Hanyu: 'I want to give a dream performance'

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea - This was a moment the Japanese press had waited three months for.

It had been agonizing for them to go that long starved of any real contact with Yuzuru Hanyu, the 23-year-old skater their country adores, the skater who also has won fans worldwide with his boyish charm and unsurpassed excellence in the sport since winning the Olympic title four years ago.

So, along with a few foreign colleagues, Japanese media filled the 150 seats in the Gangneung Ice Arena press conference room Tuesday morning. A few dozen others stood. Camera shutters hummed like cicadas on a hot summer afternoon.

The press conference lasted 23 minutes, with nearly half that time taken for translating questions and answers from Japanese to English. But the chance to hear Hanyu say anything more than hello was enough after a virtual radio silence that had lasted since he injured a ligament in his right ankle on a fall at an NHK Trophy practice session Nov. 9.

His hair still flopped into his eyes. He smiled easily.

"He's in great spirits," his coach, Brian Orser, said.

With a training base in Toronto since 2012, Hanyu has developed an understanding of English, but on this day, he answered questions only in Japanese. Then he finished with a typically endearing Hanyu moment: saying thank you to the press in English, French, Korean, Russian and his native tongue.

Better than that was the chance to hear Hanyu assure everyone he was physically OK after revealing he had moments of doubt.

"After two months, I still felt some difficulties skating, and there were times when I wondered whether I would ever completely recover," he said.

"But I can skate now, and that is what is most important. There have been many negative thoughts that passed through my mind, but right now I am sitting here in front of the media and giving you good news, not bad news, and that is very important for me."

He knows what it means to have such an outpouring of media. It comes with his having helped turn Japan into the worlds's most passionate country about figure skating. He has done that over the last five seasons with the Olympic title, two world titles (and two world silver medals), four Grand Prix Final titles and 12 world-record scores, including one for the dazzling, four-quad free skate he used to win his second world title last March.

He has also attracted a following with his doe-eyed expressiveness, with the endearing contrast between his seeming vulnerability and his powerful command of the ice, with his willingness to keep pushing technically despite already having enough quad power to win a second Olympic title in the men's event that begins with the short program Friday.

It was a fall on a quad lutz, the most difficult jump men do, that led to the injury. He was working on it because top rivals like Boyang Jin of China and Nathan Chen of the United States had mastered the jump, and Hanyu refuses to back down in the current game of quad-upsmanship the elite men are playing.

"I understand there are not many skaters who can be surrounded by so many press, like I am right now," he said. "With your coverage, even more people will be listening to me and looking at me.

"It can be described as pressure, but at the same time I'm really happy that for the first time in a long time I am able to skate, and I want to make it (the pressure) into my own energy. I know that many people have been waiting for me to skate, and I want to show them a performance that makes them feel it was worth the wait."

How Hanyu performed in a 40-minute practice session just before the press conference would be his most significant statement of the day. He landed five quadruple jumps -- two salchows, three toe loops -- and stayed upright through 18 jumping passes. He also did the approaches for a quad loop, executing a single and a double.

"I am still conditioning myself," he said. "There are many jumps and elements I have not performed yet. I have a plan so I can peak at the right time. I still have a few more days."

Asked what the timeline had been for his return to jumping on the ice, Hanyu consulted his phone before saying he began triple axels three weeks ago and quads two weeks ago. Prior to that, he had worked on regaining the form of the jumps by practicing them on the floor.

"My biggest concerns were stamina and getting back the feel of the ice," he said. "But after a month (since returning to the ice), I feel I am ready for the Olympics."

Orser said last week Hanyu will likely do two salchows and two toe loops in the free skate. Because a skater can repeat only two types of jumps, that would mean he could do just one triple axel.

"I have to have a wise strategy," Hanyu said. "I have many options. I know I can win if I skate clean performances."

He had been world-best brilliant in the short program at the 2014 Olympics but sloppy in the free skate, in which he fell twice. Hanyu claimed gold only after Canada's Patrick Chan let the title slip away with mistakes on four jumping passes.

"This is my dream stage," Hanyu said of the Olympics, "and I want to give a dream performance."

(This article originally appeared on icenetwork.)