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Yuzuru Hanyu roars to Worlds lead amid pressure of rising expectations

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Yuzuru Hanyu feels the expectations, rising with every world-record performance. He stepped on the TD Garden ice with an unfamiliar nervousness as thousands cheered in anticipation on Wednesday night.

Many Japanese fans flew more than 6,000 miles to Boston for the World Championships this week, most of all to watch Hanyu perform for not even eight minutes over two programs.

But he’s used to that, having swept the Olympic and World titles in 2014 and shattered short program, free skate and total scores at his last two international competitions.

“I was pretty nervous today, and just the quality of the nervousness was a little bit different from usual,” Hanyu said through a translator afterward. “It’s hard to explain, but I felt a little unsettling in my mind.”

Hanyu’s first task was Wednesday’s short program, jumping, stepping and spinning to Chopin for just under three minutes.

He appeared calm and cocooned as he skated towards center ice, seconds before his turn as the penultimate competitor among a group of 30.

“When I was skating the short program, I was kind of released from that feeling,” Hanyu said of the nervousness, “and I just skated.”

Nearly to perfection.

Hanyu nailed all of his jumps, unlike his two main rivals, including two quads and tallied the second-highest short-program score under a judging system that debuted in 2005.

He roared twice before gliding off the ice, carefully avoiding Winnie the Pooh bears tossed by adoring fans. They’ve been a staple since before he became the world’s best skater at age 19 two years ago.

“The reason that I was so emotional at the end today was because I felt kind of different,” said Hanyu, attributing the nervousness at least partly to obstacles faced in pre-Worlds training, including a poor practice Tuesday. “With that circumstance, I was still able to pull out the good performance. That’s why I showed my emotion so strongly.”

The scoreboard read 110.56, just off the record 110.95 set at his last international competition in December.

Hanyu goes into Friday’s free skate (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra) with the largest short-program lead for any skater in any discipline at a Worlds or Olympics — a whopping 12.04 points.

“I do feel the expectation of my standard has been rising, and I do feel the pressure, actually, but it doesn’t really affect my performance,” Hanyu said. “I want to really enjoy my skating, and I think I was able to show that today.”

Neither 2015 World champion Javier Fernandez nor three-time World champion Patrick Chan can say they showed their best Wednesday. Both men fell on jumps and are second and third, respectively, going into the free skate.

Fernandez, who erased Hanyu’s comparatively paltry short-program lead of 2.46 points to win Spain’s first World title a year ago, added a second quadruple jump to his short program earlier this season.

He needed it to continue challenging Hanyu, his training partner under 1988 Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser in Toronto.

But Fernandez couldn’t land it, slamming his right arm and then the rest of his body on the ice on a Salchow.

“When we decided to put two quads, we knew it was more risk,” Fernandez said. “Hopefully in the free program I can keep myself more concentrated, I don’t do any more mistakes, because Yuzu is already like 10 points away.”

Chan, the last man to beat Hanyu in November, fell on a triple Axel at his first Worlds since he three-peated in 2013. The Canadian took more than 18 months off from competition after grabbing silver behind Hanyu at the Sochi Olympics.

He called his third-place standing Wednesday a success.

“There’s a lot of pressure that I haven’t been familiar with for two seasons,” Chan said. “I’m very happy with how much I’ve improved already this year, being a comeback year.”

The U.S. men are out of the medal picture, as expected. U.S. champion Adam Rippon skated clean but didn’t attempt a quad. It showed in his score, an 85.72 for seventh place.

The 2013 U.S. champion Max Aaron did attempt a quad but put a hand down and slotted in 4.44 behind Rippon in eighth place. Worlds rookie Grant Hochstein fell on his lone quad and is 16th.

Rippon and Aaron must make a net gain of two places in the free skate for the U.S. to keep three men for the 2017 World Championships.

As for Hanyu, the numbers to watch are 219.48 and 330.43, his world-record free skate and total scores set in December. They are not at the front of his mind.

“I am not thinking of setting new records,” he said.

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Men’s Short Program
1. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) — 110.56
2. Javier Fernandez (ESP) — 98.52
3. Patrick Chan (CAN) — 94.84
7. Adam Rippon (USA) — 85.72
8. Max Aaron (USA) — 81.28
16. Grant Hochstein (USA) — 74.81

Grant Hochstein reaches figure skating’s highest level, first Worlds at age 25

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BOSTON (AP) — Grant Hochstein wakes up at 5 a.m. most days, not to work on his own skating but to teach the sport to others.

