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Yuzuru Hanyu has a global audience that follows him anywhere – literally

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It’s the first day of official practices at Skate Canada in October, and 52-year-old Albina Ivanova has traveled a long way from her home in Moscow, Russia, to watch her favorite skater compete in Kelowna, British Columbia, a small resort city nestled among the mountains just over 100 hundred miles north of Washington state.

Ivanova, along with friend Anastasiia Murinka, 30, are donning Winnie the Pooh ears as they look for a seat inside Prospera Place arena. Ivanova and Murinka are devoted Yuzuru Hanyu fans, the reigning and two-time Olympic champion, who is currently the most famous figure skater in the world.

There is something about Hanyu, his fans tell you. And Ivanova agrees.

“I have watched figure skating for 40 years and in all these years, Yuzu is the most important skater,” Ivanova says in broken English, with the help of Murinka. “Before Yuzu, I only watched figure skating on TV. Now, for the last five years, I’ve been coming to competitions… because of Yuzu. Seven trips total.”

On this, her seventh trip, Ivanova flew from Moscow via London and Toronto to get to Kelowna. Much to her delight, Hanyu, who lives and trains in Canada, was on the Toronto-to-Kelowna leg of her trip. She didn’t dare try and speak with him.

“Yuzu is popular all over the world,” she continues. “He is a genius… (“Genius?” I ask.) Absolutely. He is the first man after the gods.”

To some Hanyu fans, he isn’t “after” the gods, he’s one of them. The first male skater to repeat as Olympic champion since American Dick Button in 1948 and ’52, Hanyu has become a global phenomenon over the past decade as he has etched his way into the record books, one skate at a time.

While his numbers – two Olympic golds, two world titles, 18 times setting a new scoring world record, the No. 1 most popular athlete in Japan – speak for themselves, what draws his legions of followers (sometimes known as “Fanyus,” as in Fans of Hanyu) isn’t that he’s so successful, though that certainly doesn’t hurt. It’s the way that he skates on the ice, often described in similar terms to Ivanova’s: other-worldly; god-like; balletic; seamless.

It’s a kind of skating that the Japanese are known for, perhaps Hanyu now more than anyone else. In a country like Japan, which swoons for classical ballet and other forms or expressive dance, the artistic and performance aspect of skating – aside from the jumping (which, it should be said, Hanyu is an all-time great at, too) – is just as important.

“He’s superhuman,” says American Ashley Wagner, the 2014 Olympian and 2016 world silver medalist. “I am in awe of what he’s capable of doing within this sport. He is one of those once-in-a-lifetime athletes. The Japanese audience is such an educated figure skating audience, so if there was a market to be your home crowd, it’s Japan.”

After he successfully defended his Olympic title in 2018, Hanyu returned to a hero’s welcome. Already a megastar athlete, he was suddenly a household name. Some 100,000 people showed up for his welcome-home parade in his hometown of Sendai, and he was given the People’s Honor Award by the prime minister, one of Japan’s highest honors. Only 27 people or groups have been awarded it – ever.

“He’s definitely bigger than figure skating,” explains Akiko Tamura, a Japanese figure skating journalist who has covered the sport for 25 years. “His celebrity can be compared to Ichiro [Suzuki, the baseball player.]”

Tamura continues: “He can’t walk on the street like a regular person… Hanyu is like a rock star.”

Figure skating wasn’t always massive in Japan. Over the last 15 years it has become the biggest and most important market for the International Skating Union, but that happened over time, as Japan built an international prowess in the sport while traditionally dominant countries like the U.S. and Russia stagnated.

Tamura, the journalist, points to the mid-2000s when things started to really pick up, most notably with Shizuka Arakawa’s gold medal win in Turin at the 2006 Winter Olympics. Teenagers Miki Ando and Mao Asada continued the success for Japan thereafter, but then came Daisuke Takahashi, who won bronze in the men’s event in Vancouver in 2010, as well as the world title a few months later.

“TV and media always wanted to focus on ladies, ladies, ladies… but they realized that men’s figure skating can be marketed, as well,” Tamura explains. “Daisuke was so popular. We had good skaters with him, like Takahiko Kozuka and Nobunari Oda. People realized there was more to figure skating than pretty girls.”

Hanyu made his debut on the senior Grand Prix in 2010 at 15, and won bronze at the world championships in 2012. And while Canada’s Patrick Chan arrived at the 2014 Sochi Olympics as the men’s favorite, Hanyu – and his bevy of quadruple jumps – had been building steam slowly but surely over the previous three seasons.

“And then Hanyu just – boom! – wins the Olympics,” describes Tamura. “I think people really noticed him when he won Sochi by surprise. He wasn’t the favorite, Chan was, but people [in Japan] were like, ‘Oh, we have a gold medalist in men’s figure skating?! OK!’”

Following Sochi in 2014, Hanyu didn’t let up – as many figure skating gold medalists (mostly in singles) have done in the past. As his star continued to rise, so too did his popularity, as well as vested sponsorship and economic interest in him… as well as the sport.

