By Elaine Lies
GANGNEUNG, South Korea (Reuters) – On one side is Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, the defending Olympic champion coming back from an injury that kept him off the ice for weeks before the Games. On the other is Nathan Chen, an American jumping ace making his Olympic debut.
The two will face off for gold in men’s singles figure skating starting on Friday, a contest with many strong contenders in an event where difficult quadruple jumps are taking on increasing importance.
Add in that Hanyu, hugely popular around the world, hopes to become the first man in 66 years to win back-to-back Olympic gold, and the stakes rise.
Hanyu has not skated in competition since falling and injuring his right ankle in November. Though he practiced jumps as floor exercise as soon as possible, he only began doing quads on ice about two weeks ago.
“I am confident that if I skate cleanly I will definitely win,” Hanyu, 23, told a packed news conference at the Gangneung Ice Area after a practice session in which he landed several quads.
Chen, 18, cruised to a repeat U.S. championship title last month, landing five quads. But he had a poor skate in the Olympic team competition, uncharacteristically falling on a triple Axel as the U.S. team claimed bronze.
“Training has been going great. I’ve been working out issues I had with the short program,” Chen told a news conference on Thursday.
“I’m really excited to start competing tomorrow. With all the training I’ve been putting in, I’ll have a great short program.”
Chen said he probably will include four or five quads in his routine, including the quad Lutz – the jump Hanyu was practicing when he was injured. Hanyu declined to name specific elements, saying he was confident of pulling together a clean program.
But they are not the only contenders.
Spain’s Javier Fernandez, 26, who like Hanyu is coached by Canadian Brian Orser, won his sixth consecutive European championship last month more than 20 points ahead of his nearest rival.
“Javi”, as he is known, is hungry to end his nation’s 26-year-long Winter Olympics medal drought.
Canada’s Patrick Chan, who was narrowly beaten by Hanyu at the 2014 Sochi Games, is seeking revenge.
The 27-year-old landed two quads in the team competition but otherwise struggled, although thanks to team Canada he has finally won Olympic gold.
Then there is Hanyu’s compatriot Shoma Uno, who took silver at December’s Grand Prix Final and China’s Jin Boyang, who struggled with injury last year but is a formidable jumper who topped the podium at last month’s Four Continents tournament.
Chen said the lineup was ultimately more motivating than daunting, citing a recent practice session most took part in, including Hanyu.
“As soon as the whole crew was together with Javi, him, Boyang, Shoma, myself, the atmosphere was elevated, everyone was trying to work a little harder and I definitely felt that the energy had come back,” he said.
“I’m going to use that to my advantage.”
Chen will skate directly after Hanyu in the final group on Friday, but believes that has advantages, including extra time to prepare while the numerous stuffed animals that Hanyu fans tend to throw to the ice are cleaned up.
“The crowd always gets super hyped up, so I use that energy,” Chen added.
(Reporting by Elaine Lies, editing by Ed Osmond)