The 25-year-old American is accomplished enough to set a goal of qualifying for the next Olympics, but not famous enough to earn big endorsement deals to pay for all that goes into that. So he spends 12-hour days at the rink, alternating between coaching and being coached.

Just listening to Hochstein describe his typical schedule is exhausting.

“I usually teach 6:15-8, and then I skate 9-9:45,” he explained Monday. “Teach 9:45-10:30. Skate 10:45-11:30. Teach 11:30-12:15. Skate 12:30-1:15.”

And on and on it goes. But not this week, when Hochstein will be competing against the best skaters on the planet on national TV in front of a sold-out crowd at a big-name arena.

He’s the oldest American man to make his World Championships debut since 27-year-old Rudy Galindo two decades ago. Before this season, Hochstein had gone to senior Nationals six times, never finishing better than seventh — and that came in his first appearance way back in 2010. It had been five years since he’d received a spot in the sport’s elite Grand Prix series that takes place each fall.

So as this season started, he didn’t know how much longer he wanted to compete. The decision hinged partly on his results, but also on how soon he hoped to get going on life after skating.

Now that he’s had the most successful season of his career, Hochstein plans to stick with the sport for another two years to try to make the 2018 Olympic team. And he’s comfortable with that commitment because, in many ways, he’s already entered his post-skating world.

“I’m doing this because I enjoy it, not because I’m trying to hang onto something,” Hochstein said. “I see where my life is going, and I’m very, very happy about that.”

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He lives with his girlfriend, fellow skater Caroline Zhang, and their dog near a rink outside Los Angeles and contentedly jokes about their unglamorous lifestyle: “That’s how you know you’re getting very domestic, when you spend your weekends going to Sam’s Club and being excited about it.”

Zhang, 22, was the 2007 World junior champion but has not made it to senior Worlds; she missed this season because of hip surgery. Hochstein talks about getting married and having kids, and when they return from Worlds they plan to start budgeting to save up to buy a house. He wants to keep coaching after he retires.

“Skating is just a part of my life now, and I think it’s one of the reasons I’m doing better,” Hochstein said. “You go home, and I have my girlfriend; I have my dog. I have to go take out the garbage.”

He studied history at Wayne State back home in Detroit for four years and is 33 credits short of his diploma. College has been on hold since he moved to California in 2012 to work with coaches Peter Oppegard and Karen Kwan-Oppegard, but even if he never uses the degree, he wants to eventually figure out a way to complete it.

“My advice once he finished up high school,” said his mother, Joyce Eberling, “was knowing that one day he’d be a husband and a father, it was very important to have a degree.”

When this season began, Hochstein knew he had an outside chance at a spot in the Grand Prix series. He found out he got one early one morning while teaching lessons and called home to wake up Zhang and tell her. Hochstein wound up going to two Grand Prix events, twice finishing fourth to build confidence.

At the U.S. Championships in January, he came in a personal-best fourth, well behind third-place Nathan Chen but good enough to earn a spot at Four Continents, a major international competition in February. The men’s field at Nationals was thinned by injury, with two of the top three finishers from 2015 out, including defending champ Jason Brown. Brown petitioned for a spot on the Worlds team but did not receive one, and Hochstein was selected as the first alternate.

Hours later, Chen aggravated a hip injury during an exhibition, and when he required surgery, Hochstein took his place. It was bittersweet for Hochstein, who trains at the same rink as Chen.

On Wednesday, he’ll skate his short program at Boston’s TD Garden. He doesn’t have the multiple quadruple jumps to match the world’s best skaters, but at the national level, neither do many of the top Americans.

At a practice session Monday, Hochstein landed two quads and didn’t try any more — he’s learned not to push his body too far.

“He’s training more smartly,” his mother said.

That’s especially important with his rigorous teaching schedule. Sometimes he can’t help but be a little jealous of those skaters who simply go to the rink for their workouts then head home. Tuesdays are “heavenly” because he’s there for only six hours.

“When you are financially independent and you know that you need to work in order to pay for your training, you have to be very organized in your daily schedule,” Zhang wrote in an email. “You don’t have the luxury of doing additional sessions and adding in extra lessons if you have an off day because you already have lessons scheduled that you need to teach. You need to prioritize training while still being able to earn enough for your necessary expenses such as food, rent, and life expenses.”

As Hochstein put it: “When you have to work for it and really know what it’s like to earn it, it’s so much sweeter.”

MORE: U.S. men’s results at Worlds could impact 2018 Olympics

Is Yuzuru Hanyu beatable? World Championships men’s preview

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BOSTON — This edition of the World Figure Skating Championships could be billed as the greatest three-man competition in 28 years. Except one skater is in a class of his own.

