1. Meeting Yuzuru Hanyu and Those Who Raised a Prodigy
The summer of 2004 marks the year Noriko Shirota happens to meet a certain young boy at the Nobeyama Camp, a youth development summer camp with the objective of finding and developing young talent to prepare for the 1998 Olympic Winter Games.
But more than six years has passed since then and twelve years since the camp was established in cooperation with the Japanese Skating Federation staff. Following one of the camp's biggest discoveries--Shizuka Arakawa--several more talented individuals have emerged with the likes of Fumie Suguri, Daisuke Takahashi, Miki Ando, and Mao Asada.
Working as the current Minister of the Reinforcement Group for years now, it is no surprise that one day the Vice Minister approached her with hidden excitement at the prospect of introducing her to another potential talent.
"What is it, Yoshioka-san?" the former ice skater raises a brow, patiently waiting for her colleague's reply.
"Please excuse my initial reaction, Shirota-san." the man coughs, reorganizing his features into a more composed and neutral expression. "But there's this boy who can express music with his body, and I want you to come have a look at him. Please."
She did not respond with an immediate answer even after the man added a rather pitiful 'Please' at the end of his sentence in order to persuade her into agreeing with his request.
His convincing words seem unnecessary since the woman has no reason to refuse in the first place.
Without a word, she nods her head and he gives her a grateful smile before gesturing towards the door.
Leading the way towards one of the several classrooms down a long hallway, the two adults stop in front of a closed door before positioning themselves outside the classroom.
Instead of disrupting the ongoing session, Shirota decides to take a peak through the open window yet making sure to stay hidden and out of sight. Yoshioka stands beside her in silence yet his eyes seem to sparkle as he watches several children and teenagers stand in rows of four in an orderly manner while the instructor in front continues to lecture them about the basics of eurhythmics.
Afterwards, a long string of melody wafts throughout the classroom as notes of Japanese flute and string instruments accompanied by piano keys resounds.
Shirota immediately knows which boy the Vice Minister refers to.
She may have heard of the ten year old from numerous mouths. And she may have glimpsed his on-ice training once before where the boy has attempted several doubles and triples but managed to land only a few before crashing against the ice over and over again. Many described him as someone who jumps with courage and determination yet falls twice as much.
"He's a very flexible child."
"His jump techniques are correct. He has a good foundation to extend…"
"Hanyu-kun, compared to the other embarrassed children, despite only mastering basic skating skills at that time, continued to move as if he was trying to express something…"
Upon recalling the boy's former coach's words, Yukie Nogami, everything falls into place.
But what sticks out the most are the words she recalls from the boy's current coach, Shoichiro Tsuzuki, not too long ago.
"His posture is beautiful, like a painting when he stands on ice. He could understand a piece of music in his own way and express it in his skating. He has abundant ability to express music through his movements. The way he skates to a piece of music given to him shows his sensibility. From a young age, Yuzuru's musical sensibility was wonderful. "
No one would doubt the words of the man who once coached Minoru Sano who captured the first World medal--a bronze--for Japan back in 1977.
He stands small and thin amongst his peers yet there is no doubt that he has a sense of rhythm and able to time his movements with the music. Even with a piece he is not familiar with, he can improvise and decide on a pose and create an image through his postures.
Every note, his limbs move with careful grace as his fingers extend outwards as if reaching for something. At certain times, he either tilts his chin up to look upwards with a rather peculiar expression.
"That's him." her colleague whispers, nodding his head towards the boy with the bowl-cut hair that a certain Russian Olympic medalist currently dons.
"He is good." she replies, tone neutral and revealing nothing. "Very good."
A long lapse of silence follows afterwards until the music stops, and the spell breaks.
The ten year old shakes out of his trance as he lets out a yawn and two other children around the same age stay behind as they converse with him while the other students disperse or shuffle away in relief.
"I will support him."
Yoshioka turns to her with eyes wide before straightening to his full height and once more rearranges his expression to a more appropriate response.
"Ah, yes. Of course, of course…" he trails off, trying to gauge her reaction.
She spares him a glance before shifting her gaze back to the oblivious boy conversing with his two classmates.
"He may not be Midori Ito, and he never will be." Shirota starts with a pause. "I do not have the absolute confidence in him compared to when I first met her, but… I believe that if he polishes his techniques and sense of music, then he can become an all-round skater."
Saying nothing more, with a final glance, she turns on her heels and walks with her shoulders straight and chin held high. Yoshioka opens his mouth to respond but decides to follow her in silence instead.
She would soon come to know of the three targets of reinforcement as Ryuju Hino, Keiji Tanaka, and Yuzuru Hanyu.
It was a shame she would not be able to watch the three of them grow, but nonetheless she feels proud and happy of their accomplishments.
"Don't you dare sneak away, you little brat!"
Shirota looks up the moment she enters the ice rink of Konami Sports Club Izumi in the middle of fall. Summer has long pass by as the leaves turn into crisp shades of brown, yellow, and red.
"You still have forty-five minutes left with me." an elderly man clad in a winter coat lectures a pouting boy in front of him.
Refusing to address his elder, the boy continues to stare at the ice below, using his skates to carve spirals as he tunes out another lecture. The other skaters pay them no heed, too busy launching themselves into the air in rotations of two or three or practicing their spins and stroking without a hitch.
