conference after SP 2015 GPF December 10 (4)

As for the Japanese, though he looked focused and composed when taking the ice, he was anything but composed, as he himself recalled in the press conference room: „Actually I was very nervous and spent most of the 30 seconds I had [before the start of the performance] trying to relax, but I wasn’t just focusing on relaxing, I was thinking of skating in a different environment and skating like myself”. And if he was unhappy about a specific detail, that was the step sequence getting a level 3, and, during the actual performance, „rather than getting more points, I wanted to perfect the elements”.

The cookie
It’s another day in the press room at GPF Barcelona – and the Japanese journalists surrounding me have surely had a long night after Yuzuru Hanyu’s short program entered the books. And here’s the thing: with Yuzuru, the history of the discipline changes every two weeks, and the Japanese journalists, wherever country they might be in, are working as hard as their star, recording, taking pictures, compiling tens of pieces of news. Like the bees in a hive, these people are really the heart and soul of the press room, any press room, and their efforts are, maybe, one of the reasons the sport is so popular in Japan. A couple of computers further, two journalists have some rest, their heads on the keyboards, while others chat, and the lady across me is giving me a cookie. I can’t help but add with a smile: „Eating this cookie would make me land a quad, right?”. My remark gets translated into Japanese, and everyone laughs heartily. It’s a good week to break more records in Barcelona.

On December 12, the men’s competition resumes – and Yuzuru Hanyu’s the last to take the ice, skating to music from the movie „Onmyoji” and embodying the Japanese astronomer Abe no Seimei. The arena is on fire: Spain’s Javier Fernández had just had the skate of his life (being awarded 201.43 points for his performance, only the second person to break the200-point barrier in the men’s free skating; and the first European to do so), and Yuzuru’s trying to find his composure in that loud arena, with people chanting and stomping their feet. In the 6-minute warm-up, the Japanese misses the triple loop – first time that happens – but then he retaliates to land a gorgeous triple Axel, his eyes more than telling, „Look at me, I will not be crushed”. And, from now one, everything Yuzuru does on the ice is just foot-perfect. And the men’s free skate at 2015 Grand Prix Final – at least, the four final skates, of Patrick Chan, Shoma Uno, Javier Fernández and Yuzuru Hanyu – is a glorious night for figure skating; if not, indeed, the glorious of all. Fans and skaters, junior and seniors altogether, spontaneously raise to their feet in amazement – the press stands were scanty during the men’s free and the interest for this event, undescribable.

2015 GPF Barcelona (16)

Raising his forefinger as in NHK Trophy – the fans are already having banners with Yuzuru’s (trademark) gesture (see above) – the Japanese approaches the boards and then lies exhausted in the Kiss and Cry, only to burst into tears when seeing the scores: 219.48 for his free skate and 330.43 for the combined total. Only positive GOEs again, and 24 scores of 10. No one has ever been even close to that. From the winners’ couch backstage, Javier Fernández pays his respect to his teammate and, minutes later, they’ll find each other on the same steps of the podium as last year, with that minor detail separating the two competitions in Barcelona: historical scores had been awarded for both the gold and silver medalists.

With all this aura surrounding Yuzuru Hanyu, one might forget about the triumphant feat of the bronze medalist, Japan’s Shoma Uno, only 17 years of age on the night of the free skate. Shoma was crowned last year the Junior Grand Prix Final champion – Barcelona seems to be a lucky charm to him too – and then, in Tallinn, he won the gold at Junior Worlds. At the first senior Grand Prix Final of his career, Shoma Uno skated his heart out and took the bronze, a medal that speaks mountains of his talent and incredible potential for the future. All three medalists seemed to have the time of their lives on the podium – with Yuzuru and Shoma sharing a joke known only by themselves – and their joy and enthusiasm are easy traceable in the photos below.

Medals ceremony men 2015 GPF December 12 (8)

On the podium at 2015 GPF December 12 (1)

On the podium at 2015 GPF December 12 (2)

On the podium at 2015 GPF December 12 (4)

The remainders of a glorious day
Minutes later, in the press conference room, all three men look completely dried-out; the amazing level of the free skate absorbed every bit of their energy – and here they are now, talking, laughing, yawning. Centimeters of them, my recorder keeps track of everything and chronicles the remainders of a historical night for figure skating. You can hear Yuzuru’s staccato humming: „I’m very, very tired”, Javier’s smiling confession, „People, I’m asleep”, and the muffled laughter shared by the three. Shoma yawns, his palms covering his nose and mouth – and the organizers let us know, from time to time, „People, these are the last questions. Yuzuru has to go to doping”. The warning is in vain – the interest in the final, in the medalists and their history-making feats is absolutely huge; they’ll leave the room only after the big questions are answered.

„I felt very nervous before my performance because I heard the loud audience for Javi’s performance”, a smiling Yuzuru Hanyu tells the journalists in English. „I am exhausted now, but I did an almost perfect performance today, so I am satisfied”. Keep in mind that „almost perfect performance”, a couple of minutes later he’ll be asked to explain himself. Yuzuru’s answer in Japanese is followed by a good share of laughter from his countrymen in the room; and, again, laughter when the answer gets translated: „My step sequence in the free program, as in the short, was level 3. Also I need to perfect my English!”. At his right, Javier can’t help adding with regard to that level bothering the champion: „Feels like one point!”. Yuzuru bursts into laughter.

