Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, figure skating’s biggest star, completed a dramatic comeback from injury in the most satisfying way imaginable, defending his Olympic gold medal to become the sport’s first two-time men’s champion at the Winter Games since Dick Button of the United States in 1948 and 1952.
Skating third-to-last behind deafening support that amounted to a home-ice advantage, Hanyu finished with an overall score of 317.85 in his first competition in four months after suffering a right ankle injury that prompted questions over his fitness entering the Olympics.
Those doubts proved unfounded as the 23-year-old landed two quadruple jumps and all of his combination jumps in the back half of his program, where skaters are awarded additional points as an incentive for performing through fatigue. While the two-time world champion’s performance was not as flawless as the short program that earned him an Olympic-record score of 111.68, it was more than enough to capture gold.
“This is the best day of my skating life,” Hanyu said. “My tears were from my heart. I can find one word and that is happy.”
Shoma Uno, Hanyu’s Japanese team-mate, took the silver with a score of 306.90 while Spain’s Javier Hernandez won his country’s first ever medal in figure skating with a tally of 305.24.
Nathan Chen, the two-time US national champion, rebounded from a nightmarish short program that left him in 17th place with a redemptive free skate that earned the highest marks of the afternoon, improbably pulling himself back into medal contention before finishing in fifth overall.
The 18-year-old from Salt Lake City landed five quadruple jumps cleanly and attempted a sixth, which he earned full points for despite putting a hand down on the landing. His free-skate score of 215.08 was a personal best by more than 11 points and nearly eight points better than Hanyu’s.
“I think honestly putting down a rough short program, and being so low in the placement just took the pressure away from me,” Chen said. “I no longer felt like I was striving for that first-place spot. It mostly was just me being out on the ice an enjoying myself, playing to the crowd and really soaking in the Olympic experience.
“I was able to completely enjoy myself out on the ice and getting rid of expectations helped a lot.”
Chen, who had not lost a competition all season until this week, admitted succumbing to the pressure that had built in the run-up to Pyeongchang as he emerged as a gold medal favorite and one of the centerpieces of NBC’s Olympics promotional push.
“I mean, as much as I tried to deny it, I did feel the pressure a lot. I think that tightened me up and made me super cautious out there and that’s not the right way to skate.”
Chen led the way on a day when all three Americans skated cleanly to place inside the top 10. Emerging teenager Vincent Zhou finished sixth while 28-year-old debutant Adam Rippon finished 10th, though it marked the first time the Olympic men’s figure skating podium featured zero North Americans since 1972.
The immensely popular Hanyu – 羽生くん was the top trending topic on Twitter worldwide during Saturday’s competition and hours afterward – becomes the fourth men’s skater in Olympic history to win back-to-back Olympic golds after Button, Austria’s Karl Schafer (1932 and 1936) and Sweden’s Gillis Grafström (1920, 1924 and 1928).