This week the reigning Olympic figure skating champion Yuzuru Hanyu looks to become the first man to win a World Championship gold medal in the same year he stood atop the Olympic podium since 2002.
Hanyu, the 19-year-old from Japan who held on to win gold in Sochi last month against three-time world champion Patrick Chan, will try to win a double gold in 2014 and become the first man to do so since Russian Alexei Yagudin in 2002.
The Championships will be without its three-time and reigning champion in Chan, the Canadian who faltered to a silver medal in Sochi and is sitting out these Worlds to rest and recuperate in looking towards his uncertain future.
The men’s event gets underway Wednesday morning (EST) in Saitama, Japan, and concludes on Friday.
The World Championships, often a depleted field following the Olympics, will be without silver medalist Chan, bronze winner Denis Ten (out with injury), sixth place winner Daisuke Takahashi (a bronze medalist in 2010) and American Jason Brown, who placed ninth.
The U.S. will send reigning national champion Jeremy Abbott (12th in Sochi) and 2013 U.S. champ Max Aaron, who missed out on the Sochi Games by one spot in January.
“Watching my teammates that I thought I was going to go to the Olympics with on TV was the hardest part,” the 22-year-old Aaron told NBCSports.com in a phone interview last week. “That was really tough for me.”
Aaron was seventh at Worlds in 2013 and was seen to be given a vote of confidence by the U.S. Figure Skating Association when selected for Worlds over Brown following Nationals.
The U.S. needs Abbott and Aaron to combine for a 13th-place finish overall to recover a third spot on the international stage, which the U.S. men haven’t had since the 2011 World Championships.
Abbott, who announced this would be his last season prior to the U.S. Championships, said a third spot was not his focus.
“Of course everyone wants the three spots but it’s nobody’s focus,” said the 28-year-old, who had his best Worlds finish in 2010 when he placed fifth following the Vancouver Games. “Everyone wants to do the best that they can do. The two of us are definitely good enough to get back the three spots. Max is very talented and I think I’m capable enough that the two of us combined can do that.”
But Aaron said a third spot will be at the forefront of his mind when he takes to the ice in Saitama.
“I knew that third spot was going to make a difference going into the Olympic year, but we came up a little short,” Aaron said referring to the two U.S. spots the team had for Sochi. “Unfortunately that person was me.”
Finally off to Tokyo! Can’t wait to compete in my second World Championships and represent my country. #TeamUSA
— Max Aaron (@MaxTAaron) March 22, 2014
Hanyu will skate before a figure skating-mad fan base in Japan after becoming the first man in the country’s history to win an Olympic gold medal as well as Japan’s only figure skating medal in Sochi.
He fell twice in his free skate performance at the Iceberg Skating Palace, but the favorite Chan wasn’t better, Hanyu holding on for gold in a competition that was riddled with mistakes and falls.
Without Chan and Ten in the mix, Spain’s Javier Fernandez (fourth at the Sochi Olympics) will be figured into the medal mix after winning the bronze at the same event a year ago and seen to have given up a medal in Sochi.
Other Sochi competitors will factor into the medal conversation along with Hanyu, Fernandez, Abbott and Aaron. Japan’s Tatsuki Machida was fifth at the Olympics, Han Yan of China was seventh, German Peter Liebers was eighth and Michal Brezina of the Czech Republic placed 10th.
Russia will send 18-year-old Maksim Kovtun, the teenager who beat Yevgeny Plushenko at the Russian Championships in December but was skipped over for the veteran for the country’s lone men’s spot in Sochi. Plushenko helped Russia to gold in the team event before pulling out of the individual event, facing ridicule domestically.
“I think people are a lot more relaxed having gone through the Olympics and I think it makes for a really good competition,” said Abbott, who had two disastrous short programs (in the team and individual events) in Sochi before skating mistake-free in the long program. “In 2010, there were some amazing performances and I think this year is going to be no different. It’s still a world-class competition and you’re going to get world-class performances.”
Aaron said it was too early to tell, but that he’d like for Saitama to be the first step in the long road to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
“I can’t look that far ahead,” said the 2014 U.S. bronze medalist. “I have to take it season by season, day by day. I’m focused on what I need to do and the task at hand.”
While Abbott didn’t put a placement expectation on his Worlds effort, Aaron was more forthcoming.
“I’m shooting for a medal to be honest,” he said. “I want those clean performances and I’m hopefully coming away with that third spot for the U.S.”
Icenetwork.com will provide live coverage for subscribers. The men’s short program is set for Wednesday morning (2:45 a.m. EST) and the free skate will take place Friday (4 a.m. EST). NBC will air a World Championships recap show April 13 from 3-6 p.m. ET.