Linda Robertson

Linda Robertson: Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu captures hearts, gold medal in men’s figure skating

Yuzuru Hanyu flew across the ice like an anime hero — leaping, whirling, capturing gold, then bowing so deeply his boyish bangs almost brushed the top of his skates.

He was a dashing Romeo, winning the hearts of screaming, flag-waving, teddy bear-tossing groupies in the Iceberg Skating Palace stands, not to mention supporters back in his hometown of Sendai and throughout Japan, where he will create another surge of figure-skating mania.

Hanyu became the biggest star of the week-old Sochi Olympics by winning one of its glamour events with a glam long program Friday night.

Hanyu won despite falling twice and despite a two-point deduction. The top step of the medal podium was vacant for the skater who followed Hanyu, Canada’s Patrick Chan, who was four points behind after the short program.

But Chan stumbled on the threshold of filling his country’s bedeviling Olympic void. He put his hands down on a near-crash on his quadruple toe loop, stepped out of his triple axel and bobbled the landing of his double axel.

Dick Button predicted Chan would “wilt,” and he was right. Hanyu, 19, became the youngest gold medalist in the event since 18-year-old Button won in 1948.

Button’s performance would seem primitive 66 years later. Skating has evolved from a sport of precision to one of big air. Hanyu combines spring worthy of an NBA player with a sprinter’s speed and a ballet dancer’s effortless grace.

Hanyu was so light on his feet that even with the falls he scored higher than Chan on his 13 elements and finished with a total of 280.09 to Chan’s 275.62.

Hanyu is something different, something special. With his noodle build, he bends into contortion-artist positions and executes his spins in a blur. Evgeny Plushenko, who withdrew Thursday with an injured back, picked him to win.

“I’ve never been this nervous,” Hanyu said. “I’m upset with the performance I had, but I left everything out there.”

Wearing black gloves and a bejeweled, frilly white blouse, Hanyu worked through his two quads and eight triples. He fell on his opening jump, a quad salchow, then nailed his second, a quad toe loop, then fell on his third, a triple flip, then pulled his act together. The pace was a little too frenzied, not allowing the mood of his Nino Rota Romeo and Juliet music to develop. He finished in a crouch, breathing heavily. He looked disappointed in the kiss-and-cry area and lowered his head below his knees to hide his emotions.

Chan came next but the best skater in the world the past three years could not seize the medal Canada craves. Canada has won more medals — nine — in men’s singles than any other country without winning gold. Hanyu won Japan’s first gold in the event.

“Some call it a curse,” Chan said. “But we’ll always have Kurt Browning, Brian Orser, Tyler Cranston and Elvis Stojko — these greats who have changed figure skating history.”

After opening with a beautiful quad toe loop-triple toe loop combination, Chan did not skate a clean program. More crucially, he is not as dynamic as Hanyu. He is textbook, and judges like his complete package so much they’ve been criticized for “Chanflation.” His style, like his music choice of Four Seasons, seemed too familiar. He’s neither as fast nor as creative as Hanyu.

Chan, 23, didn’t act heartbroken, but his voice cracked as he made the best of his Olympics. He also won a silver medal in the team competition.

“I’m still walking out of here with two medals around my neck, which is kind of cool,” he said. “It happened to be a rough day. There’s some ugly days and some great days, and more of us seemed to have put that out in the long although maybe didn’t in the short.”

Orser, one of Canada’s also-rans as a two-time silver medalist, kicked a leg out and flung an arm upward during Hanyu’s performance. Orser finally had his gold as coach of Hanyu, who trains in Toronto. He’s from Sendai, which was struck by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The Tohuku quake and flooding killed 18,000 people and caused nuclear power plant meltdowns. His family’s house and his home rink were damaged, and Hanyu said he considered quitting the sport. He was able to keep training via a series of fund-raising ice shows for victims and maintained his career with donations from Sendai residents, including 2006 gold medalist Shizuku Arakawa.

“I’m here by myself, only one gold medalist, but spiritually I am not by myself,” he said.

“I’m here thanks to the people of Japan who supported me. This is a return of the favor, if you will. I was able to give something back.”

Something memorable, something original. As Plushenko bid farewell, the sport bowed to a worthy successor.