Hanyu's strong competitive spirit could hurt his chances to top Olympus

Video of Yuzuru Hanyu's fall last week in practice for NHK Trophy.

Yuzuru Hanyu has prided himself on trying to keep up with the recent quadruple jump outburst in men’s figure skating, an explosion in numbers and types of quads since 2015 for which the Japanese star credits China’s Jin Boyang as having been the spark.

When Hanyu won a second world title last year, he alluded to the quad exploits of Jin, Nathan Chen of the United States and Shoma Uno of Japan – all of whom have pushed the jump revolution - when he said, “I am trying to keep up with many of the strengths of the other skaters.”

The question now is whether pride literally came before the fall that has cast some doubt on Hanyu’s ability to win a second straight Olympic title – an achievement that, added to the rest of his career record, I feel would make him inarguably the greatest men’s skater in history.

Hanyu hurt the lateral ligament in his right ankle when he took an awkward fall on a quadruple lutz attempt in an official practice a day before the start of the men’s short program at last weekend’s NHK Trophy Grand Prix series event in Osaka, Japan.  Watching video of the fall, one cannot help but think Hanyu was lucky he didn’t also tear muscles in the groin of one or both legs as he did the splits.

The injury forced Hanyu, 23 next month, to withdraw from the NHK Trophy, which ended his chances to win a fifth straight title at the Grand Prix Final next month in Nagoya, Japan. (His fourth straight title last season already was unprecedented.)

In a statement released Sunday through the Japan Skating Federation, Hanyu said doctors advised complete rest for 10 days.  “I hope to recover in three to four weeks, but this is tentative,” Hanyu said in the statement.  He would like to be ready for Japan’s national championships Dec. 20-24, but he does not need to skate there to get an Olympic spot.

Hanyu should forget about the quad lutz when he does return.  If he skates two clean programs at the OIympics, Hanyu does not need either the quad lutz or more total free skate quads than the four he did in winning last season’s worlds.

The trick will be convincing Hanyu to rein himself in.  His desire to meet the quad standards set by rivals speaks to a fierce and admirable competitive spirit.

 “Yuzu told me that what motivates and inspires him is trying new things and challenging himself,” Tracy Wilson, who helps Brian Orser in coaching Hanyu at the skater’s Toronto training base, said in a Tuesday text message.  “He told me that he wants to push the sport and this approach keeps it interesting for him.

Yuzuru Hanyu winces after the fall that injured him.

Yuzuru Hanyu winces after the fall that injured him.

“This has been his stance since the beginning of last season when he decided to add the (quad) loop.  He didn't need the loop last year and did it on his way to record-setting performances.”

Orser, who did not go to NHK because he was recovering from gall bladder surgery, sees it essentially the same way.

“As you know, Yuzu is very competitive and still young,” Orser said in a Monday text.

Orser demurred on the question of whether he will counsel Hanyu to forget the quad lutz, which he executed impressively in the free skate at October’s Rostelecom Cup Grand Prix event in Russia.  Mistakes on a quad loop and a quad toe-triple toe combination in the Rostelecom short program were his undoing, leave Hanyu second overall to Chen.

“(The) first priority is to let him heal from his injury,” Orser said.  “That’s about all I can say at this point.”

Hanyu won the 2014 Olympics and worlds by attempting one quad in the short program and two in the free skate.  He did the same in finishing second to Spain’s Javier Fernandez at the 2015 worlds.

Seven months later at the 2015 Cup of China Grand Prix event, Jin, then a first-year senior who has gone on to win consecutive world bronze medals, landed a quad lutz in the short program and was credited with full base value on four quads in the free skate.  The fuse was lit.

That season, when Hanyu wowed the skating world with stunning, clean, record-breaking performances at NHK and the Grand Prix Final, he was up to two quads in the short and three in the free.

Of those performances, it is important to note:

*Only Hanyu has topped the then-record short program score he got in the December 2015 Grand Prix final.  Hanyu’s short program score from NHK remains fifth highest ever.

*Only Hanyu (once) has topped the then-record free skate score he got in the 2015 Grand Prix Final.  His free skate score from 2015 NHK also remains fourth highest ever.

*Hanyu almost certainly could win the Olympics with clean skates and no more jump difficulty than what he had in those two late 2015 competitions.  The combined quality of his skating, athletic and artistic, is currently peerless.

But after a mistake-riddled free skate left him second again to Fernandez at the 2016 worlds, Hanyu upped his game for 2016-17 by becoming the first to land a clean quad loop in competition.

Meanwhile, Chen had become the first to land five clean quads (including the lutz) in a free skate, and Uno the first to land a quad flip.  Uno then was doing four quads in the free skate.

At the 2017 worlds, Hanyu would recover from a disastrous short program with a record-breaking free skate in which he landed four clean quads.  While the fourth quad can be seen as the numerical difference in his narrow (2.22 points) win over Uno for the title, the more germane point was Hanyu had not skated two clean programs in the same event since the back-to-back perfection at the previous season’s Grand Prix Final and NHK.  And he has not done it so far this season.

“After I put those performances out, I realized how difficult it is to skate clean programs,” Hanyu said after winning the 2017 worlds.

Jin Boyang (right), with Shoma Uno (left) and champion Yuzuru Hanyu at the 2017 worlds, has jumped his way to consecutive world bronze medals.

Jin Boyang (right), with Shoma Uno (left) and champion Yuzuru Hanyu at the 2017 worlds, has jumped his way to consecutive world bronze medals.

He has complicated it even more by adding the quad lutz.

“It’s not something I can’t do,” Hanyu said at September’s Autumn Classic event in Quebec, his opening competition of the season, where he singled the quad lutz attempt that began his slopfest of a free skate.

A week before that in Salt Lake City, Chen had become the first man to land five different types of quads (not in the same free skate) and his coach, Rafael Arutunian, had broached to me the possibility of Chen attempting seven in a free skate.  That same September weekend, in Italy, Uno got full base value for five quads (four clean) in the free skate at the Lombardia Trophy.

Hanyu said at Autumn Classic he was bothered by knee problems that affected his quad loop.  He kept working on the lutz, and it was one of the two quads he landed cleanly last month in Russia (in what International Skating Union fact sheets said were five planned attempts; one became a triple, another a double.)

At this point, apparent risk for continuing with the quad lutz substantially outweighs the reward, which seems essentially to be personal satisfaction for Hanyu.  Persisting may not only endanger him but the sport itself, for a 2018 Olympics with Hanyu in subpar condition - or without him entirely - would be diminished.

Since World War II, only Dick Button of the U.S. has won more than one men’s Olympic singles title (1948-52).  For Hanyu to do it in an era with exponentially greater technical difficulty would put him alone atop skating’s Olympus.