Beijing – Yuzuru Hanyu’s back is up against the wall — just as rival Nathan Chen has lifted the weight of the world off his shoulders.
The two concluded Tuesday’s short program at the Beijing 2022 men’s figure skating competition separated by 18.82 points, leaving Hanyu’s potential third straight Olympic gold in doubt after Chen walked out of the Capital Indoor Arena as the clear leader in a talented pack that includes second-place Yuma Kagiyama and third-place Shoma Uno.
“If I try to think about what went wrong, nothing comes to mind,” Hanyu said after opening his short program set to “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso” with a popped quad salchow, shocking the crowd of hundreds in attendance.
“Maybe the ice hates me.”
The remainder of his elements, including a quad toe loop/triple toe loop combination, went off without a hitch, leaving the 27-year-old with a 95.15-point score that saw him finish the day in eighth place.
“I didn’t feel like I’d made a mistake, so I kept my feelings focused on performing the rest of the program,” Hanyu said. “I’m very thankful to have received 95 points, and I want to praise myself for performing the rest of my elements with such a high level of quality.”
While most of his compatriots arrived at the Games on Jan. 30 with the bulk of the Team Japan delegation, Hanyu remained in Japan until the last possible moment and did not fly to China until Sunday. Unable to practice on the competition surface, he instead trained with other skaters on Monday at the venue’s sub-rink, but said he was confident in his preparations.
“I felt good in the six-minute warmup, I don’t feel tired at all now,” Hanyu said.
“I can still go into the free skate in good form. I’ve trained well and I’m confident in my techniques, and after that only God knows what will happen.”
For Chen, Tuesday’s performance to “La Boheme” arguably marked the final exorcism of the ghosts that have haunted him since his disastrous short program four years ago at the Pyeongchang Olympics.
The reigning world No. 1 perfectly landed his quad flip, triple axel and quad lutz/triple toe loop combination for a second time at these Games after contributing to a silver medal for the United States in the team competition.
The judges awarded the American with a world-record score of 113.97, cementing him as the skater to beat at Thursday’s free skate.
“It definitely means a lot to have the opportunity to come back to an Olympics, and have the other opportunity to do two short programs and have both go as well as I could have hoped,” Chen said.
“(The) scores are out of my control, and I wasn’t expecting (such a high score), but I was definitely happy with the way I skated.”
Kagiyama, who took silver at the 2021 worlds, earned high marks from the judges for his own quad salchow and quad toe loop/triple toe loop combination for his program set to “When You’re Smiling” and set a new personal best of 108.12.
The 18-year-old has already mounted an impressive start to his first Games, winning the men’s free skate in the team competition on Sunday to help Japan secure bronze.
“This is my first Olympic Games ever, and to be honest I thought I would be very nervous, but from start to finish I was having fun skating,” Kagiyama said. “I can’t complain about my jumps, which I landed well, but my legs were giving up on me during the step sequences.”
Uno received a grade-of-execution deduction after putting his hand down during his quad toeloop/triple toeloop combo, but otherwise skated cleanly to “Oboe Concerto” for his own personal best of 105.90 and a place in Thursday’s final group.
“The way I started to think this year is that I want to compete to help improve my practices, and I want to practice in order to improve my performances,” Uno said. “Nathan has inspired me for the last four years because I wanted to hit the level that he’s achieving.”
The significant gap between Hanyu and the three skaters in podium positions means the 27-year-old will have to make good on his promise to land a historic quad axel in competition — and likely more beyond that — if he is to earn a third Olympic medal.
“There’s nothing I can do about my mistake today, so I have to do my best at the free skate,” Hanyu said. “I will do (the quad axel). I must focus on everything, not only the quad axel, so I’ll keep doing my best for every (element) in the long program.”
Chen expressed sympathy for Hanyu’s popped salchow, paying respects to the skater he has competed with at the world’s highest level for over half a decade.
“Knowing how it feels to skate, maybe not necessarily at your potential, does not feel great, especially at the Olympics,” Chen said. “You certainly can’t ever count him out; he’s a two-time Olympic champion for a reason.
“And no matter what he does in the future, he will always be a true figure skating icon — one of the greatest ever, if not the greatest ever.”
The lead-in to the men’s singles competition was marred by uncertainty well beyond Hanyu’s status, with American medal contender Vincent Zhou suddenly forced to withdraw after testing positive for COVID-19 on Monday — a turn of events that prevented the 21-year-old from accepting his silver medal for the team competition.
“I have been doing everything in my power to stay free of COVID since the start of the pandemic. I’ve taken all the precautions I can,” Zhou said in a video posted to his Instagram profile. “I’ve isolated myself so much that the loneliness I’ve felt in the last month or two has been crushing at times.
“But I do recognize that this absolutely does not define me as an athlete, as a person. I am more than just another positive COVID test.”
Zhou’s positive test came as a shock to skaters who have been taking extra precautions to prevent infection from the easily transmitted omicron strain. After his performance, Chen could be seen affixing his mask before stopping to put on his skate guards.
“For every athlete, working so hard to make it, and then testing out the day before, that’s really tough,” Chen said. “My heart goes out to him, but he’s been a trooper, a really amazing sport … still supporting all of us despite that.”
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