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Consensus in Sochi: Hanyu is the man to beat

Japanese teenager looks sharp in practice, has experts buzzing
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Brian Orser has his pupil, Yuzuru Hanyu, ready to face the Olympic spotlight. -Getty Images

Nearly everyone who is watching men's practices in Sochi is buzzing about Yuzuru Hanyu, the 19-year-old Japanese champion who is reeling off quad toes and Salchows like there's no tomorrow.

Elvis Stojko, the first man to make quads a regular part of his programs, is as impressed as anyone.

"He's on fire," the three-time Canadian world champion said. "His jumps have incredible snap."

Evan Lysacek has watched nearly all of the men's practices, and Hanyu is his pick for gold.

"For sure, he has a good shot," said the 2010 Olympic champion, who is scouting competitors as part of his duties as a TODAY show analyst. "He's got the edge after his brilliant short."

Last week, "Yuzu" announced his presence loud and clear, easily winning the men's team short program segment with a score of 97.98, defeating three-time Canadian world champion Patrick Chan by more than eight points. Hanyu also beat Chan at December's Grand Prix Final.

"We're narrowing the gap (with Chan) every season," said Brian Orser, who coaches Hanyu, as well as two-time European champion Javier Fernández, in Toronto. "We're getting closer and closer, with both grades of execution and program components. There used to be a point-and-a-half difference in each component; now, we're a lot closer to Patrick."

After his afternoon practice Tuesday, Hanyu faced the Japanese press corps that crowds into every one of his training sessions. He was as relaxed and confident with them as he had been on the ice.

"I am not even thinking about the color of the medal," he said. "I am just concentrating, very hard, at each practice and really doing everything I can do."

He was clearly surprised by any suggestions that the Olympic rings might make him nervous.

"Nervous? I don't feel nervous," he said in English, and then added through a translator, "I am just practicing very seriously here in Sochi. I'm not feeling bad about anything."

No Japanese man has ever won Olympic figure skating gold; Daisuke Takahashi took the bronze in 2010. Orser thinks that over the last six months his student has gained the maturity to withstand Japanese media and fan expectations.

"At Japanese nationals (in Saitama in December), there was unbelievable media," Orser said. "There is heavy fan support for Daisuke, because they've known him for so long. He and Mao [Asada] are why the sport is so big. I think Yuzu is gaining more fans now.

"I told him back then, 'If you can handle this intense pressure, the Olympics will be a breeze.'"

Hanyu won both the short program and free skate in Saitama by more than 10 points. Takahashi, who has been battling knee trouble, was fifth.

Questions about whether Hanyu might be doing too much in his practices get a firm "no" from Orser.

"I'd rather they be talking about him than not," he said. "Yuzu needs to be doing this. He has a comfort level in his consistency."

Impartial observer Tom Zakrajsek, the Colorado Springs-based coach who has trained U.S. champions including Max Aaron, Rachael Flatt, Ryan Bradley and Jeremy Abbott, agrees with Orser.

"Yuzuru has looked so poised in all of the practices," said Zakrajsek, who is in Sochi as part of Italian Paul Bonifacio Parkinson's coaching team. "It seems like being fourth at worlds (last season) has caused him to reach, in the correct way."

Zakrajsek, who has a master's degree in exercise science, started talking nerve fibers and transmission of electrical current, and how repetition helps build faster lift and rotation.

"He's keeping his myelin path strongly stimulated," Zakrajsek said. "His quads are snapping lightning fast. The key, of course, is doing it under pressure."

Zakrajsek is also an advocate of periodization -- varying training intensity over time -- and thinks the Japanese teenager may be peaking just right.

"People who taper [off] too soon, and too much, generally don't deliver key performances," he said. "Yuzuru is young, and he's topping up for confidence. Someone like Plushenko, who is much older (31), can top down and still deliver in competition." 

Hanyu admitted he is hitting his jumps more easily than even in December. He's not sure why.

"I am just working hard," he said. "Even now, when I am already here in Sochi, I am working hard. I think I can improve more. I want to peak during the free skate."

The men's short program takes place Thursday, so Hanyu's job lies ahead. He isn't in touch with any friends on social media, his custom during competitions. He enjoyed participating in the team event, in which Japan placed fifth overall, and was a bit starstruck to compete against Plushenko.

"I have admired him for a very long time," he said. "He is my idol. I am so glad to compete with him on the same ice. I want to act and perform just like Plushenko."

Orser hears this and makes a bit of a face.

"Really? I don't know about that," he said. "I was quite surprised with Plushenko in the team event. He did stuff I didn't expect. I mean, he was alive when I competed. I've skated in shows with him.

"But I think what Yuzu meant was he wants to be like him, in that Plushenko is a superstar."

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