Nick McCarvel

Getty Images

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

Leave a comment

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
Nick McCarvel/ NBC Sports

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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

As top stars step away, Canada asks ‘who next?’ in figure skating

Getty
Leave a comment

KELOWNA, Canada – Following a sparkling decade on the ice for Canadian figure skating that started with hosting the Vancouver Winter Games and reached a crescendo with team gold in PyeongChang last year, the Great White North suddenly finds itself asking, “So, what next?”

Or – more precisely – who next?

“We had this team of skaters that had pushed through three Olympic Games, ending in PyeongChang,” Mike Slipchuk, high performance director for Skate Canada, told NBCSports.com this past weekend during Skate Canada International, the ISU Grand Prix event. “If you would have told me that in 2010, after Vancouver, I wouldn’t have thought so. They were still at the top of their game.”

“We’re now in a rebuild and we knew it was coming.”

Thumb through the list of Canadian skaters at Skate Canada over the weekend in this lakeside British Columbia city of just over 100,000, and you would be forgiven for asking, “Where’s Patrick?” “What happened to Tessa and Scott?” “Kaetlyn?” “How are Meagan and Eric?”

Since those uber-successful PyeongChang Games just last February, many of the household skating names in this country have retired or stepped away temporarily from the sport, including the aforementioned Patrick Chan, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, Kaetlyn Osmond and Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, all part of that gold-medal winning squad that captured the team event in South Korea.

But there is no panic with Slipchuk. Or, rather, he prefers to look at things differently: This is a country that has a long history of successes in this sport, and they’re already building towards and eyeing 2022 and 2026 for what’s to come next.

Even if that takes a couple of years.

“After every Olympic Games, you’re never sure what athletes are going to retire or move on,” said Slipchuk. “We’re always looking for that next wave of youngsters. We’re trying to build depth.”

That doesn’t mean Canada doesn’t have a wide spread of talent already on the senior international scene. Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier are still one of the top ice dance teams in the world, and won their first Grand Prix gold together in Kelowna. And Gabrielle Daleman is rebuilding her singles career after taking time away from the ice last season.

Top men’s skater Nam Nguyen, a junior world champion in 2014, won silver this weekend, his first Grand Prix medal in five years.

“There’s gonna be a change… there’s gonna be a switch in generation,” said Gilles, who has skated alongside Poirier internationally for eight seasons.

“It takes time to build a gold-medal team. Patrick wasn’t Patrick from the beginning. (Fans) need to understand that… patience, time. We have solid skaters (in Canada), but they just need to get that feel on how it is to skate on the biggest stages.”

“Patrick,” of course, is Patrick Chan, the triple world champion from 2011-13 who was almost assured the gold medal in the lead-up to the Sochi Olympics before a teenager named Yuzuru Hanyu came along and changed men’s skating forever.

After earning silver in Sochi and taking a season off, Chan returned to the sport – like Virtue and Moir – but wasn’t able to keep up with a new generation of multi-quad-hurling global skaters. He finished ninth in PyeongChang.

In the last year, Chan, Virtue and Moir, Osmond, Duhamel and Radford and 2014 Olympian Kevin Reynolds have all announced their official retirements. Ice dance duo Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje are taking a break from the sport, and currently competing in a Dancing With the Stars-meeting-figure-skating show, Battle of the Blades, on Canadian TV.

Earlier this year at the world championships in Japan, no Canadian skater won a medal for the first time in 15 years, since 2004. On the contrary, Canada has won medals in 10 straight Winter Olympics, dating back to 1984.

Along with Gilles/Poirier, Daleman and Nguyen, top established international skaters include men’s skater Keegan Messing, pair team Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro, ice dance team Laurence Beaudry-Fourier and Nikolaj Sorensen.

“We’re in that phase right now where we have that talent coming up,” said Reynolds, 29, who is now a coach in the Vancouver area. “They need that experience… and a breakthrough performance to make them a household name.”

Slipchuk points to such breakthroughs as important in the modern figure skating landscape internationally. Canada’s Marjorie Lajoie and Zachary Lagha are the junior world ice dance champions, and Friday made their senior Grand Prix debut at Skate Canada.

Their reputation as world champs will help bolster their early senior career, but the transition into senior ranks rarely comes as easily as taking center ice. Especially in ice dance.

