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Orser stays neutral with pupils Fernandez, Hanyu

Coach plays balancing act with European, Japanese champions at worlds

Just as coach Brian Orser celebrates with Spain's Javier Fernández here, he also shows equal enthusiasm for Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu.
Just as coach Brian Orser celebrates with Spain's Javier Fernández here, he also shows equal enthusiasm for Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(03/13/2013) - At the men's short program draw at the 2013 World Figure Skating Championships on Tuesday, Brian Orser breathed a sigh of relief. His students, Javier Fernández and Yuzuru Hanyu, were in different warm-up groups.

"It's kind of easy; Javi goes first in the [penultimate] group, and Yuzu is second in the last group," Orser said. "NHK was tough because they skated back to back. Poor Javi had to sit alone and get his marks because I had to stay with Yuzu."

For Orser, who coaches the two skaters -- both legitimate threats for world gold -- this week in London, Ontario, is a balancing act.

"That's why I'm wearing a neutral jacket," he said, pointing to his plain-black down. It wouldn't do to sport Spain's red, black and yellow, or Japan's white and red. Team jackets for either country are off limits.

"I have to be aware of their feelings," Orser said. "There are times when Yuzu needs me more than Javi does and vice versa. I just have to really be aware and not take anything for granted and keep assessing the situation."

That individual approach extends to the practice sessions here. Fernández, known for his aversion to run-throughs, has taken it easy on the quads and triple Axels. He prefers performing sections of his Chaplin free skate, with emphasis on the Chaplinesque gestures and steps.

Orser thinks that's just fine.

"Just because I used to skate one way doesn't mean they have to," said the two-time Olympic silver medalist, who won the world title in 1987. "I used to have to go out and win every practice, which was probably a flaw, because by the time I competed, I was completely spent.

"Javi told me, 'I don't like to do everything in practice because I don't want to leave it in practice.' My way is to keep it pretty light, keep him pretty happy, and at the same time keep him focused and go over what we have to accomplish at the session."

Fernández took his laissez-faire approach to practices to the extreme at the 2013 European Figure Skating Championships in Zagreb, Croatia, in January. Still, he landed three quadruple jumps in his free skate and won the title.

"The day of the short program, he couldn't do anything," Orser said. "He couldn't do a triple Lutz. No triple Axel. Couldn't do any quads. Same thing the day of the long program. But as long as he takes ownership of that and he knows his body and knows he will be ready, I'm OK with it."

The same doesn't extend to practices at home at Toronto's Cricket Skating and Curling Club, where Orser demands all of his skaters do run-throughs. Training discipline is something he's had to instill in the 21-year-old Spaniard, who began training in Toronto in the summer of 2011.

"Javi still doesn't like them; nobody likes doing run-throughs unless they are, like, 14," Orser said. "But, he understands that sticking with a plan is important, so we write down our plans on paper for the month, or the week, and even if we get 70 percent of that plan, it's a big success for us."

Orser credits his pupil's European title in part to an improved work ethic. Last season, the Spaniard was favored to win, or at least medal, at Europeans. Instead, he placed sixth. A ninth-place finish at the 2012 worlds followed.

"We were pushing through some run-throughs last year, but this year he does them more willingly," Orser said. "I think the experience helps a lot. Last year, all of a sudden, he was a frontrunner, and I'm not sure he was ready for it. And he got to Europeans, and I think he just choked a little bit. Same thing with worlds.

"He was a little distracted and thinking about the last competition, and he couldn't get past that. This season, we're on a good run so far."

The run includes a victory over two-time world champion Patrick Chan at Skate Canada and a strong showing at the Grand Prix Final, where Fernández won the free skate with three quads and finished fourth overall.

"After Europeans, we went to Madrid for a few days, and then we came back and we got right on the ice," Orser said. "We knew we had some work to do. We had to keep this momentum going. My biggest fear was he would celebrate the European win and all of a sudden, it's worlds, but he didn't; he got refocused again and got some rest."

Orser's other star, Hanyu, is in a different place this week. The youngster, who placed second to older countryman Daisuke Takahashi at the Grand Prix Final but defeated him at the Japanese championships, is coming off a so-so performance at the 2013 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, where he placed second to Canadian Kevin Reynolds.

Hanyu, just 18, has had some difficulties in practice here in London, often missing his quad toe and Salchow attempts.

"After Four Continents, he went to Sendai for a couple of days and he got the flu, and he was sick for 10 days with that," Orser said. "Then he tweaked his knee, and he was down for five days with that. So, we're just getting back.

"I noticed [during Tuesday's practice] that he just started to find his timing a little better."

Like Fernández, Hanyu often performs his best under competition pressure.

"He is probably not as trained as he thinks he would like to be, but he is a real fighter, and I think he is going to be fine," Orser said. "He just needs to step out there and get in front of the judges. Then he gets super focused; he gets into a real zone."

Despite Hanyu's injury woes, the skater, who is defending a world bronze medal here, did not consider reducing his program content.

"He is doing two different quads in his free skate, and we did discuss the idea of doing two quad toes instead of one of each," Orser said. "Yuzu said no, because next year he would have to do a quad Sal and two toes. He doesn't want to take a step back, and I agree with that."

On a personal level, the coach's two top students get along just fine. Before Hanyu arrived in Toronto last summer, Orser asked Fernández if the emerging Japanese star could join them.

The Spaniard's reply?

"Sure, that sounds like fun."

For the most part, it is. Orser thinks having someone else there on a daily basis, experiencing the same kinds of pressure, is comforting.

"They are good friends. They have a lot of respect for each other," Orser said. "One day, Javi fell on something and he just lay there, as he does. And Yuzu skated over, stopped and extended his hand, helped dust him off, and away they went. That's how they are."