Sunday, February 23, 2014

Yuzuru Hanyu – The Newly Crowned Ice Prince

As the figure skating competitions for the Sochi Olympics came to full circle with the exquisite exhibition gala, I find myself overwhelmed by a myriad of emotions and needing the time and place to get the words out. Aside from the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, which is really the home games for me, the competitions this year have been the most emotional experience personally because of a single man/boy – the 19 year old rising star from Japan, Yuzuru Hanyu. 

I've always been a fan of figure skating, having discovered it by chance flipping through channels way back in 2004. It's such a beautiful and mesmerizing sport to watch. You don't need to understand the technicalities to appreciate and enjoy what it has to offer because figure skating is as much about the competitions as it is the art. I try to get my fixes when I can, but I skipped the last two World Championships because of school. It's pretty much an afterthought by the time I realize it already happened. Well, I guess in that sense, I'm a pretty horrible fan, especially with our very own ice heros Patrick Chan, Tessa & Scott competing to stand at the top. Not just on the side, but the top. But it is not Canadian pride that brings the biggest pangs of regrets, but the realization that I have missed an opportunity to discover Yuzuru – an absolute gem in the skating world – and consequently his first two World Championships after he joined the senior rank. So thank you Sochi Olympics for being an event so significant I couldn't bring myself to miss it no matter how scatterbrained I am. 

Simply put, I was spell-bound while watching Yuzuru's SP for the team event. I have never seen anyone skate with so much ease. He wasn't just relaxed – that would have been the easier part – he was fully immersed in the moment and enjoyed the effects he had on the judges and the audience. Ha, call him a showoff, but this is a stage where over-pouring confidence is celebrated. This is where one should broadcast their confidence without any reservation, and that's exactly what Yuzuru did. It's a performance like no other and he was rightfully awarded for it. In that very moment, I almost forgot my why I was there – to cheer for my fellow Canadian Patrick Chan, who by the way, also put on an impressive skate. Heading into the final, I knew Patrick had to fight with everything he has if he wishes to take that gold medal home, because Yuzuru is gifted with something unique, a power that bubbles deep within him and is all at once unstoppable once unleashed. 

I will be honest, when Yuzuru fell not only once, but twice, among other stumbles here and there, I was devastated but at the same time slightly relieved because now Patrick had the edge he needed to claim the top of the podium. I think Patrick made a grab for it, but was ultimately weighed down by the same pressure, the same suffocating atmosphere that plagued every skater who came before. They both fought hard to stay on their feet, but my biased vote goes to Yuzuru for his style and unrelenting spirit that saved almost all his jumps after the second slip. It must have taken a whole lot of will power to accomplish what he did. In my opinion, Patrick had a sloppier performance overall and he struggled harder to pull it together, which resulted in less falls but more stumbles. 

In the past few days, I committed myself to watch every Yuzuru skate I could find on youtube and have been enchanted over and over again. Let's forget his adorable antics, boyish looks and heart-melting smiles for a second (although they are part of his charm, I admit.), and just focus on his skating. Yuzuru doesn't so much engage the audience the way his teammate Takahashi or Russian legend Plushenko does, rather he is a master in weaving together a moment in which the audience gets lost in. Well, not only the audience, he is so caught up in his own spell sometimes he makes some baffling mistakes you wouldn't normally see from skaters of his competitive level. No, he doesn't have the precision and straight-forwardness of Patrick Chan's style, nor does he live up to the rich, carefully crafted artistry characteristic of past legends such as Evgeni Plushenko and Johnny Weir. But he stands his own as one of the most mesmerizing skaters I've seen in my short time as a figure skating fan. That raw, unpolished passion on ice is precisely what makes Yuzuru Hanyu so fascinating to watch. He's a free spirit, sometimes gentle, sometimes fierce – but like the wind, never predictable. Even his falls and missteps are part of the chaotic but graceful package that is unique to him and him alone. He has been gifted with a small, slender physique that works to his advantage, allowing him light jumps and fast spins. And his flexibility lends a feminine quality to his overall skating style. Is he a good textbook example? Not really, at least I don't think so. He possesses a natural affinity with ice and music, which is a talent I believe to be innate and can't be taught or replicated. The Yuzuru style is loose and unrestrained, sometimes to the point I forget he's skating a choreographed program for a competition. This is a guy who was born to live by the ice and the art it inspired.

One of my concerns (and not sure whether it's a valid one) is that he seems to tire more easily than other skaters. It's not uncommon to see him running out of steam nearing the end of his program. The asthma is probably partially responsible, and the way he stacks jumps in the second half of his program to gain the extra 10% must be physically demanding. But this is also where he shines the most brightly. Yuzuru is a fighter, he doesn't allow himself to fall apart, and you always get the sense that he tries to exhaust every ounce of strength left in the reserve to complete the program. It is with this fearless attitude that he was able save his jumps even after crashing hard (like..very hard) on to the ice attempting the quad-salchow. It is how he won the Grand Prix final and the Olympics even without a perfect program, and it is why he's so loved. You can't help but cheer for him and smile with him at the end of the program. 

The competitive career of figure skating is short-lived, and I desperately wish time would somehow stop for Yuzuru, so he can grow his art without age ever getting in his way. But I guess the transient nature of figure skating, and of many sports, is part of the magic that captivates us. What does the future has in store? I have no idea and that's the best part of being a fan. There is so much talent to be cultivated here and I'm more than excited to watch Yuzuru mature and reach the pinnacle of his career. 

On a side note, I think Nanami Abe's choreography works better for Yuzuru than David Wilson's (see White Legend and Romeo & Juliet). Nanami-sensei choreographs a lot of contrast into her programs; alternating between light and dark, soft and hard, fast and slow. The pace and movements fully bring out and highlight Yuzuru's style.

Overall, it has been a great Olympics from the figure skating shore. Plushenko's retirement is sad but wholly derserved. He did a lot more for Russia than he had to really. He made history in his time and is now more than ready to pass on his baton to the next generation of skaters. It would have been great if the ladies event didn't end with so much drama, but hey, this is the Olympics. Then there is Mao Asada, who picked herself up after the disastrous SP and put forward such a beautiful and emotionally stirring performance that I will remember for many years to come. It was also great to see Denis Ten (another skater with both style and technicality) standing on the podium after years of hard work to win a medal for a country that's more or less not on the figure skating map. It's regrettable that Patrick couldn't bring home that gold medal and break the Canadian curse, but a silver is nothing to be ashamed of. 

1 comment:

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with you here, and went pretty much through the same experience while landing my eyes on Yuzuru the first time thanks to the Olympics. I literally stopped dead in whatever I was doing (I was following figure skating with a very lazy eye) and kept my eyes riveted to the screen until the end. The funny thing is that it was during his free skate : I actually fell in love with him because of his falls there and the way he pulled up a fight to the end in his oh so graceful way. The boy has a very rare gift : the ability of drawing the audience instantly to him, because he is beauty on ice, and even more so when he falls and remind us he is not perfect, but just extraordinarily human.