Other junior names to watch representing the Maple Leaf: Stephen Gogolev and Aleksa Rakic in men’s singles, as well as a trio of ice dance teams that medaled on the junior Grand Prix this fall season.

“It’s also a question of timing,” added Elladj Balde, a former junior national champion in Canada who retired last year, as well. “This (coming) generation is a little different. Everyone left as these (skaters) are still growing. They’re going to become Canada’s future. There was no ‘boom!’ They’re going to get there. People just have to see it and trust it.”

That’s where Slipchuk comes in. As a governing body, Skate Canada works with independent and private coaches around the country to try and help foster and grow their most promising skaters.

“What coaches feel, we fully support,” Slipchuk explained. “If it’s important to keep a team in juniors for an extra year, like we did with Lajoie and Lagha, then let’s do it. It’s a discussion. We don’t want the athletes to be a fish out of water. It’s a group effort. We’re open to provide opportunities for athletes individually.”

Because it isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, Slipchuk sees himself as a manager of sorts, making sure he provides resources for coaches and athletes to excel as best they can at the senior level, from on-ice performance to sports science and beyond.

“Our goal is 2022 and Beijing,” he said. “PyeongChang was an incredible group. For all of them, it was their time to move on… those were more years than I thought we would get out of them. It’s time for a new generation. We’re building ourselves back up.”

The pairs team of Moore-Towers/Marinaro were seventh at worlds earlier this year and Friday night they received roaring applause from home fans as they took to the ice for the short program in Kelowna. But after going from Canada’s No. 4 or 3 team for the past several years in pairs to being No. 1 last year, that wasn’t an easy switch, either.

“Last year I struggled… I put too much pressure on our shoulders,” Moore-Towers said in a conference call before Skate Canada. “It didn’t get us the results we wanted. … It’s less about carrying a torch and more about looking within ourselves to recognize our skills. We have to work with the other Canadian teams to (get better).”

Following a shaky free skate, Moore-Towers/Marinaro won silver at Skate Canada, when many expected them to win gold.

For the two of them, as well as Gilles/Poirier, Daleman, Nguyen and a select few others, it’s also about leadership: How do they help their younger teammates navigate what can be a scary, intimidating and pressure-packed international skating scene?

“This is a community,” Gilles said of Canadian skating. “We have to create that energy that they want to be in… we need to support one another. That’s our job.”

“Right now, it takes that extra step… and that’s rewarding for us,” Poirier said, echoing his partner. “We’re seeing (these younger skaters) blossom, and that’s exciting for us to see, too.”

While Russia continues to crank out top ladies’ from the junior ranks, the U.S. is strong in dance and Japan has stars like Hanyu and triple Axel-jumping Rika Kihira, Canada isn’t panicking about its place as a perennial figure skating powerhouse.

They’ve always seemed to figure it out. And Reynolds thinks he knows exactly why.

“There are great skaters coming up right now, but what makes me comfortable with Canadian skating in the future is that we have great skating schools across the country,” he said. “It’s that solid base of learning to skate and working their way up the ranks.”

“Exactly,” agreed Balde. “It’s there. It’s just going to be a bit of a process this time around.”

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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Virtue, Moir pushed ice dance boundaries throughout exemplary career

Mariah Bell keeps getting better, but if you ask her, it’s just the start

Getty Images
Leave a comment

No one knew fifth place could feel this good. But Mariah Bell felt this good.

It’s early November in the Grand Prix Series and Bell, the 2017 U.S. bronze medalist, had just finished a dazzling free skate to the Lori Nichol-choreographed “The Experience” by Ludovico Einaudi.

Bell thrusts her arms overhead, jumping up and down with a beaming smile splashed across her face. The work she had put in with coach Rafael Arutunian was finally paying off. And she knew she could skate even better.

“NHK was such a great experience; it was a stacked field,” said Bell in a phone interview last week. “I think it was the hardest Grand Prix (this season). Going into it, I wanted to put out my best and see where it got me. I look back and I’m so proud of how I skated… It opened my eyes to my potential. I’m right where I want to be. I can hang with the best in the world.”

Bell was right: It was a stacked field. Rika Kihira had her senior breakthrough in a triple-Axel showdown with Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, while Satoko Miyahara and Mai Mihara also factored into the top five.

It was Bell who would bounce back from a botched triple-triple in the short program (“I was so bummed about it… But then I regrouped [in the free]”) and placed fourth in the free skate, but overall it was the kind of performance that has become familiar to her in the past four months: Consistent, passionate and strong. Yet still wanting.

