The Sochi Network

50 to watch: Hanyu’s journey from earthquake survivor to Winter Olympian

The Sochi Network

In the run up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Reuters is highlighting the athletes to watch during the Games.


Japanese figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu was practicing at his home rink in northern Japan one Friday afternoon when the arena began to shake violently.

Then the ice cracked.

It was March 11, 2011, and a magnitude 9.0 earthquake was striking off the coast of Miyagi, not far from the city of Sendai where Hanyu, then a high school student, lived and trained.

"The ice was bucking so much I couldn't stand," said Hanyu, now 19 and a major contender for gold at the Sochi Olympics, to the Japan News daily. "I was really terrified and wondered what I should do."

Some walls in the arena fell as the quake, which also set off a massive tsunami and nuclear disaster that ultimately claimed nearly 20,000 lives, rumbled on. Hanyu crawled off the ice to flee the building on his skates, damaging the blades.

Their house battered, his family sought shelter in a gymnasium, where they slept shoulder-to-shoulder on the floor for several days among scores of other people. Water pipes under the rink exploded and the ice melted.

"I won't be able to say I want to skate again," he thought.

Some 10 days later he was back on the ice at the rink near Tokyo where he had trained in primary school, alternating with a rink three hours' drive north from his home. But concerns about radiation and where he would go to school remained.

To get more ice time in Japan, he appeared in some 60 shows around the nation until the rink was finally repaired in July 2011.

Now, with victories in the Japan Nationals and Grand Prix Final behind him, Hanyu is poised to debut at the Olympics and challenge Canada's Patrick Chan, who beat him in their two 2013 Grand Prix series meets, for the gold.

Hanyu said the losses to Chan would act as motivation.

"Confidence in carrying out my own performance has really grown within me. I'm very grateful to him," he told Japanese national broadcaster NHK. "If I hadn't had the experience of those two meets, I wouldn't be where I am today."

Hanyu's coach, Canadian Brian Orser, who once coached reigning women's Olympic champion Kim Yuna of South Korea, agreed.

"I think it's good for Yuzuru's mentality, since he wants to be considered a contender," Orser said in the Japan News. "He's better when he's considered a contender, and works harder."

Hanyu's boyish good looks and slender frame, at 1.72 metres and 54 kg, conceal a steely determination that has helped him overcome not only the disaster but also the asthma that at one point limited his strength and training time.

Skating since the age of four, Hanyu excels both at the athletic side of the sport, with the quadruple Salchow and quadruple toe loops that have become his trademarks, as well as fluid, elegant moves that highlight his long legs and arms.

In 2012, he began training with Orser, himself a former Olympian, switching his training base to Canada. The move was not without some problems.

"At the start, it was nothing but confusion. I couldn't understand what he said to me in practice, or his ideas, and because we didn't share a language, I couldn't even express differing opinions," Hanyu told the Sankei Shimbun daily.

"I thought of returning to Japan any number of times. But I studied English hard on my own and we gradually became able to communicate, establishing a relationship of trust."

Under Orser he changed his practice habits, reducing the proportion of time he spent on jumps to polish his other moves. He also began going through his programmes from start to finish once a day instead of once a week, building his endurance.

Hanyu, a devout admirer of retired American skater Johnny Weir, has referred to being in the Olympics as "a dream" and said he wanted to make every day until then count.

"Pretty much everybody who competes at the Olympics will put in a great performance," he told NHK.

"I plan to really sink my teeth into it and never forget that it's not stuff like points that matters, but giving my all and doing better than everybody else."

In the end, though, it is the audience that really matters.

"When you're skating alone on a big rink, the sounds that emerge are for you alone... If I fall on a quadruple jump, there is a huge gasp from around the arena. Fans get really caught up," he told the Sankei.

"Afterwards, so many bouquets are tossed onto the ice. And I always think, 'I have to keep on trying.'"

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