Motivated by setbacks
The next Winter Olympics will be in PyeongChang in February 2018, midway through the 2017-18 figure skating season. For competitors hoping to stand on the podium at the main event, the current season is vital for preparation.
Top skater Yuzuru Hanyu ended last season early, sidelined by ligament damage in his left foot. After treatment and rehabilitation, it wasn't until mid-June that he was able to get back on the ice. Speaking in late August, ahead of international competitions in September and October, he is relaxed and confident.
"My practices aren't very detailed yet, but I'm not too fussed," he says. "It's still preseason, so I just want to get ready for my more difficult techniques. When I started practicing on the ice, I was doing a lot of jumps that didn't put much stress on my left foot, like Lutz jumps and loops. It kind of made me want to try quadruples, but that's not realistic right now."
The first Japanese figure skater to win Olympic gold in men's singles delivers his analysis calmly, having already overcome numerous hurdles in his glittering career. Pushing himself to new levels, he successfully took on the challenge of performing a program with two different kinds of quadruple jumps. He has also raised his own world-best points score. When tested, he invariably gets results. Despite the injury setback, he is unlikely to lose focus on his goals.
For the upcoming season, Yuzuru is seeking fresh ways to move audiences. "In the short program, I have a fun song with a quick tempo, and hope to express energy and beauty," he explains. "Meanwhile, in the free skating, I don't want to typecast myself as the character I portrayed last year, so I chose a very sentimental piano piece. People will probably take different things from it, but I definitely want to stir something in their hearts. The two performances will leave totally different impressions, so I hope to use them to show contrasting sides of myself at the same tournament."
Just forty days after our interview, at the first event of the new season, Yuzuru became the first skater to land a quadruple loop in an ISU competition. This season, he is using "Let's Go Crazy" by Prince in the short program and "Hope & Legacy" by pianist Joe Hisaishi in the free skating.
Yuzuru started figure skating at the age of four. When he was ten, he competed overseas for the first time. The word travel is now something he associates with tours and practice. Since 2012, his training base has been in Toronto, Canada.
"The flight to Toronto is a 12-hour trip, so I'm used to long flights," he says. "And with all the overseas competitions, I've become an experienced flyer. When I travel to a tournament, I'm careful to get my basic sleep to ward off jet lag. After the event, I might review my performance on the flight and try to figure out any problems, but I usually just chill out completely and play video games or something like that."
Asked what he likes to take with him on trips, Yuzuru's eyes light up. "My earphones are really important," he says. "I use different ones depending on my mood, the song, and where I am. Sometimes I choose them based on how good they are at canceling noise or how well they suit the music, but the main factor is sound quality. I'm really picky. Sometimes I choose a type that lets me hear extremely fine or pure sound, or warm sound if I'm tired. When I want to listen to something to pump myself up, I'll select headphones with a really clear sound. I always carry five or six pairs, sometimes even eight!"
Yuzuru grins when he is shown a just-taken photo of himself with a favorite set. "Wow! I've hardly ever seen a picture of myself with earphones! I like it!" For him, earphones are both travel companions and an invaluable aid: "Even though I listen to the songs in my program every day, I still feel new things deep inside, sounds I haven't heard before."
A figure skater doesn't earn a high score simply by following the choreography. He or she also has to interpret the music in an expressive way. Success at the highest level involves the ability to take in the music, move in complete harmony with it and execute the technical elements, all while communicating a vision of the piece. Nonetheless, it is still surprising to see Yuzuru giving so much thought to earphones. Listening to him, it is clear that he wants to realize his vision of a song by absorbing every nuance of the sound for his performance on the ice.
Athletes have only one opportunity every four years to win gold at the highest level, but in recent years it has been rare for figure skaters to compete continuously at the top international tournaments. Some take breaks for physical and mental renewal, but it's increasingly difficult to get back on the podium. The rules get more complex every year, the level of skill is so high that athletes have to perform quadruple jumps of different kinds, and expressive ability must connect with the technical elements. There's also tougher competition from emerging rivals.
Despite all this, Yuzuru has no plans to step away. "I think it's because of the sport's multi-faceted nature," he says. "A figure skater has to have many qualities to succeed: expression, skating skills, plus the ability to jump, spin and step. Of course, my major assets are in the technical elements and the way my skills work together, but I can learn a lot from what other athletes do well. It's tough to compete at the top level, but that isn't a big pressure for me. I look forward to working more on particular aspects, aiming to upgrade my overall skill set by focusing on the individual elements. I’m constantly driven to get better."
Yuzuru has big hopes for the upcoming PyeongChang Games. "I definitely want to win the gold medal!" he states without hesitation. "I aim to be champion at every event I enter, so it's the same desire I always have to win gold. The Games only happen every four years, but it's still a competition like the annual tournaments." How would he follow up a second Olympic gold? "Well, I guess I'd just want more!"