(Corrects in third para to clarify Hanyu stumbled, did not fall)
By Elaine Lies
GANGNEUNG, South Korea, Feb 17 (Reuters) - Yuzuru Hanyu is tough. On his way to becoming the first man in 66 years to win back-to-back Olympic golds on Saturday, he overcame not only the typical battering of a skater’s body but one of the world’s worst natural disasters in his native Japan.
Then came a training injury just months before the Pyeongchang Games that put not only the Olympics in doubt but also seemed to threaten an end to his skating career.
“More than worries about my strength, I was actually concerned about whether I’d be able to stand on skates again,” Hanyu told reporters after overcoming a stumble in his mesmerising free performance to win his second gold at the age of 23.
Hanyu may have doubted, but his fellow skaters - none of whom had seen him on ice since October - didn’t, with America’s Adam Rippon saying last week “You can never count Yuzuru out”.
Cheered on by thousands of fans around the world, Hanyu came through on Saturday, thanks to the steely determination that helped him overcome everything from the asthma that once limited his training time to last year’s ankle damage that still hasn’t completely healed.
One of the biggest hurdles came on March 11, 2011, when the then-teenaged Hanyu was practising in his hometown of Sendai in northern Japan and a 9.0 magnitude earthquake set off a tsunami and nuclear meltdown. Ultimately, some 18,000 died.
As the ice cracked around him and the arena shook so hard he couldn’t stand, Hanyu crawled off the ice and fled outside in his skates without even putting on the guards, damaging them.
What followed were several days sleeping on a school gymnasium floor since his family home had been damaged, and then weeks of skating in ice shows around Japan to get practice time since his home rink was unusable.
“Those were really tough days, but I was inland and only suffered from the quake, although we didn’t have electricity, gas or water. But many others suffered much more, from the tsunami and nuclear disaster,” he told a news conference after his win on Saturday.
“So many people in the disaster zone smiled when I came to them from Sochi after winning the gold. I hope they’ll take even more confidence from this and smile even more.”
Hanyu on Saturday attributed his victories to the support of many friends, coaches and fans, hundreds of whom packed the Gangneung Ice Arena to wave Japanese flags, shout “Yuzu!” and toss Winnie-the-Pooh stuffed toys onto the ice.
“In the midst of all the bad things going on in the world, he’s strong, beautiful, elegant and proper,” said Mei Iwahara, a 30-year-old hospital worker who’d come from Japan and said she’d practised tossing the Pooh she held on her lap in her hotel room the night before.
“He’s so enthusiastic and pretty. It’s comforting.”
Japan erupted in joy. Within 90 minutes of his win, 1.1 million tweets with the hash tag “Hanyu-kun” - an affectionate diminutive - had flooded social media, becoming the top trending hash tag around the world.
But one of Hanyu’s strongest supports has been Spanish skater Javier Fernandez, who trains with him in Canada under coach Brian Orser and took bronze.
The two shared a long embrace after the results were announced as Orser shot photos.
“We’re never both doing well at the same time. When things are good for him, I’m doing badly, and that pressures me to work harder to keep up. Then when I’m doing well he’s doing badly, and he gets sort of emotional about it,” Hanyu said.
“The fact that we can practice with emotion involved makes it effective. I owe him more than I can ever say.”
Fernandez added: “We support each other in a different way. When we’re not talking, we just look at each other and make each other better.”
Asked if he might aim for the Beijing Games in 2022 and make history by winning three golds, Hanyu said it was far too early to even think about that and that first he had to fully recover.
“I’ve really asked too much of my leg,” he said. (Additional reporting by Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber and Soyoung Kim; editing by Sudipto Ganguly)