For eight years, Brian Orser and Yuzuru Hanyu have danced a merry pas de deux as they fashioned the teacher-student relationship, spanning cultures, continents, and time zones.
After guiding Hanyu to two Olympic and world championship gold medals, Orser thinks he has finally figured it out: less is sometimes more.
Whatever they have already done has worked quite well, thank you. But learning never stops, even for the teacher. What they may do in the future may very well amaze you.
Hanyu may well be the most talented and driven skater known to man since Jackson Haines or Ulrich Salchow, or (my favourite) Gillis Grafstrom. Take your pick. Just watch those expressive fingers of Hanyu as he goes through a practice, artfully playing the air with those fingers, what he will command the body to do. And his body does amazing things.
At home, he has been working on quintuple jumps in a harness, this to gain strength to master the next frontier in men’s figure skating: the quadruple Axel. Hanyu has never landed a quad Axel, but in the harness, he has. He’s been getting the sensation of it.
During practice at the Autumn Classic in Oakville, Ont., this week, Hanyu has been attempting quad Lutzes. (At Autumn Classic in 2016, he became the first skater to land a quad loop.) Orser said at this event, Hanyu will do the quad loop. But the quad Lutz will probably show up in one or two or both Grand Prix later this season.
He’s a “bit manic” – according to Orser – when it comes to mastering these high-flying quads, the spirit of the chase a glint in his dark eyes.
In the past, Orser has been trying to swing Hanyu’s focus to the component marks. And he has. When Patrick Chan was the king of the block, with his quads and his exquisite component ability, Orser realized he had to fight fire with fire: get Hanyu to develop his component marks, especially as the new kid on the block.
“We had to, every competition, get a little bit closer to his [Chan’s] components, until we finally started beating and passing his components,” Hanyu said.
There was a time – by the time of a Grand Prix Final in Barcelona – when Hanyu’s dance card, at least the component one, was stuffed with perfect 10s. Tens up and down, and across. Tens, tens, tens. “It was cool to see that on a page,” Orser said. “But lately, we haven’t seen a whole lot of tens. And we’ve had that discussion, how we’re going to get them back.
“And that’s how he’s going to win again.”
(Who knew that Patrick Chan was Hanyu’s benchmark, the skater that pushed Hanyu to excellence. Now that Chan is gone, Orser says Hanyu’s benchmark is himself.)
Last year, Orser admits Hanyu was a bit sloppy at times. He had his reasons. He set a world record of 110.53 for a short program at the Rostelecom Cup in Russia last year, then the next day, he injured himself attempting a quad in practice. He could have withdrawn, but there’s that spirit of the chase.
So Hanyu skated the long program, having had his ankle frozen, and won the gold medal by almost 40 points. But it came at a cost. He had suffered tendon and ligament damage to that ankle – an ankle he had injured before – and so he had to withdraw from the Grand Prix Final, the Japanese championships and even the World Team Trophy at year’s end.
He did make it to the world championships, not 100 per cent. He was magnificent, but still overhauled by Nathan Chen, who was at the top of his game. “There were some sloppy moments last year and that’s because he was behind the eight-ball, and he was behind, getting prepared,” Orser said.
So this year, the dance began anew: Hanyu wanting to master new quads, Orser wanting to swerve Hanyu’s mind over to those component things again.
But this season has been different: Hanyu is finally healthy. After he did a few shows in Asia – and he did fewer than usual – he came right back to Toronto by early July to start work. “I’ve never seen him like this before,” Orser said. “I don’t think I’ve even seen him at this time of year to be so….”
We shall see today.
Orser said not only has Hanyu been training healthy. but he’s been training “smart.” “We have spent some time getting hung up on a quad loop or getting hung up on a quad Lutz,” Orser said. “He’ll just beat it to death. So we’ll lose days and days of training because he’s just like that.”
But now Orser understands that Hanyu needs to go through that process. “It’s not like I have to be the coach and I just save him from himself,” he said. “I have to be the coach and let him figure it out. And he is figuring it out. It may look like he’s missing stuff in practice. But he’s figuring it out.”
There are times when Orser will want to drift in and tell Hanyu something, but he recognizes the look in his eyes: “I’ve got it.” And he backs off. “I don’t take offence to it, where in the past, I would have. But I just know he is working through something in his own way. So I just let him do it.”
It’s taken them eight years to figure out these subtleties, to understand how the other’s mind works. “You do feel like a coach, and you see a mistake, you want to correct it right away,” Orser said. “With him, he knows the mistake. He can feel it. So he has certain things, whether it’s visualization, feeling things, whatever it may be for him.”
Hanyu goes home after training sessions and watches countless videos. If he does a fantastic quad Lutz on practice, and Orser has videotaped it, he wants Orser to send it to him right away. “And he’ll watch it,” Orser said.
“But that’s been our little dance. We figured it out. And it’s not about me. It’s about him. He’s got a pretty good track record, so he can dance to his own beat. And I just have to go along with it, which I’m happy to.”
There are times when Orser will do a debriefing after a session, especially if he hasn’t been able to interact with Hanyu. They’ll stand at the edge of the ice, or sit on the benches at the side and chat for 20 or 30 minutes. “We do this almost every single day,” Orser said. “We’ll talk about the jump, about the technique, about how he felt. It’s taken us eight years to get there.”
And what has come of this all this season? Orser realizes that Hanyu needs to improve his posture and expression. And not get sloppy. And, to Orser’s delight, Hanyu has been working on all of the other things, aside from jumps. And he’s never seen all of these things so ready.
Orser does not know if Hanyu is committed to the next Olympics. He’s not sure than Hanyu knows. He’s amazed that after two Olympic gold medals, that the Japanese star still feels motivated to compete. “He loves to compete,” Orser said. “It’s really quite amazing that he’s motivated to come back every year.”
Hanyu is keeping both of his programs from last season because he feels he never really did them to their potential. The free program, his nod to idol Evgeny Plushenko, never got his best. “He never really got to train it,” Orser said. “It’s a tough program and so it has to be trained. So he kind of got into survival mode and got through worlds. And it was a pretty good program, but there was something missing. And we all saw that.”
The short program is obviously made to break records.
Although the programs will be recycled, the costumes, however, will be new. Orser does not know what they are like. He never does. So today, Hanyu will reveal his new short-program costume. It’s always amusing: Hanyu unfurls his warmup jacket and the Japanese crowd goes wild. (As always, the Japanese crowd at the Autumn Classic, where Hanyu begins his season, comes by the busload. And some camp out at the front doors of the Sixteen Mile Sports Complex, hoping to get first dibs at the first-come, first-serve seats. Mind you, none of the seats are bad.)
This unveiling of his costumes is always at moment at Autumn Classic. It’s when you know the season has begun.