Medalists press conference 2015 GPF December 12 (7)

“The score is the score and my performance is my performance”
Leaving aside the laughter, Yuzuru’s answer speaks volumes for his mind-set, for the mind-set of a champion. He’d just stated in the winner’s interview, in the Kiss and Cry, right after his historical free skate: „I want to do a perfect performance in every competition. I feel like, the score is the score and my performance is my performance”. In the press conference, a Chinese journalist reminds him of a statement he’d made after NHK Trophy, according to which he wanted to be “the absolute king, the absolute majesty”, and Yuzuru agrees to elaborate on that: “I don’t exactly feel like the absolute majesty. But I always want to perform my best and be number one, of course. But for the free program today I was putting pressure on myself, from the world record I made in NHK. Still, during the free program I was actually released from that pressure, and I just started feeling like: I can do what I can do for now and, so, I was able to perform quite well, I think; and everyone gave me energy, helping me give that performance”.

One more question specifically regards the free skate – and the 2015 Grand Prix Final champion takes his time to give a very detailed answer: „The free program was choreographed by Shae-Lynn Bourne after she watched the Japanese movie «Seimei» – the program is to the soundtrack [of the movie]. She picked up some of the signature movements from the main character, and it may not be exactly a Japanese traditional movement, but it was taken from some of the scenes of the film, for instance making the hand sign that I’m showing you; but I’m using just the two fingers, instead of the whole palm. This way they use some sort of sutra to fight with a negative spirit, and sometimes they put a piece of paper between the fingers, used as a type of chanting sutra. Especially for the first and last pose of my program, that is when it is shown”.

Medalists press conference 2015 GPF December 12 (11)

“I am just going to skate and do my best”
But the journalists in the room share an equal interest in Javier Fernández and his performance at this year’s edition of the GPF. For the second time in a row – and for the second time in Barcelona, the Spaniard took the silver medal, skating an amazing long program in front of a very supportive audience, cheering, waving flags and chanting „Jaaaavi! Jaaaavi!”.

During the press conference, Javier looks proud of himself and his teammate: „Well, after the short program, I knew Yuzuru was really far away already and coming in today I was like: There’s nothing I [can do]… I’m just going to skate like myself and let’s see what happens. If he does a great program, there is nothing I can do about it. Because, you know, our free programs are so close technically, with almost the same elements, that if he skates well it is impossible for me to get 20 points more than him in the free program. So I was really calm and I thought: I am just going to skate and do my best. And I think I skated great, I did everything that was planned in the program. And it has been a long time since I performed a clean free program, so I was glad I could do that at this competition and show people that I can skate really well”.

But Javier Fernández’s answer in English still needs to be translated in Spanish, for the Spanish journalists in the room, and the silver medalists does that too, adding nuances, to make the answer even more complete: „With the difference between Yuzuru and me after the short, I knew it would be very difficult for me to win this event if we’re both doing a great long program. And that’s the way it was: he had an amazing program, I myself skated an amazing program, and we all know the result. But I’m very thankful for the fact that I could skate a free program like this one, here, in Barcelona”.

Later on, when talking about the quad toe/quad salchow in the long program, Javier is excused from translating his answer to Spanish – it’s really late and „Yuzuru really needs to go to doping” – so the Spaniard looks relieved. He mumbles to Yuzu: „Good, because I don’t even remember what I said…” – and they share smiling, accomplice looks. At the end of the press conference, surrounded by Spanish journalists, Javier Fernández is asked to elaborate on his relation with Yuzuru Hanyu – and he generously does so: „We are rivals, yes, but we are getting along fine, we train together, we share the same ice… If he has a terrible day, I’ll comfort him, and he’ll do the same for me; especially when the coach is not at the arena, he’s at a competition with some other skater. We help each other, we try to correct things that don’t work. We are competitors, opponents, but at the same time we share so many of our time together and we want the best for each of us”.

Medalists press conference 2015 GPF December 12 (15)

Medalists press conference 2015 GPF December 12 (8)

„Shoma, smile!”
As for Shoma Uno, the surprise bronze medalist at this year’s edition of the GPF – surprise, if we take into account that Patrick Chan, 2014 Olympic silver medalist, was too in Barcelona – he looked as if he was about to doze off during the press conference; the phenomenal efforts he’d put into his free skate wanted to take their toll. Junior Grand Prix Final champion a year ago, in the same arena, he’s taken the bronze at the first senior Grand Prix Final of his career. Is he happy about the outcome? Yes, he is – but with a footnote. „I am satisfied with my free program performance today, and very happy with how I skated tonight. But I still think about my short program and I regret that, so that will be my assignment to work on for my next competition. […] I don’t have much time till the Japanese Nationals, but I think there are a lot of things that I can work on. It would be nice to repeat the performance I gave today, but, at the same time, today’s performance was not really my maximum, I think I can do better and so I would like to prove that”.

And that’s that, the press conference ends with the traditional photo of the champions. The 17-year-old Shoma Uno is utterly drained, so a photographer looking for the perfect snapshot asks him: „Shoma, smile!”. The more experienced Yuzuru wants to be of help and, like an elder brother, pinches Shoma’s cheek to make him smile. Mission accomplished: as tired as he is, the bronze medalist smiles, and so is everyone else in the room. And the symbolic circle is now closed: a year before, at the end of the Grand Prix Final exhibition in Barcelona, Yuzuru Hanyu had raised Shoma Uno’s hands in the air, teaching him to wave to the audience…

Medalists press conference 2015 GPF December 12 (19)

Medalists press conference 2015 GPF December 12 (21)

Medalists press conference 2015 GPF December 12 (25)

The actual end of the men's press conference at 2015 GPF: Yuzuru Hanyu, stopped by the Japanese journalists for a final round of questions&answers...

The actual end of the men’s press conference at 2015 GPF: Yuzuru Hanyu, stopped by the Japanese journalists for a final round of questions&answers…

PHOTO GALLERY Yuzuru Hanyu at the 2015 Grand Prix Final in Barcelona