“I look back and I’m really proud of what I’ve done so far. I have a lot of hopes for myself coming up,” she said in an interview with me featured on this week’s Ice Talk podcast. “I want to continue progressing. I feel like the work that I’ve put in with Rafael is really starting to show, so that’s exciting for me.”

Just over two years ago – in August of 2016 – Bell made the switch from working with Kori Ade in Colorado to signing on to “Team Raf” (which included Nathan Chen, Ashley Wagner and Adam Rippon at the time). Arutunian told Bell he needed two years to start to get the kind of skating out of her he wanted.

She wasn’t exactly thrilled about that timeline.

“I was like, ‘Two years is a long time from now!’” Bell remembered, laughing. “Raf is very blunt. It’s about trusting him. He says exactly what he thinks and what he feels. Sometimes that’s really hard to swallow. It’s about learning his language. A lot of it is you taking on responsibility yourself. He’s not going to hold your hand. You gain maturity from having to do things on your own.”

That’s where Bell believes she has improved – in addition to on the ice – over the last two years: a mature mentality. Something only experience can help you with.

“If anything, I think (my age) helps me from experience and the mental side of the sport,” said the 22-year-old.

Last year was a struggle. She came into the Olympic season feeling a kind of pressure that she never had before and it showed in her skating. She was sixth and ninth in her two Grand Prix assignments, respectively, and finished fifth at U.S. Championships a year after being third.

This fifth left a much different feeling than that NHK one 10 months later.

“I would have loved to be on that Olympic team… but to be honest, I didn’t do what I needed to during the season to have the Nationals that I needed,” she says. “I didn’t put out the best version of myself. This year, I feel like I have put out the best version of myself. I look back at Nationals and have nothing but pride for what I did. I was bummed to be fifth. Whatever happened, happened and it was the right choice. I have to continue to be honest with myself. I have felt re-focused and refreshed this season. I think I’ve grown a lot.”

It shows in her programs. For her short she went out on a whim – at the encouragement of Arutunian – and asked former training partner and good friend Rippon to choreograph it, while Nichol did her free.

Both are fan favorites, and Bell told reporters on a call two weeks ago that she listens to the Celine Dion “To Love You More” track (her music for the short) all the time. Even driving to and from practice.

This coming weekend expectations are high. Many inside the sport think it could be a showdown between reigning U.S. champ Bradie Tennell and Bell, with 2017 winner Karen Chen out with injury and neither Mirai Nagasu nor Wagner skating this season.

MORE: 3 questions with Bradie Tennell before U.S. Championships

Bell knows she has top billing with Bradie. That doesn’t intimidate her in the slightest.

“I want to win. I want to be national champion,” she says, channeling some Raf bluntness. “But I can only control what I can control, which is my skating. I need to skate the way that I train. And I truly think if I do that, the results will take care of themselves. Regardless of the outcome, I want to be proud of myself, and that’s the goal I ultimately have.”

Arutunian sees it similarly. Well, mostly…

“At minimum? She should be top three in the U.S.,” he tells me, then adds: “You should know then, what maximum is (for her)… ”

He continues: “I think she’s gotten better technically. There is more consistency, but there is still a lot of work to do. She can improve. I think it’s about her head. She has to believe what we’re doing. September has been two years (since) she’s working with us. She’s at a point where she can peak more now.”

The fall is proof of that, with a fourth at Nebelhorn Trophy, then the same at Skate Canada, that fifth at NHK and a bronze medal at Golden Spin, where Tennell was the winner. Bell is no longer suffering from the sort of inconsistencies that once plagued her.

That’s thanks to time, maturity, Arutunian and, well, a new outlook.

“This season has felt fresh because not only is it a new season, but it’s a start to the next four years,” she said. “My ultimate goal is to be on that Olympic team, but my goal continues to be just to improve each season. Last year I got hung up on the results of things. I got in my own way a little bit. This year I’ve just been focusing on myself and my skating.”

“My big picture is these next four years.”

While one could argue that this weekend in Detroit is ground zero for what’s to come, both Bell and Arutunian would disagree: That started back in August of 2016, the day Mariah first stepped on ice with Raf.

And if this is the skater she’s become two years later, the next three could hold very big things.

MORE: How to watch U.S. Championships

As a reminder, you can watch the U.S. Championships 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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!