Men's Figure Skating Olympics 2014: Yuzuru Hanyu Poised to Become Next Superstar

Alex Espinoza@AlexEspinozaIVCorrespondent IIIFebruary 14, 2014

SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 14:  Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan celebrates after winning the gold medal in the Figure Skating Men's Free Skating on day seven of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Iceberg Skating Palace on February 14, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

As it turns out, moving to Patrick Chan's backyard was the best thing for Yuzuru Hanyu.

Buoyed by his unprecedented performance in the short program on Thursday, Hanyu took the gold in the men's individual figure skating event at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi Friday, capping off an impressive ascent to the top of the sport in recent years.

Three years ago, Hanyu might not have believed it was possible.

His hometown of Sendai, a port city in the northeast region of Japan, was ravaged by the devastating tsunami that ripped through the region in 2011. His home rink was destroyed and, according to Nancy Armour of USA Today, Hanyu considered hanging up his skates.

The mere act of living was difficult enough to bear with his world ravaged by the earthquake and tsunami three years ago, let alone maintaining the rigorous demands of being [an] elite athlete. But Turin Olympic champion Shizuka Arakawa encouraged the then-16-year-old to continue, helping fund his training, and people in his region donated money and arranged charity shows.

His thank you comes in the form of an Olympic gold medal, the first for Japan in men's figure skating.

"I'm here because of all the people in Japan who helped me, all the people around the world who supported me," Hanyu said through an interpreter. "I think I'm able to give something good back, to return the favor, if you will."

About a year after the earthquake hit Japan, Hanyu hit a crossroads. Stick in his recovering home country or travel half a world away to help his figure skating career?

He chose Toronto.

In April of 2012, a 17-year-old Hanyu packed up his bags and went to Chan's hometown, where he linked up with renowned coach Brian Orser. Less than two years later, Hanyu was standing atop the podium in Sochi, while Chan (pictured left) took the silver.

SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 14:  Patrick Chan of Canada poses after winning the silver, Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan after winning the gold and Denis Ten of Kazakhstan after winning the bronze in the Figure Skating Men's Free Skating on day seven of the Sochi 2014
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

It wasn't easy, though. In fact, Hanyu told Barry Wilner of the Associated Press that he thought he had lost his grasp on the gold medal after suffering two early falls in Friday's long program.

"Negative feelings were brewing inside of me," Hanyu told Wilner. "It was difficult to keep with the performance with all that in my head. I thought the gold medal was not in my hands."

But after Chan also stumbled in his routine, Hanyu's Friday score of 178.64, when added to his world-record 101.45-point performance in the short routine, was enough to win him the gold (280.09).

It speaks volumes to the impact that Orser had on Hanyu, as detailed by Armour.

Hanyu has always had better hops than most kangaroos. But under Orser, who led Yuna Kim to the women's gold medal four years ago in Vancouver, he developed the elegance and performance quality of which Olympic champions are made.

At the top of world-class men's figure skating, Hanyu and Chan have developed a top-notch rivalry recently.

While Chan was world champion in 2011, 2012 and 2013, the end of last year marked something of a turning point. A week after Chan set the world record with a 98.52 in the short program at a Grand Prix event, Hanyu broke his mark with a 99.84.

But given that Hanyu, 19, is four years younger than Chan, it looks like this may have signaled the passing of the torch. While Chan had been the sport's dominant force since the last Olympics, he came up short in what was likely the best chance of his life to win gold.

Meanwhile, Hanyu peaked at the right time, and now he's here to stay. In fact, he became the second-youngest gold medal winner in the men's Olympic competition behind 18-year-old American Dick Button in 1948.

We won't have to wait long to see Hanyu and Chan battle it out again on a big stage. From March 24-30, the globe's best will compete at the 2014 World Figure Skating Championships near Tokyo, in what's sure to be a great homecoming for Hanyu.

When you figure that Hanyu will be just 23 at the next Winter Games in South Korea, the sky's the limit in these next four years for the rising star. A lot can happen between now and then—there are a bunch of wide-eyed teenage talents out there waiting to develop—but Hanyu has a great shot to become the third men's multiple gold medal-winner, joining Button (1948, 1952) Austria's Karl Schafer (1932, 1936) and Sweden's Gillis Grafstrom (1920, 1924, 1928).

Hanyu's smooth and graceful technical ability was impossible to ignore throughout these Olympics, and despite his shortcomings on Friday, Hanyu has to be recognized as the best figure skater in the world. Given that his and Orser's relationship is relatively new, there's no reason to think that Hanyu has even reached his peak yet. 

It's amazing what can happen in a span of about 24 hours, and on Thursday and Friday, Hanyu cemented his status as figure skating's top dog for years to come.