At a figure-skating competition in Moscow last October, Yuzuru Hanyu was told that he resembled to some a heroic character, delicate but fierce, from the Japanese tradition of anime.
He did not see himself that way, the slender, long-legged Hanyu said in an interview, his hair flopping over one eyebrow. But with a smile, he added, “I like to win with some drama.”
He could have had no idea how much drama lay ahead.
Less than three weeks later, Hanyu sustained ligament damage to his right ankle while rehearsing a difficult four-revolution jump. Nearly four months elapsed before he could compete again, here at the Winter Olympics, but he showed little erosion of skill or victorious determination from the layoff.
Skating on Saturday, Hanyu, 23, did not perform flawlessly before what was essentially a home crowd, in an arena where fans waved dozens of Japanese flags. But he displayed sufficient stamina, jumping ability, elastic spins and ethereal grace to win a second consecutive gold medal, becoming the first men’s repeat Olympic champion since Dick Button of the United States in 1948 and 1952.
The ankle is not completely healed, and Hanyu said he worried at times before the Games whether he would be able to skate again. But the injured joint held up enough to support another winning performance, with 317.85 points. Afterward, Hanyu said playfully, “I’d like to thank my ankle, you did a good job.”
He prevailed with a strategy of restraint, avoiding the riskiest quadruple jumps in his four-and-a-half-minute routine and relying on the completeness of his ability. His countryman, Shoma Uno, 20, took the silver medal with 306.90 points. And Javier Fernandez, 26, a training partner of Hanyu’s, won Spain’s first Olympic skating medal, taking bronze with 305.24 points.
Even though Nathan Chen of the United States, who was among the early favorites, did not reach the medal podium, he did find some measure of redemptive satisfaction — and perhaps some sting of regret — with a performance of audacious ambition that brought him fifth place over all. Vincent Zhou of the United States finished sixth, and Adam Rippon, also of the United States, was 10th.
With nothing to lose after finishing a disastrous 17th in Friday’s short program, Chen became the first Olympian to land five quadruple jumps cleanly in a routine and actually attempted six, but he put his hands to the ice on a quad flip. He still won the free skate.
He made the decision to attempt six quads on Friday night, after the short program. Relieved of expectation and feeling “just an anger,” he told himself, “I’ll just go for it.”
“I definitely did want to redeem myself after the two short programs that I did here,” Chen said in reference to his mistake-filled performances in the team and singles competition.
He added: “As much as I tried to deny it, I felt the pressure a lot before the short program, especially thinking about scores and placement and all that. And that was completely out of my control. That just tightened me up and made me really cautious on the ice. I just had to completely forget about expectations and allow myself to be myself.”
In the end, the injury “could be the best thing that ever happened” for Hanyu, said Jackie Wong, a prominent blogger from New York who is a former skater and skating judge and who is covering the Olympics. “He wasn’t going for unnecessary difficulty.”
Hanyu disregarded any talk about being the greatest ever in his sport, saying, “I’m not the best skater.” But others were not so reluctant.
“If you want him to be, you wouldn’t be wrong,” said Kurt Browning of Canada, a four-time world champion in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. “Why not. He’s everything. He’s the skater, he’s the jumper, but quintessentially, he’s the performer. He seems to have the superpower to take all the pressure, all the expectations and all the lights and all the cameras, and somehow he’s able to use it as a competitor.”