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Celebrating artistry in the land of the rising son

Yuzuru Hanyu
Yuzuru HanyuPHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

PYEONGCHANG • For some figure skaters, winning back-to-back Olympic golds for the first time in 66 years, especially while taking painkillers for a damaged ankle, would be achievement enough for a lifetime. But not for Yuzuru Hanyu.

Barely 24 hours after topping the podium in Pyeongchang just months after suffering an ankle injury that threatened his career, the Japanese phenomenon has a new goal - to land a quadruple axel, a jump no skater has yet achieved.

"Right now I have no intention to stop skating," he told a news conference yesterday, after winning gold a day earlier.

"I've already achieved all my dreams. But there are still things I want to do in skating. My whole life's been dedicated to it and that's been really good - but I want just a little more."

At the top of that list is to land a quadruple axel, which is believed to be technically possible but would require an extra half-turn in the air on top of the four already needed for any successful quad.

"I want to do one, because nobody else has," the 23-year-old said.

NEXT CHALLENGE

I want to do one, because nobody else has.

YUZURU HANYU, back-to-back Olympic gold medallist, on his determination to land a quadruple axel jump.

"The jump that has never let me down is the triple axel. I've probably put more time, practice and energy into it than to any other jump.

"One of my coaches has called the axel 'the king of jumps' and, while being grateful to the triple for all it's given me, I'd like to aim for a quad."

His immediate priority, however, is healing an ankle he damaged in November during a practice fall that forced him into an eleventh-hour withdrawal from the NHK Trophy and then an extended hiatus from competitive action.

Remarkably, his first competition since the injury was Friday's short programme in Pyeongchang. And his gutsy free skate on Saturday sparked "Yuzu-mania" in the crowd as a shower of stuffed Winnie-the-Pooh bears rained onto the ice.

Even Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe got a little carried away.

He called Hanyu to congratulate him and, in a phone call made public by the Japanese government, admitted he had got so excited watching on TV that he "almost squashed a tangerine I was holding to a pulp".

Millions of tweets were posted within an hour of his win.

An expectant Japan, not to mention Hanyu's legions of fans around the world, will now wonder whether their hero will dare to dream of an Olympic hat-trick at the 2022 Beijing Games.

"I haven't thought about the next Olympics," said Hanyu.

"I'm just thinking of getting my ankle healed properly."

He revealed yesterday that the initial damage to his "really painful" ankle was so complicated that nobody really knew how to treat it or even give an accurate prognosis.

"To be honest, the situation is unclear even now," he said.

"All I can say is that if I wasn't taking painkillers, I couldn't do the jumps or land them. I need some time to recover."

When healthy, his ambitious athleticism allows him to perform quads. And the emotion and interpretive skills of his artistry and musicality have made him a figure of fascination. He covers the ice with the creativity of a brush stroke and the precision of a stylus.

"He's the most complete athlete in figure skating, probably ever," said Stephane Lambiel of Switzerland, the 2006 Olympic silver medallist who is now a coach.

Hanyu also blurs rigid gender lines with his performances, possessing grace and elegance that fans and journalists say are prized in Japan over a hypermasculine style of skating.

He is among the country's most popular athletes and endorses products from mattresses to chewing gum to a video game to an airline.

Hanyu can appear delicate, a boyish Christopher Robin with his Pooh. But he has a steely resolve.

A series of physical issues in the four years since his Sochi triumph, including several sprains, surgery and a succession of illnesses on top of the asthma he has had since a child, toughened him up.

"Honestly, if there hadn't been anything before I got hurt at the NHK Trophy, I don't think I could have won Olympic gold," he said.

"It's because I had so many experiences that I was able to think and learn a lot."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 19, 2018, with the headline 'Celebrating artistry in the land of the rising son'. Print Edition | Subscribe