Absence makes the art grow stronger for skater Yuzuru Hanyu, coach Brian Orser

Brian Orser and Yuzuru Hanyu after the skater's record-breaking performance at the NHK Trophy last fall.  (Getty Images)

Brian Orser and Yuzuru Hanyu after the skater's record-breaking performance at the NHK Trophy last fall.  (Getty Images)

TORONTO - It was the final week of February, and the fan mail for Yuzuru Hanyu sat in a pile on the floor of Brian Orser's office at the Toronto Cricket Club.

The stack was nearly 2 feet high, testimony to how long it had been since Hanyu last was around to collect it.

It also was evidence of the unusual training arrangement between the leading men's figure skater in the world and the man who has coached him to an Olympic gold medal, world title and three straight wins at the Grand Prix Final -- the most recent with one of the most remarkable performances in the sport's history.

Hanyu was away from Toronto for three months before returning Feb. 26 with a sore instep on his left foot that since has healed. In that time, he won three events, did several shows and trained at the rink in his Japanese hometown, Sendai, which was devastated by an earthquake almost exactly five years ago.

Until the prodigy returned to finish his preparations for the upcoming 2016 World Figure Skating Championships in Boston, the coach had not been with Hanyu since he won a fourth straight Japanese national title in late December. They were together for only three competition weeks during the skater's long absence from Toronto.

Their communication over those months? A weekly email, which works for Orser. Now.

But last season, as Hanyu pushed through the exhaustion that followed his runs to the 2014 Olympic and world titles, a string of injuries and surgery to remove a cyst from his bladder meant the skater was away even longer so he could receive medical care at home.

He trained in Japan from the end of November through late March, when, at the world championships in Shanghai, Hanyu finished second to Javier Fernández of Spain. Fernández also trains with Orser in Toronto -- full time.

"Last year, the gap was making me a little crazy," Orser said. "This season, I have learned to let it go, let no news be good news. If he needs to reach me, he can."

Hanyu, who began working with Orser in the summer of 2012, skates alone in the Sendai rink, closed to everyone but his small entourage when he trains. His mother, Yumi, videotapes every practice, and Hanyu faithfully watches the recordings on his iPad, where he keeps files arranged by jump and spin types.

"At a certain level, there isn't so much that needs to be coached into you," NBC commentator Johnny Weir said. "There is a lot of babysitting that goes on with coaches and their elite athletes.

"We have to remember at the end of the day, Yuzu is a Japanese man, accustomed to the Japanese way," Weir continued. "I'm sure it's very nice for him to be in his country. I think it's a great situation, where he has the best of both worlds."

The arrangement works because Hanyu, 21, has a work ethic as jaw-dropping as the back-to-back-to-back-to-back world record short programs and free skates he performed at the NHK Trophy in late November and the Grand Prix Final in mid-December.

"That was like, `Are you kidding me?''' said Tracy Wilson, who helps in Hanyu's coaching and covered those two events for NBC.

"After NHK, I said it would be another 10 years before we see something like that. Then comes the Grand Prix Final, and Brian said to me, 'How about 10 days?'" Wilson said. "Yuzu shows you what is possible."

Not long after the Japanese championships, where Hanyu won despite three falls, Weir did a show with him in Japan. Weir, Hanyu and Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko of Russia shared practice sessions.

"It's 9 a.m. on a Sunday, after three days of hard work (on the show), and he is attempting quad lutzes, even if he is not going to put them into his free skate at worlds," Weir said.

"It's rare to see someone go above and beyond that way. You get to a certain level, and people tense up and get afraid to allow themselves to make mistakes," Weir continued. "But Yuzu is fearless. And he works until he can't see any more because of the sweat in his eyes."

The skaters who share the Cricket Club ice with Hanyu all have the same impression.

"The work he does every day is amazing," Fernández said.

"He pushes himself really, really hard," 2015 Canadian champion Nam Nguyen said. "And every time I'm down, he always pushes and supports me."

When Hanyu decided to come to Toronto in 2012, Orser asked Fernández, who arrived a year earlier, if he had any reservations about the arrangement. The easy-going Spaniard, 24, told him he thought it would be a good idea to have another top skater pushing him in practice.

"We're competitors, so if I'm having a bad day, and he's having a good day, I'll be like, 'Ohmigosh, I need to do better,''' Fernández said. "That will get you a little frustrated, but it also will motivate you."

