The last time Yuzuru Hanyu skated in Shanghai, he fell five times during his performance, with a bandage wrapped around his head and a blood-stained chin on Nov. 8.
The Olympic champion is back in the Chinese city this week, looking to become the first Japanese skater to repeat as World champion.
“He’s had quite a challenging season with a number of obstacles,” said his coach, two-time Canadian Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser, according to The Associated Press. “But each time he seems to bounce back.”
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In November, Hanyu and China’s Yan Han collided violently in a warm-up at a Grand Prix series event in Shanghai.
Hanyu, 20, was checked by medical staff and performed his free skate less than an hour later, finishing second overall despite fall, after fall, after fall, after fall, after fall.
He returned to Japan the next day, being wheeled through an airport in front of many fans. Three weeks later, Hanyu fell on jumps in both of his programs at his next competition and finished fourth.
Still, he snuck into December’s Grand Prix Final, the biggest competition this season outside the World Championships.
At the Grand Prix Final, Hanyu again fell in both of his programs. Yet he still won by a whopping 34.26 points.
Then came his next problem, bladder surgery that kept him off the ice in January.
Despite all that, both NBC Olympics analysts Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir tapped Hanyu as the favorite at Worlds this week.
“Hanyu was so strong at the Grand Prix Final, and despite making the one mistake [the fall], he was in such good form, so classy and so dignified, and skating a way that an Olympic champion should skate,” Weir said. “It will be hard for anyone to overtake him because he is so respected by the judges and the International Skating Union.”
If anyone can deny Hanyu, Lipinski and Weir agreed it’s Kazakhstan’s Denis Ten, the Olympic bronze medalist who won the Four Continents Championship in Seoul in February.
Ten’s total score at Four Continents — 289.46 — would have beaten Hanyu at the Grand Prix Final, but Ten didn’t qualify for the Grand Prix Final due to early season struggles.
“When [Ten] is on, it’s magical,” Lipinski said. “He sets himself apart from the group because he is the all-around skater. He has every part of the package. He has the speed, the quads [jumps], the beautiful quality of his skating.”
Another rival is Spain’s Javier Fernandez, who took second to Hanyu at the Grand Prix Final and is the two-time reigning World bronze medalist. But Fernandez’s best skating this season hasn’t rivaled Hanyu or Ten at their best.
Then there are the three Americans, who are unlikely to grab the first U.S. men’s medal since Evan Lysacek‘s gold in 2009 but hopeful of retaining three berths for the 2016 World Championships in Boston.
Lipinski and Weir agree that’s a very reachable goal. The top two U.S. men, out of Jason Brown, Adam Rippon and Joshua Farris, must have combined placements equal to or better than 13 to attain it. For example, Brown to finish sixth and Rippon seventh.
The best American may be Farris, even though he was third at the U.S. Championships in January and is making his senior Worlds debut. The 2013 World junior champion could have won the U.S. title had he not mistakenly put three double toe loops in his free skate at Nationals.
Farris, 20, took a planned quad jump out of his short program due to boot issues, but he is coming off a breathtaking second-place performance at Four Continents.
“Josh is proving that he has staying power,” Lipinski said. “He is a breath of fresh air. The style he skates in, the way that he feels the music. He’s in tune with his performances and brings a very different style than someone like Jason.”
Brown, also 20, in January became the youngest U.S. champion since 2004 and in Sochi became the youngest U.S. Olympic men’s singles skater since 1976.
He will not put a quad jump in either program in Shanghai, after two-footing a landing on his first in-competition quad attempt at Four Continents. That might be a decision that hangs with Brown beyond Worlds and into next season.
“Once you do [a quad] once, at your very first event, and it doesn’t go too well, then taking it out and not trying it, all summer it becomes this elephant in the room, and you can blow it out in your mind,” Lipinski said. “It becomes tough to overcome.”
Then there’s Rippon, a two-time World junior champion making his third Worlds appearance and first since 2012. Rippon has a quad Lutz in his arsenal, but landing it and keeping the rest of his program intact is far from a sure thing.
“He doesn’t have the consistency,” Lipinski said. “It’s all about the mental game.”
A U.S. pair could finish higher at Worlds than the best U.S. man for the first time since 2011. U.S. champions Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim boast a quad twist and were fifth at Four Continents, against a field of the top U.S., Canadian and Chinese pairs.
Throw in the Russians this week, but Scimeca and Knierim are aiming for the top six. That would match or better the best U.S. finish in pairs since 2006.
“It’s realistic, but for me they’re a team that if they do make a mistake and start to get sloppy, it upsets the whole performance,” Lipinski said.