SOCHI, Russia - On a night when attrition deserved a place on the victory stand next to jitters and nerves, Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu won men's figure skating gold by making fewer critical errors than silver medalist Patrick Chan of Canada. While both men put up dizzying numbers with stellar short programs on Thursday, including Hanyu’s world record score of 101.45, both skaters nervously stumbled through long programs that had highlights and lowlights. Kazakhstan’s Denis Ten, the world silver medalist who’d been baffled by a bizarre infection all season, rallied from ninth place with a strong long program to win bronze.
“I’m not very happy with my performance, I was nervous,” Hanyu confessed, “but I got the gold medal. I got the Japanese flag to put on the flag pole.”
The evening marked a changing of guard as Hanyu, 19, reached his first Olympic podium and Chan, a three-time world champ, continued his country’s baffling history of near misses at the Olympics, while facing questions about missing out on the one prize that has eluded him.
For Hanyu, the youngest Olympic champ since 18-year-old Dick Button who won it in 1948, the title was also a tribute to his hometown of Sendai -- a town that was so devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that his rink closed, his parents were without electricity and he moved to Canada to train.
“I seriously thought about quitting skating,” Hanyu said. “I seriously had my hands full making a living.”
Several members of the skating community pitched in, including Shizuka Arakawa, the ladies champion in 2006, who grew up in the same town.
“From here on because I became a gold medalist at the Olympics,” Hanyu said, “perhaps this is going to be the start of what I can do for the recovery going forward.”
Maybe it was the somber memory of his hometown or the manner in which no top skater seized the occasion with a great performance, but it was rare to see a row of medalists apologizing after their efforts in the long programs.
“This was a missed opportunity for sure,” Chan said, “and just because I missed this one this time around doesn’t define my career.”
There were two separate competitions entering the evening, one between Hanyu and Chan for gold and silver, and the other among most of the field for a bronze medal. After Thursday’s short program, Hanyu led Chan by 3.93 points with a gap of 10.54 to Spain’s Javier Fernandez in third. The margin between Fernandez and Japan’s Tatsuki Machida in 11th place was just 3.50, leaving much of the field in the hunt for a podium position.
The nerves were apparent before the long programs began. As the final group of six skaters took the ice for a group warm-up, both Hanyu and Chan missed a pair of jumps before rushing over to consult with their coaches.
Hanyu took the ice one skater before Chan and quickly put his pursuit in jeopardy when he fell on a quadruple Salchow. He hit his next quad attempt, a Salchow, but then put his hands down, one after the other, on a triple flip that the judges did not count even though no other part of his body hit the ice. He hit six more triple jumps in the program, but clearly opened the door for Chan, the three-time world champ, to pass through.
“After the first jump, I thought the gold medal was out of my hands,” Hanyu said. “My legs felt heavy and there were some negative feelings inside me.”
As Chan skated onto the ice next, he heard the score for Hanyu and knew gold was within his grasp. He then repeated the pattern of the long program he performed at the World Championships in London, Ont. last year, when he started strong and barely hung on for victory. Chan began the program in Sochi by nailing a quadruple toe loop–triple toe loop and probably didn’t need to try the second quad in his program.
“My plan was to skate my program no matter what the other skaters did,” he said. “You go to the Olympics and you go guns blazing.”
Instead, he put his hands down on another quad toe and later did the same on a triple Axel. Towards the end of his program, he inexplicably stumbled out of a double Axel, the final jump in his program and one he usually executes with ease. The silver left Canadian men with a stunning 13 individual world titles, but no Olympic gold medals.
Ten, the reigning world silver medalist, had been struggling through a rough campaign. He suffered a mysterious infection during the offseason and it has afflicted seemingly unrelated parts of his body. The infection started with bruised ankles, spread to his back and later caused him to have a tooth extracted. The medal was the seventh for Kazakhstan in its history at the winter Olympics and the first in figure skating. There were no rinks in in his homeland when Ten grew up. His family moved to Moscow in 2004 and he now trains with veteran coach Frank Carroll in California.
“I’m sure the president of Kazakhstan knows about my medal by now,” Ten said. “I hope this is not the highest achievement of my life.”
Carroll said he was “quite awed” by what his skater overcame to get on the podium.
“First of all, he has terrible feet,” the coach explained. “They’re not even. They’re not flat. He has a left skate from one pair and a right skate from another. He’s been fighting so hard just to be in the fight.”
Fernandez began the night in third place, but finished in fourth. Normally a superb jumper and average stylist, Fernandez has an ambitious set of leaps and bounds built into his long program. He hit some, but not all, of them on Friday. Fernandez landed a quad toe loop and then turned a quad Salchow–triple toe into a quad-double. He aborted a triple Lutz–double toe into just a double Lutz, but later had his coach, Brian Orser pumping his fists at the side after he recovered to land a triple flip–loop–triple Salchow. When Fernandez saw that his scores left him behind Ten in the standings, he shook his head in disappointment.
U.S. skaters Jason Brown and Jeremy Abbott finished in ninth and 12th place, respectively. Abbott rebounded from a nasty fall in the short program and moved up from 15th. Abbott was still suffering from a sore hip as a result of the fall and watered down two of his jumps during the free skate. But he landed everything he attempted, if somewhat cautiously. He saved his aggression for the mixed zone in an arena hallway after he was done skating when a woman asked about his history of poor international showings that don’t live up to how he skates at U.S. Nationals.
“I just wanted to put my middle finger in the air and say a big F-you to everyone who has ever said that to me, because they’ve never stood in my shoes and they’ve never had to do what I’ve had to do,” he said. “Nobody has to stand at center ice in front of a million people and put an entire career on the line for eight minutes of their life when they’ve been doing it for some 20 years. And if you think that’s not hard, then you’re a damn idiot.”
The release of pressure came through in Abbott’s words, though really the weight of impending angst had hovered over the entire evening.
“At these competitions,” Chan said, “it’s who makes less mistakes, and honestly I just made too many mistakes.”