SOCHI, Russia/TOKYO, Feb 14 (Reuters) - A journey that almost ended three years ago when Yuzuru Hanyu watched in horror as the ice cracked beneath his blades and the ground shook violently, culminated in glorious triumph 8,000 kilometres away at the Sochi Olympics on Friday.
That magnitude 9.0 earthquake near Hanyu’s home city of Sendai in March 2011 not only destroyed his training arena but also set off a massive tsunami and nuclear disaster that ultimately claimed nearly 20,000 lives in Japan.
With memories of the day when he had to crawl off the ice to flee the collapsing building still fresh, he said he had been close to giving up the dreams that led him to become the first Japanese skater to win the men’s Olympic title.
“It’s a very difficult subject for me to talk about,” said the 19-year-old, who became the second youngest man after Dick Button in 1948 to win the top prize.
“I lost my skating rink because of the earthquake and I was literally struggling to live at that time, let alone to try to keep skating. I really thought about quitting skating then.”
His Olympic aspirations seemed a million miles away because with their house wrecked, his family sought shelter in a gymnasium, where they slept shoulder-to-shoulder on the floor for several days among scores of other people.
When the water pipes under the rink exploded and the ice melted, it seemed as if his skating career had also been washed away.
But 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. 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.
“I think my service to all those who were affected by the earthquake starts today, now that I’m an Olympic champion,” said Hanyu, who did a double-take on screens hanging backstage of the Iceberg Skating Palace when his victory was confirmed.
“I had the support of so many people to get here, and I want to pay them back somehow. I was on the top of the podium carrying the hopes of thousands, millions and I feel great about that.”
Just what he is capable of was all too apparent when he became the first skater at an international meeting to smash the 100-point barrier in the men’s short programme with an electrifying display to Gary Moore’s “Parisian Walkways”.
Twenty-four hours later his performance was not quite as compelling but with all of the major contenders slipping and sliding, Hanyu overcame two mishaps in the free skate to strike gold.
It was a performance that was worth 280.09 points to the judges but was priceless to Japan’s 127 million inhabitants.
“I’m so proud of this feat as a Japanese. The Olympics is so wild and unpredictable. I’ve never been this nervous for a competition in my entire life. I’m upset with the performance I had, but I left everything I had out there,” said the country’s new sporting hero.
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 Brian Orser and switched his training base to Canada.
It was a relationship that Hanyu said “started with nothing but confusion” due to the language barrier and “thoughts about returning to Japan” crossed his mind on a daily basis.
Thankfully Hanyu chose to persevere with the partnership with a man who had not only won two Olympic silvers as an athlete but also guided Kim Yuna to the women’s gold medal four years ago.
Their union took them on an adventure which earned Hanyu gold medals at this season’s Japan Nationals and Grand Prix final.
On Friday he was seen exchanging high-fives and fist-bumps with Orser after winning the biggest prize of all - outclassing three-times world champion Patrick Chan for the second time in as many months.
Asked about his verdict on the new champion, Orser said: “He’s a perfectionist. I am very proud of Yuzuru ... he has made history.”
Editing by Ian Ransom