At the Grand Prix Final in December, Fernández performed the free skate of his career and still finished light years behind Hanyu.

"In skating, there is a beautiful moment of everything coming together, and that is what happened with Yuzu in that free skate," Weir said. "If the judges had the option of giving him plus-5's, they would have.

"Everyone wants to see that kind of mastery of the sport, because it is so rare."

What captivates Jeffrey Buttle, the world-champion-turned-choreographer who has done Hanyu's last four short programs, is how the skater has pushed the sport technically.

"If someone goes out and spends the whole program setting up the quads, the jumps are impressive, but you have lost so much of the program -- the choreo and the other places where you can excel," Buttle said.

"With Yuzu, you don't have that feeling," Buttle continued. "He gives you so much more."

Even before the winning scores were posted in Barcelona, Fernández got down on his knees and salaamed. At the same time, the four-time European champion knew his current programs could not beat a flawless Hanyu -- or even a slightly imperfect one -- so Fernández has added a second quadruple jump in his short program and a second triple axel in the free.

Are the upgraded programs enough to beat a Hanyu who skates the way he did at the Grand Prix Final?

"It would be really hard to say," Fernández said. "He still gets a little bit more on the second mark, the components, than me. At this point, if we both skate clean, clean, clean, I will say he will beat me."

Few skaters could live with being in the same rink as their primary competitor. Not since 1998, when compatriots Alexei Yagudin (gold) and Plushenko (bronze) trained under coach Alexei Mishin in St. Petersburg, Russia, have two world singles medalists been in that situation.

And the situation proved untenable for Yagudin, who moved to the United States after the 1998 season to train with Tatiana Tarasova.

Fernández said the same kind of tension does not exist between him and Hanyu.

"If Javi falls, Yuzu goes over and helps him up," said David Wilson, who has choreographed programs for both. "The situation is remarkably stress free."

That Hanyu spends a long stretch of each season in Japan undoubtedly helps avoid having familiarity breed any contempt.

"We see each other skating -- we try to have fun, we laugh, we comment," Fernándezsaid. "We have no problem with each other.

"It's not like we're going out, and we have dinner," Fernández continued. "We have a good relationship, but we have totally different lives."

Fernández has lived on his own since moving to Toronto. Hanyu lives with his mother.

"Even to me, Yuzu is a mystery," Orser said.

Yet Hanyu is more outgoing than the Olympic champion who began working with Orser soon after his Cricket Club coaching career began, Yu-Na Kim of South Korea. (Kim left, on less-than-friendly terms with Orser, a few months after winning the gold in Vancouver in 2010.)

"Yuzu is much more interactive than Yu-Na was," Wilson said. "She was a shy, reserved girl. He is more happy-go-lucky and open."

Kim took refuge in Toronto from the constant attention that followed her in South Korea, where she was the country's first top skater, making her a curiosity as well as a champion. During the seasons leading to the 2010 Olympics, she left Canada only for competitions.

Hanyu is a big star in his native home: A recent poll by the country's largest circulation newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun, named him the second most popular athlete in Japan, behind tennis player Kei Nishikori. But he can live with that fame -- even if it expands with the role he plays as an 18th-century samurai lord for a feature film to be released in May.

"Japan is such an idyllic and conservative country, you don't see the kind of crazy that surrounded Yu-Na," said Weir, who has skated shows with both Hanyu and Kim on their home turf. "And figure skating has had many stars in Japan.

"With Yu-Na, the attention was outrageous -- all day, every day," Weir added. "Yuzu does have to go in (arena) backdoors at times, but the atmosphere is quite different."

Hanyu arrived in Toronto at the beginning of last August to start training for this season. From then until the end of November, he was based at the Cricket Club (with the exception of some late summer shows in Japan), making the most of each training session.

"Every time he steps on the ice, he is 100-percent focused," said Spanish champion Sonia Lafuente, one of the three Spaniards training with the Cricket Club's seven-member coaching team.

"He gives us a `wow' moment every day," Orser said.


"He will do a triple axel that covers so much ice, with such a fluid landing, that all the coaches just look at each other and go, 'Ohmigod!'''

It makes no difference that Orser goes weeks without seeing those moments. The coach knows that wherever Yuzuru Hanyu trains, he isn't mailing it in.

(This article originally appeared on icenetwork.)