Three different men’s World champions from the last three years will go head-to-head-to-head at Worlds for the first time since 1988 this week in Boston.

There is defending champ Javier Fernandez of Spain. There is three-time World champion Patrick Chan of Canada, at his first Worlds since his last title in 2013.

And then there is the man who deserves his own paragraph, Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, the Olympic and World champion of 2014.

Three men from three continents, but one is the clear gold-medal favorite.

“There’s definitely people that can take the title from Yuzu,” NBC Olympics analyst Johnny Weir said, “but at this point it’s definitely his to lose.”

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Hanyu, a 21-year-old who trains in Toronto under 1988 Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser (one of that 1988 Worlds trio), had actually been beaten in four of his last five top-level international competitions going into November.

But he soared at his next two fall events, shattering Chan’s 2013 record for most points in the decade-old judging system (by a whopping 27.13) at NHK Trophy in Japan. And bettering that by another 8.03 at the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona, where he distanced second-place Fernandez by 37.48 points.

“When he skates well and clean, it is untouchable,” NBC Olympics analyst Tara Lipinski said. “But we’ve seen Yuzu fall apart or make several mistakes or get sloppy.”

Like in his last two defeats.

Chan outscored Hanyu in both programs at Skate Canada in October, in the Canadian’s first top-level competition since taking double silver at the Sochi Olympics. Hanyu stood sixth in the short program after receiving zero points for two of his three jumping passes, then fell on a triple Lutz in the free skate.

At last year’s Worlds, Fernandez became the first Spaniard to take the title. Hanyu fell on his lone quadruple jump attempt in the free skate, as Fernandez overtook him in Shanghai.

And in Hanyu’s last competition, the Japanese Championships on Christmas weekend, he fell three times over two programs (but still won by 19.21).

“He isn’t faultless,” Weir said. “It would definitely take a real disaster of a performance for him not to be the front-runner, not to have that victory almost assured. But if he is a little bit off, Patrick Chan and Javier Fernandez both showed really stong performances at the Europeans [in January] and Four Continents [Championships in February].”

True. In their aforementioned most recent competitions, Fernandez put down his highest-scoring short program ever (a total bettered only by Hanyu under this system), and Chan recorded his best free skate ever (again, bettered only by Hanyu in this decade).

Soon but unlikely this week, Hanyu, Fernandez and Chan could be rivaled by a pair of 18-year-olds for gold.

China’s Jin Boyang landed six quads at the Four Continents Championships, finishing second to Chan.

Japan’s Shoma Uno, the reigning World junior champ, arrived on the senior stage by beating Fernandez and Chan at the free skate-only Japan Open exhibition in October. Then he kept Chan off the podium at the Grand Prix Final in December.

“Jin Boyang in particular, he’s got the technical firepower, but the artistry, no matter how well he jumps, his artistry is what brings him off the podium,” Weir said. “Shoma Uno is wonderful technically and artistically. It’s going to be about controlling his nerves and keeping it all together.”

A medal is not expected from the U.S. contingent of national champion Adam RipponMax Aaron and Worlds rookie Grant Hochstein. In Rippon and Aaron’s five combined Worlds appearances, the best finish was Rippon’s sixth in 2010.

Rippon has backed off from February hopes of adding a quadruple toe loop or a quadruple Salchow to his quadruple Lutz. He said after practice Monday at TD Garden that he plans only the Lutz and only in the free skate.

Rippon, still the only man to win back-to-back World junior titles (2008 and 2009), is strong in other areas such as spins. But even he recognized the void when asked what one thing he would take from Hanyu, Fernandez or Chan’s bags of tricks.

“I would take their quads,” he said. “But I hope that if I took it, they wouldn’t have it back.”

The key for the U.S. men will be the number 13. If the top two U.S. men’s placements this week add up to greater than 13, the U.S. will downsize from three men to two for the 2017 World Championships.

That means that one of Rippon, Aaron and Hochstein must finish sixth or better to have any shot at meeting a combined 13.

“A big ask,” Weir said. “If everyone skates their best … that really puts the United States men looking at a top-10 finish almost as if it would be like winning a medal.”

Here are Lipinski and Weir’s medal predictions from last week:

Lipinski
Gold: Hanyu (JPN)
Silver: Fernandez (ESP)
Bronze: Chan (CAN) or Uno (JPN)

Weir
Gold: Hanyu (JPN)
Silver: Chan (CAN)
Bronze: Fernandez (ESP)

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