It’s a sea of Japanese flags in the crowd when Hanyu takes to the ice in Kelowna for Skate Canada, the audience mostly made up of fans from Japan, partly owed to the fact that three tour groups have organized hundreds to come watch Yuzu skate in person.

But you see almost as much bright yellow in the audience as big red dots. That’s because Hanyu has a connection to the Winnie the Pooh cartoon, his favorite stuffed toy since he was a junior skater. Rinks now become awash in what Fanyus call “Yuzupoohs” after Hanyu skates, the ice covered in dozens – if not hundreds – of the plush animals, thrown on in support of his just-finished program.

Winnie the Pooh
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On this day, it’s a life-sized, giant Pooh bear that you can spot from across the arena. As Hanyu skates, he watches, quietly.

“It’s a fake Pooh,” laughs Reenie Davis, a fan from Seattle. “He came from BigTeddy.com, which, as advertised, he’s a big teddy. I got a big yellow bear and modified him as much as I could to Pooh him up.”

Davis is what she calls a “late converter” Fanyu, having caught the Hanyu bug during the 2018 Olympics. But she says there is nothing like his skating: “It moves you,” she explains.

“He has this passionate and emotional connection to his programs that speaks to a lot of fans,” she says. “His dedication to the sport and his ability to move it forward is amazing to watch.”

Tourism Kelowna estimates that over 3,500 visitors made their way from out of town for Skate Canada, “a large number… from Japan.” While Hanyu is the main show, Davis explains that it’s a greater community that he’s helped form, too.

“It’s a very large and very passionate” group of fans, says Davis. “I am meeting up with friends from Malaysia, Canada and Australia this weekend. (Then) I’ll go to Worlds in Montreal (in March).”

Tourism Kelowna estimates that some CA$4.5M in overall economic activity took place from Skate Canada, a “significant amount” for a city of 127,000 people.

“We heard from local hotels and accommodators that within minutes of the release of competitor names (for Skate Canada), they noticed bookings from Japan,” says Lisanne Ballantyne, president and CEO of Tourism Kelowna.

The (unconfirmed) rumors in town: It was the busiest weekend ever for the Kelowna airport.

This coming weekend, Hanyu (and many of his fans, you can assume), will head to Turin, Italy, for the Grand Prix Final. Yuzuru will turn 25 on the day of the men’s free skate, and it also marks the first head-to-head showdown between Hanyu and his most notable challenger, American Nathan Chen, since Chen won against an injured Hanyu at worlds this spring in Saitama, Japan.

When it was announced that worlds 2019 would be in Japan, the rumors swirled that the two-time Olympic gold medalist would skate through and for them, then announce his retirement. But that competition came and went, and Hanyu has only looked more determined than ever this fall, winning at both Skate Canada and NHK Trophy just a couple of weeks ago.

He continues to discuss the never-been-done-before quadruple Axel, which he would like to add to his repertoire, and – should he stay healthy – would no doubt be one of the top men’s skaters in the world going into the 2022 Olympics in Beijing.

He has kept his Toronto training base with Canadian Brian Orser as coach, spending only a few months a year in Japan to tour an ice show, May to July.

Not since Sweden’s Gillis Grafstrom in 1920, ’24 and ’28 has a skater won back-to-back-to-back Olympic golds.

“To be able to put it in laymen’s terms, this is an athlete who has two Olympic gold medals and has no reason to still be competing and – if anything – came back and is continuing to beat his best,” says Wagner, who now commentates for the Olympic Channel. “Yuzuru is quickly becoming a legend in this sport, which is also why it’s so exciting to watch Nathan and Yuzuru go head-to-head. That shows you how talented Nathan is, too.”

The concern now in Japan, however, is what happens to figure skating when Hanyu leaves, since he has become such a superstar, the sport riding his coattails.

“That’s what everyone is talking about,” says Tamura. “‘Who can replace him?’ No one can… but that will really hit hard when he retires… TV deals, sponsors… all of that. People love Shoma [Uno] and Rika [Kihira], but not to the level of Hanyu. … I think if he didn’t win in PyeongChang, the boom could have died really quickly.”

But for now, it lives on. And all you can say to sum it up: Best of luck to the ice sweepers at the Grand Prix Final. It will – once again – be raining Pooh Bears.

Nick McCarvel is a freelance reporter based in New York City. He covered the 2014 Sochi and 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics for NBCOlympics.com.

GRAND PRIX FINAL: Entry List | TV/Stream Schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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When Michael Phelps raced Libby Trickett at Duel in the Pool

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At the peak of his career, Michael Phelps was upstaged in a race by a swimmer who went four seconds slower.

Australian Libby Trickett did more than hold her own against Phelps to lead off the opening event of the 2007 Duel in the Pool, a mixed-gender 4x100m freestyle relay.

