It looked strange, to say the least.
There was Yuzuru Hanyu, the world’s most acclaimed active figure skater, waiting by himself in the Kiss and Cry to get his scores after a disappointing short program performance at last week’s Grand Prix Final in Turin, Italy. At that moment in a competition, a coach is almost always at the skater’s side.
Once one of Hanyu’s coaches at his Toronto Cricket Club training base, Ghislain Briand, eventually showed up two days late, there would be a simple explanation for why Hanyu had been alone.
And yet even that would not explain why Hanyu’s primary coach, Brian Orser, had not gone to Italy for the second most important competition of the Japanese superstar’s season.
Was there a rift between the skater and the man who had coached him to two Olympic gold medals, two world titles and four Grand Prix Final titles in the seven seasons since Hanyu came to train under Orser?
“I know it looks like there is trouble in paradise, but there isn’t,” Orser said Tuesday via telephone.
“We have bumps in the relationship like any people who have worked closely with each other for a long time, but I feel pretty confident everything is fine. We were working great together this season, and he was skating very well – over 300 points at both his (regular season) Grand Prix events.”
Orser expected to talk with Hanyu about the situation Wednesday, when the skater was to return to practice at the Cricket Club after finishing a distant second Saturday to Nathan Chen of the United States in the Grand Prix Final. Hanyu had 291.43 points to Chen’s 335.50.
Much to Orser’s dismay and disappointment, the reaction to his absence was, like many things in the social media era, blown far out of proportion by some in Hanyu’s adoring and occasionally verbally belligerent fan base.
“So many fans were very angry at me,” Orser said. “They were blaming me and the Cricket Club for the bad start. By my not being there, it looked like I didn’t care. I wanted to go and was ready to go, but my hands were completely tied.”
Each skater at the Grand Prix Final was allowed to have just one accredited coach on hand unless the coach, like Russia’s Eteri Tutberidze, had more than one skater in the event.
According to Orser, the Japanese Federation submitted Briand’s name for accreditation sometime after Hanyu won the NHK Trophy in Sapporo Nov. 23. (The deadline was Nov. 28.) Orser said he did not learn that until several days after NHK and did not know why that choice was made.
“I was put in an awkward position,” Orser said.
An email seeking comment from the Japan Skating Federation was not immediately answered.
Both Orser and Briand had been with Hanyu at NHK. Briand is considered a jump maestro, and Hanyu wanted to increase the difficulty of his jump content for the Final.
Even Orser’s absence from Turin might have been less noticeable if a missing passport had not forced Briand to return to Canada after landing in Germany for his connecting flight to Turin. (Briand told the Olympic Channel the passport had been stolen.) He got to Turin Friday.
That meant no one was with Hanyu when official practices began Wednesday and for the short program Thursday. By failing to do a combination in the short program, Hanyu fell nearly 13 points behind, an insurmountable margin unless Chen made one or two big mistakes in the free skate.
Not only did Chen do a brilliant and clean free skate, but Hanyu also made two more costly mistakes.
“Even though I wasn’t there, I was communicating with him,” Orser said. “But I’m sure Yuzu having to put himself on the ice for practices and the short program took something from his energy, both physically and mentally. It created a little extra drama.”
Hanyu said after the free skate that he had focused much of his energy on the two quadruple jumps that opened the program, a loop and Lutz, both of which he executed extremely well. It was the first time in two years – and just the second ever – he had done a quad Lutz in competition. Practicing that jump in 2017 had led to an injury that seriously compromised his preparation for the 2018 Olympics, which he won nevertheless.
“He was taking a little more technically-oriented approach to the Grand Prix Final,” Orser said of Hanyu. “He is very competitive, and he sees what Nathan is doing.”
Both did five quadruple jumps in the free skate. Hanyu had not previously attempted more than four.
Orser said he was aware of Hanyu’s intention to include the quad Lutz but was surprised to see video from Turin of Hanyu practicing a quad Axel, a jump no one has landed in competition. Hanyu fell on two Friday practice attempts of the quad Axel, and one of the falls was hard.
“I wouldn’t have suggested he try the Axel,” Orser said, “But he is on a mission with that jump.”
Orser said he expected to be with Hanyu at the Japanese Championships beginning Dec. 18.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.
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