Yuzuru Hanyu’s decision to shift his training base to Canada was just what the Japanese teenager needed to become a contender for the gold medal in men’s figure skating at the Sochi Olympics.
Moving to Toronto to train under renowned coach Brian Orser has already paid off for the 19-year-old Hanyu, who beat three-time world champion Patrick Chan of Canada at the International Skating Union’s Grand Prix final last month.
Following a win at Japan’s nationals last month, it is clear Hanyu is peaking at the right time as he attempts to become the first Japanese man to win gold at the Olympics.
Leaving home at such a young age was difficult, but Hanyu is convinced the move in April 2012 was the right one.
Hanyu scored a record 99.84 points in the short program at the Grand Prix final, surpassing the previous high of 98.52 set by Chan at the Trophee Bompard a week earlier. He then widened his lead in the free skate to claim the confidence-boosting win over Chan, considered by many to be the favorite at Sochi.
“I have put in a lot of effort in the past year,” Hanyu said. “It was a big change, with a new coach and a new location, and dealing with the language barrier. But it has been good for me. My coach has helped me with both my skating skills and physical strength.”
Orser, who won the silver medal at the Sarajevo and Calgary Olympics, was Kim Yu-na’s coach when the Korean won the gold medal in Vancouver.
Like Hanyu, Kim also moved to Toronto before the Vancouver Olympics to train with Orser at the Toronto Cricket Skating and Curling Club, so the blueprint for success is in place.
Other students of the 52-year-old Canadian include Adam Rippon and Javier Fernandez.
Hanyu’s coaching team also includes choreographer Tracy Wilson.
Japan has never won gold in men’s figure skating at the Olympics. Hanyu’s compatriot Daisuke Takahashi won the bronze in Vancouver, but has been struggling in the buildup to Sochi.
Takahashi is also on the team for Sochi, along with Tatsuki Machida.
Orser said Hanyu’s win over Chan will heighten expectations, but also confidence.
“It is really good for Yuzuru’s mentality, as he wants to be considered a contender,” Orser told the Yomiuri Shimbun. “He’s better when he is considered a contender and works harder.”
Hanyu has had a series of challenges over his brief career. Shortly after winning a novice competition in 2004, his home rink closed due to financial problems.
A native of Sendai, Hanyu was practicing when the earthquake and tsunami hit his home town in 2011, and he had to evacuate the arena with his skates still on as nobody was sure if the building could withstand the record magnitude 9 quake.
Hanyu’s big break came when he won the 2010 world junior championship.
He turned senior in the 2010-2011 season and his first major win at the senior level was at the Rostelecom Cup in 2011.
Despite all the momentum, Hanyu will be dealing with the task of having to produce in his Olympic debut, while Chan is to make his second Olympic appearance after a disappointing fifth place in Vancouver.