Trickett, then known as Libby Lenton shortly before she got married, became the first woman to break 53 seconds, while Phelps went 48.72 in a head-to-head at the Sydney 2000 Olympic swimming venue.

“I was trash-talking … asking what he has got and telling him if he is going to bring it tonight. I think deep down he was really scared of me,” Trickett said, joking, according to The Associated Press. “Before the race he said good luck. He is a good competitor to race against, and I will remember that for the rest of my life — that I raced against Michael Phelps.”

Australia went on to win the relay by 2.49 seconds, in large part because Trickett swam .31 faster than the women’s 100m free world record. Normally, relay leadoff swims are eligible to break individual world records.

But FINA later ruled that Trickett’s time was not record eligible because the mixed 4x100m free was not an approved event. (Mixed-gender relays debuted at the world championships in 2015 and will debut at the Olympics in Tokyo next year.)

“I am a little disappointed because I know in my heart what time I swam and that time is faster than the existing world record,” Trickett said in 2007, according to Swimming Australia. “However, having said that, the disappointment can take nothing away from the fact I now know I am capable of swimming under 53 seconds and I will continue to strive to improve every aspect of my swimming.”

Trickett broke the world record officially at the 2008 Australian Olympic Trials, clocking 52.88 to take .42 off German Britta Steffen‘s mark. The world record has since been lowered all the way to 51.71 by Swede Sarah Sjöström at the 2017 World Championships.

Phelps’ time was impressive, his second-fastest 100m free at the point in his career. He raced tired, two days after that year’s world championships finished in Melbourne. Phelps earned seven golds at those worlds, and he has said 2007 was his peak, rather than 2008.

He raced strategically against Trickett, not allowing her to draft off him in the adjacent lane.

“I remember going down the first lap, and she was kind of right at my shins,” Phelps said with a laugh, according to the Los Angeles Times. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is not good.’ I knew she would jump up on the lane line and kind of drag, the smart way to do it. I remember I was going right into the 50 [meter] wall, and I turned and went completely on the other side of the lane.”

Trickett won five golds at the 2007 Worlds and another four medals at the 2008 Olympics, though Steffen edged her for 100m free gold by .04.

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Who is Germany’s greatest Olympian?

Birgit Fischer-Schmidt
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The combined all-time German Olympic medal total (including East Germany and West Germany) trails only the United States and Russia/Unified Team/Soviet Union. Norway owns the most Winter Olympic medals of any single National Olympic Committee, but the Germany/East Germany/West Germany sum is actually greater. A look at five of Germany’s greatest Olympians …

Kathrin Boron
Rowing
Four Olympic Gold Medals

Alternated gold medals between double sculls and quadruple sculls from 1992 through 2004, the last one as a mom, tacking on a bronze in 2008. Boron also earned eight world titles. In 19 total Olympic and world championships starts, she collected 12 golds, five silvers, a bronze and a fourth. An ankle injury kept her out of the 1988 Olympics at age 18, or else she could have been the first woman to take gold at five Olympics.

Birgit Fischer-Schmidt
Canoe-Kayak
Eight Olympic Gold Medals

Considered by some the greatest Olympian in history. Fischer-Schmidt won 12 Olympic medals (in 13 career Olympic events) and 37 world championships medals from 1979-2005, scattered among four retirements, two childbirths and the 1984 East German boycott. Fischer-Schmidt retired after earning her last two world championships bronze medals in 2005 at age 43. Had Fischer-Schmidt extended to one more Olympics in 2008, she could have been on the same team as niece Fanny Fischer, who earned a gold of her own in Beijing.

Georg Hackl
Luge
Three Olympic Gold Medals

The only luger with three individual Olympic titles. Hackl was called the “Flying White Sausage” for his build and Bavarian roots, a nickname he opposed. His speed on the sled was not up for debate. Hackl finished second in singles and fourth in doubles in his Olympic debut in 1988. Then he won singles golds in 1992, 1994 and 1998 before bowing out in 2006. He then became a coach for the German team and its next luge great — 2010 and 2014 Olympic champion Felix Loch.

Claudia Pechstein
Speed Skating
Nine Olympic Medals

The only woman to compete in seven Winter Olympics. Pechstein owns Olympic titles in the 3000m, 5000m and team pursuit, the last medal of any color coming in 2006. At 48, she continues to race on the top international level, placing eighth, ninth and 11th at the world single distances championships in February, 28 years after her Olympic debut in Albertville, France. Pechstein served a two-year doping ban from 2009-11 over irregularities in her biological passport. She denied cheating and fought the ban in court for several years after its conclusion.

Isabell Werth
Equestrian
10 Olympic Medals

The most decorated Olympic equestrian with 10 medals and six golds. Werth, nicknamed the “Dressage Queen,” earned her first medals at the 1992 Barcelona Games and now, at 50, currently holds the Nos. 1 and 2 world rankings with two different horses. In 10 career Olympic events, she has never finished worse than second place. No other female Olympian can make that claim.

MORE: Most decorated U.S. female Olympian on front line of coronavirus fight

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