February 26, 2018 / 4:13 AM / 9 months ago

Figure skating featured farewells, new stars, North Koreans and Hanyu

GANGNEUNG, South Korea (Reuters) - Ice dance legends announced their retirement, a five-time Olympian pairs skater finally gained gold, and two North Koreans won hearts if not medals in an Olympics packed with more drama than usual even for figure skating.

FILE PHOTO: Figure Skating - Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics - Men Single free skating competition final - Gangneung, South Korea - February 17, 2018 - Gold medallist Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan celebrates. REUTERS/Phil Noble/File Photo

And then, there was Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu.

The 23-year-old defending Olympic champion gave figure skating one of its biggest moments with a stellar short skate that marked his comeback and first competition since a serious ankle injury in November.

On painkillers, the supernaturally slender Hanyu - who even coach Brian Orser has jokingly referred to as “inhuman” for his steely determination and skating prowess - took steps out of his quad toeloop and triple Lutz but otherwise skated a clean, mesmerizing free skate to become the first man in 66 years to win back-to-back golds.

“I’m very lucky. I can now say with pride that I’ve achieved the pinnacle of my sport,” Hanyu told a news conference. “For me, skating is simply happiness.”

Hanyu’s legend wasn’t the only one to be burnished.

Iconic Canadian ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir - in their third Olympics - captured their second individual gold in a sensational skate that edged them ahead of French rivals by less than a point.

Then they tacitly announced their retirement by saying they would not be at the world championships this year.

“We don’t know what the future holds quite yet but it definitely feels like we’re getting close to the end of our career,” Moir told OBS, the official Olympics broadcaster.

Waiting in the wings are French pair Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, whose haunting free dance - in which they moved so in unison they appeared to share breath - could not overcome a nearly two-point difference after the short dance.

World record holders in the free dance, the two were struck by what Papadakis termed “a nightmare” as the clasp to her top came undone in the short dance, which skaters said would have thrown off her concentration and may have cost them the gold.

PERSISTENCE PAYS

Another dramatic moment came when German pair Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot surged from behind with their brilliant free skate to claim gold - at the 34-year-old Savchenko’s fifth Olympics.

Originally Ukrainian, she represented them in 2002 at Salt Lake City before teaming up with German Robin Szolkowy and moving to Germany, becoming a citizen and taking bronze with him at Vancouver and Sochi. She teamed up with Massot in 2014.

After their short program, when they were in fourth place after Massot doubled a triple jump, the duo regrouped and decided “we have nothing to lose and we will fight like tigers”.

The two broke a record in their free skate and fell to the ice in tears. Savchenko sobbed in Massot’s arms when the gold was confirmed.

There were no tears, though, for 15-year-old Alina Zagitova from Russia after she rocketed into her first senior season and took gold, the first for Olympic Athletes from Russia at Pyeongchang.

The reserved Zagitova upstaged two-time world champion and training partner Evgenia Medvedeva, who for months had been favored for gold but last year suffered a broken foot.

“Evgenia and I are very good (friends) off the ice, but during the time on the ice and during competitions, I personally get this feeling of rivalry,” Zagitova told a news conference.

The United States, long a figure-skating powerhouse, did poorly, with much-heralded Nathan Chen crumbling in his short skate and the highest-ranked woman finishing ninth.

Chen did make Olympic history by landing six quads in his long skate, while Mirai Nagasu became the first American to land an Olympic triple axel during the team competition, in which the U.S. won bronze.

But the biggest history was made by North Korean pair Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik, who finished well out of the medals but won hearts in their southern neighbor.

The only North Korean athletes to actually qualify for the Games, they became a potent symbol of sporting detente and hit a personal best - with a squad of North Korean cheerleaders joining local fans.

“I was very nervous but once I entered the rink, I saw our North Korean cheering squad and South Korean people putting their hearts together and cheering together,” the 25-year-old Kim said in a television interview.

“They really cheered for me and it encouraged me a lot.”

Writing by Elaine Lies; editing by Sudipto Ganguly

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