GANGNEUNG, South Korea >> Yuzuru Hanyu was on crutches with a badly injured ankle when his coach Brian Orser asked the 2014 Olympic champion what his goal was for 2018.
“Win the Olympics again,” Hanyu replied.
Mission accomplished — with a whole lot of angst on the road to Pyeongchang.
On Nov. 10, Hanyu pulled out of the NHK Trophy event with a severe ankle injury. He was off the ice until January and wasn’t even doing quadruple jumps until a few weeks before the games.
But Orser and fellow coach Tracy Wilson laid out a plan for the Japanese star that turned out to be golden.
“We told him we’ll go for the double, but not try to break any records. You have to pick your battles,” Orser told The Associated Press on Sunday before preparing to work with his two female skaters at the Olympics: Canada’s Gabrielle Daleman and Kazakhstan’s Elizabet Tursynbaeva. “You trust your training.
“Yuzu came here for his first practice and it was in front of plenty of media, as you can imagine. No one had heard anything about his condition, it was top secret for good reasons — he had to heal properly. So for that first practice, we just had him do 10 to 15 minutes; at one point he was doing compulsory figures out there. We didn’t want to show the others he was ready, so we took a simple approach to the practice. I learned a long time ago, when I was skating, that you don’t have to win every practice.”
That philosophy runs counter to how Hanyu often prepared. But this was entirely different. Orser believed the slow but steady approach was essential, and he didn’t want Hanyu losing faith because of a more intense practice that would endanger his recovery.
But Orser also had misgivings early on that things would work out in South Korea.
“I was more in doubt about the time we had,” he said. “You want to take it slow and strategize about what we want to do on the ice. I told Yuzu we can’t do anything too soon and he listened to his body. I said to Tracy, ‘How are we going to do this given so little time?’”
Then the champion in Hanyu kicked in.
“All of a sudden, he switched gears,” Orser added. “We create the environment, which is all we can do until the skater is recovered.”
If Hanyu needed any extra incentive to push it, all he needed to do was look on the training ice in Toronto, where Orser’s other prize student, Spain’s Javier Fernandez, was laying down superb programs.
“Yuzu never got overzealous,” Orser said. “I saw Javi out there getting ready, but he understood what we need to do. And a couple weeks ago, I realized he’d be OK. He’ll skate well.”
Orser believes the injury and rehab actually relaxed Hanyu. When Hanyu held his first news conference in Gangneung, he was playful, funny — even charming, a side often kept hidden in the past. He ended the media gathering by thanking everyone — in five languages.
“This is the first time at any competition we’ve seen this lightness and sense of humor,” Orser noted. “Because we had the different kind of training coming into this — in other years we’d be in the trenches, and being fierce — this was not as fierce. Not at all.
“Yuzu was able to look around and enjoy it. There was a freshness to his spirit and it’s real. He needed that to get through all of this. He’s used to trusting his training, what he had in the bank. But he had nothing in the bank. So it was trust his spirit, and it was a neat way to approach it at the end.”
Soon, Hanyu was nailing everything in practice, and then in the competition. His countryman, Shoma Uno, took silver, and Fernandez got bronze.
Orser believes Hanyu, 23, could return for the 2022 Olympics in Japan, though he has not discussed it with the first man since Dick Button in 1952 to repeat as Olympic champion. With what Hanyu went through to achieve the second gold medal, continuing the grind for another four years might not be his preference.
For Orser, just as memorable as Hanyu’s performances here was a scene last week at a practice involving his two medal-winning skaters.
“There was a session of about 25 minutes of nothing but Yuzu doing skating skills,” Orser said. “Balance, gliding, stroking. Then Javi came out and joined him. It was great to see them having so much fun.”