SOCHI, Russia -- His rink damaged and his hometown of Sendai destroyed, Yuzuru Hanyu wasn't sure he even wanted to keep skating.
The mere act of living was difficult enough to bear with his world ravaged by the earthquake and tsunami three years ago, let alone maintaining the rigorous demands of being elite athlete. But Turin Olympic champion Shizuka Arakawa encouraged the then-16-year-old to continue, helping fund his training, and people in his region donated money and arranged charity shows.
His thank you comes in the form of an Olympic gold medal, the first for Japan in men's figure skating.
"I'm here because of all the people in Japan who helped me, all the people around the world who supported me," Hanyu said through an interpreter. "I think I'm able to give something good back, to return the favor, if you will."
Hanyu's performance Friday will not rank as one of the most memorable in Olympic history. In fact, with two falls early in his program, he was sure he had lost the gold medal. He stayed crouched in his final pose for several long seconds when his music finished, his head bowed.
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When he finally rose, he gave a sheepish smile. So steely and composed in his short programs in both the team competition and the men's event, he had come unglued at the most inopportune time.
"I'm not happy with my program," Hanyu said.
But three-time world champion Patrick Chan was even more flawed and, for once, the judges refused to bail the Canadian out.
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Hanyu won by almost five points, becoming the youngest Olympic champion since Dick Button in 1948 and continuing "the Canadian curse." Despite 14 world titles by Canadian men, Canada has never won an Olympic gold medal.
That Hanyu is coached by Brian Orser, one of the many Canadian men who fell short at the Olympics, and trains in Toronto, adds to the irony.
"Of course it's a chance missed," Chan said. "I had that gold medal around my neck and I didn't grasp it."
Denis Ten of Kazakhstan won the bronze medal. Jason Brown was ninth and Jeremy Abbott 12th, the worst U.S. finish since 1936.
Hanyu's journey to the top of the podium in Sochi goes directly back to Sendai.
As the junior world champion in 2010, Hanyu was considered Japan's next big star. But when the earthquake hit in March 2011, it damaged his rink so badly Hanyu could no longer train there. He relocated to Yokohama, and did ice shows both as a way to train and raise money.
Finally, a year after the earthquake, he moved to Toronto to train with Orser.
"The reason I relocated to Canada was a very difficult one," Hanyu said. "I really wanted to stay in Sendai City."
Hanyu has always had better hops than most kangaroos. But under Orser, who led Yuna Kim to the women's gold medal four years ago in Vancouver, he developed the elegance and performance quality of which Olympic champions are made.
Rebounding from his two falls, it was his artistic qualities that won Hanyu the gold. Skating to Romeo and Juliet, his edge quality was so magnificent Sochi organizers could cut up the ice and sell the carvings from his blades. His spins are tight, quick and perfectly centered, and he does them in such unique positions it looks as if he's got rubber for bones.
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But judges have made a habit of propping up Chan -– he won last year's world title despite several major errors in his free skate -– and he was still to come.
"For six minutes I was panicking a little bit," Hanyu said.
Chan opened with a gorgeous quad toe loop –triple toe loop combination, done with such speed and flow he looked as if he were flying. But he fell apart from there, slipping on the landing of his second quad, another toe, and having to put his hands to the ice to keep from falling.
He stepped out of the landings of two more jumps, and doubled a planned triple salchow.
"I just made one too many mistakes," Chan said.
Hanyu tapped his heart as he heard himself introduced as Olympic champion for the first time, a smile breaking across his face. As Chan and Ten left the ice following the flower ceremony, Hanyu grabbed a Japanese flag and took a spirited victory lap by himself.
Or so it looked.
"Today, I am the only gold medalist," he said. "But I don't think I am here just spiritually by myself."
Contributing: Gary Mihoces
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