Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu once again trying to overcome obstacles for Olympic gold

GANGNEUNG, South Korea–The weeks and months since Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, the reigning Olympic and World champion, injured his right foot in November there has been rampant speculation on what kind of shape he would show up in this week.

Or if he would show up at all.

Hanyu will indeed skate in the men’s competition, opening his bid to become the first man to successfully defend the Olympic title since Dick Button of the U.S. did so 66 years ago with the short program Friday morning (Thursday 5 p.m. PDT).

“I feel I am ready for the Olympics,” Hanyu said, “that is what matters.”

Hanyu’s matter of factness shouldn’t come as a surprise. He overcame much greater obstacles in winning the gold medal four years ago in Sochi.

In becoming Japan’s first men’s Olympic skating gold medalist, Hanyu also led the first ever medal sweep by skaters of Asian descent, with Canada’s three-time World champion Patrick Chan taking the silver medal, and Kazakhstan’s Denis Ten, the descendent of a Korean freedom fighter, securing the bronze.

“Lot’s of history,” said Brian Orser, Hanyu’s Canadian coach.

Many in the sport believe a similar sweep is likely in Gangneung with Chan, Nathan Chen, the U.S. 18-year-old, and Shoma Uno, Hanyu’s Japanese teammate, also among the leading medal contenders.

But Hanyu’s victory was primarily notable for what he endured on the way to Sochi.

Hanyu was training at his home rink in Sendai on March 11, 2011 when an earthquake triggered Tohuku tsunami struck around 2:46 p.m. The rink shook so violently that Hanyu was barely able stand before running out of the building still wearing his boots without their skate guards. The tsunami that hit Sendai reached as far as five miles inland. While the rink’s roof did not collapse, the water pipes under the ice exploded, melting the ice. Hanyu’s family home was also damaged.

Hundreds were dead in Sendai dead. Thousands more were homeless.

For four days Hanyu and his family stayed in an impromptu evacuation center set up in a local gym before being told by officials they could return home at their own risk.

He eventually tried to resume training Hachinohe City, a three hour drive from Sendai, but had to leave after a few days because the rink was too close to the leaking Fukushima nuclear reactor. After a time in Yokohama, Hanyu  finally moved to Toronto and train with Orser, the 1988 Olympic silver medalist who coached South Korea’s Kim Yu-na to the Olympic women’s title in four years ago in Vancouver.

Hanyu’s victory in Sochi brought him mixed feelings.

“Maybe I am the gold medalist of the Olympic Games,” he said that night, “but this medal can’t help out.”

Hanyu spent much of the last four years raising money and awareness for the victims of the Tohuku disaster. But he largely disappeared from public view after injuring his foot at NHK Trophy, an ISU Grand Prix event in Osaka.

“It was slow, as expected because the injury was quite bad,” Orser said. “It was slower than we all were hoping.”

Especially Hanyu.

“After the injury I wanted to get painkillers and skate,” he said. “But my ankle was not moving. After two months I still had some difficulty skating.

“There was a time when I was wondering if I can recover completely. But I can skate now and that is the most important (thing). In the past many negative thoughts came to my mind. But now I’m giving you good news, not bad news and that is very important. I want to show that this is my dream stage and to give my dream performance.”

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