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World awaits figure skater Hanyu's dramatic return to ice at Pyeongchang

In this Oct. 21, 2017 file photo, Yuzuru Hanyu performs during the men's free program of the Rostelecom Cup, at the Megasport Sport Palace in Moscow. (Mainichi)

Defending Olympic figure skating champion Yuzuru Hanyu, who steered clear of competition for three months after a leg injury, is set to return to the rink on Feb. 16 for the Pyeongchang Olympics men's short program.

Although the 23-year-old Japanese sensation has yet to fly into South Korea, skipping the team competition that opened Feb. 9 to focus on physical adjustments, whether Hanyu will be able to defend his Olympic championship is attracting a great deal of attention in the host country.

For Hanyu, the four years since his mesmerizing Sochi Games victory has been fraught with challenges brought by a series of injuries. At the Cup of China in November 2014, he collided with another skater during the warm-up for the free program. Despite bleeding from the head, Hanyu forced himself onto the rink for the competition, his head in bandages. He also underwent abdominal surgery later that year. In spring 2016, he was found to have injured the top of his left foot. In September 2017, he suffered a right knee injury just before the Autumn Classic International, his first competition of this season.

Despite this adversity, Hanyu continued to swoop onto the rink for competitions. "It's because I'm an active skater. Nothing more, nothing less," he said.

A turning point came on Nov. 9 last year. He fell on a quadruple lutz during a practice session for the NHK Trophy, damaging his right ankle. Although he still wanted to participate, those around him dissuaded him from competing, convincing the young star that his ultimate goal ought to be clinching his second consecutive Olympic title.

It wasn't until January this year that Hanyu was finally back on the ice for practice. Starting first with only his left foot, he gradually began to skate on his right foot as well, pulling off jumps and other maneuvers. According to coach Brian Orser, Hanyu has recovered to the point he can perform quad loops, quad Salchows and quad toe loops. The upcoming Pyeongchang event will be his first competition since the Rostelecom Cup in October last year.

Deep inside, Hanyu has an "explosive power" to convert regrets and strong desires into strength. The next tournament after a dismal performance often ends in a victory or a world record-breaking score. A month after he was defeated by Nathan Chen of the United States in last season's Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, Hanyu pulled off a dramatic victory in the World Figure Skating Championship by topping his own world-record free program high score.

After the Rostelecom Cup in 2017, a foreign reporter praised Hanyu by telling him that some people call him a "hero" for having such a strong will. Hanyu replied by saying, "I have no particular image of who I want to be, but I strongly wish to win dramatically."

His rink comeback for the Pyeongchang Games is itself dramatic. Commenting on Hanyu's recovery, Orser said on Feb. 6 that Hanyu has grown even stronger, though the path to where he stands now was not easy. The Canadian coach warned against underestimating Hanyu, in whom he takes so much pride.

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