"Tsuzuki-san, please excuse my intrusion." Shirota calls out in a clear voice from behind the boards.
The man glances up with a warm greeting before turning to address his sulking student. He says something only the two of them can hear before reaching out with a firm hand to settle on the boy's head.
Then he drags him towards the patiently waiting woman by the boards.
"Ow! Tsuzuki-sensei, it hurts!" the boy protests with a squeak, trying to dislodge himself from his coach. He struggles to pull his head away from his teacher's firm grip. "I said I'm sorry…! I won't run away again. I promise!"
"That is the fiftieth time you told me this week." the man sighs, slackening his grip, and the boy takes this opportunity to pull away. "Your silly tricks won't fool me anymore. I have been coaching you for two years now, and I'm already used to and familiar with your behavior."
Shirota continues to observe their interaction in silence, taking note of the boy's ever-changing expressions.
"Anyway, I apologize for this, Shirota-san." Tsuzuki greets her with a bow and a warm smile before turning to the boy with a hiss, "Pay some respect to your elders, Yuzu-kun."
The boy turns meek at his instructor's firm tone before mimicking his actions with a sheepish smile, chubby cheeks flushed and crescent eyes curved as he looks up at the guest.
"Good afternoon, Shirota-san."
"It has been a while, Hanyu-san." Shirota softens her gaze, returning the boy's smile with her own. "I hope you're not giving your coach or anyone too much trouble."
"He is much too stubborn and has a rather fiery streak for such a tiny brat." his coach replies in good humor to which the boy frowns.
"I'm not." he huffs, giving his coach a disapproving glare before faltering and shrinking from the man's pointed stare. "I-I'm going to jump triples now!"
Once making sure he's far away, he sticks his tongue out before skating towards the other side of the rink before his instructor can say another word. Shirota watches his attempt at a triple axel before shaking her head in amusement at the end result. The boy brushes flakes of ice off his person before launching himself into another axel only to achieve the same result as he lands on his behind.
"Yuzuru!" Tsuzuki seethes, raising his voice as it echoes throughout the rink.
For a moment, the rest of the skaters halt to a complete standstill, craning their necks towards the furious old man. One skater nearly drops his bottled water and another stumbles on her step sequence while a spinning skater falls on their bum.
The victim straightens up, brushing off remaining flecks of ice from his training pants.
"I told you not to jump any triples today!" his coach continues this time in an even tone. "Focus on your stroking instead! And if I catch you practicing jumps one more time…"
He lets his sentence trail off with a warning glare, but the boy already understands.
With a quick nod of his head, he skates off even farther away from the line-of-sight of his glaring coach, preferring to stay at the other end of the rink for the remaining practice session.
"He's quite the handful, huh?" Shirota cracks a tiny smile before fixing her features once more. "But I can see he's doing just fine."
"Yes, yes." Tsuzuki sighs, giving her a weary smile. "He has too much energy and never wants to get off the ice, but he finds training sessions boring. Well, how else are you ever going to get better and improve? I tell him the same thing over and over again, but he's too bullheaded."
"I think I recall his father telling him if doesn't like to skate, then he should quit and instead play baseball instead. I do not know what happened next, but it seems like Hanyu-san himself made his decision." Shirota observes the tiny figure gliding across the ice at the other end of the rink. "His parents are very understanding and I'm glad that he trusts them as well."
"So he says." his coach nods in agreement. "I know he loves to skate and he has passion for it but…"
"His work ethic and unwillingness to commit himself to practice daily is a problem." Shirota finishes his thought.
"Yes." he replies with a tight-lipped smile before letting his expression relax as he watches the boy with a fond smile. "I only coach him two hours at most everyday. There's also his asthma to take into account, but I'm glad that Yuzuru could challenge me without holding back despite my strict approach."
Before Shirota can reply, a familiar face skates by before stopping a moment to address the woman behind the boards.
"Honda-san, how are you doing?" she raises a brow in mild surprise.
"Shirota-san, good to see you as well." the two-time World bronze medalist returns her greeting. "Are you here to observe Hanyu-san?" he gestures at the tiny skater currently performing a Biellman spin, eyes casually observing his graceful movements.
"To check his progress, yes." she replies. "I'm busy enough as it is, so I won't be able to constantly monitor him though I hope I'll be able to check up on him again next time."
Then Takeshi Honda blurts out of the blue as he tears his gaze away from the tiny figure, "He has an aura that draws people in. I mean, most skaters would develop their expressiveness through going to the opera or by listening to music, but what he has is of a different nature. The essential ability to perform to music is something that one is born with, and I can only think that he has such a gift."
Without waiting for a reply, the skater converses with Tsuzuki, leaving Shirota in her own thoughts as she watches the boy transition into a combination of sit spins.
That was the last time she saw Yuzuru practice at the Konami Sports Club Izumi after returning a few months later.
2. To Be Known as an Artist
Although the young prodigy of Sendai won the Japanese Novice National Championships, gloomy clouds loom over the festive mood. Soon enough, Yuzuru would come to know that Konami Sports Club Izumi shut its doors and that Shoichiro Tsuzuki left Sendai to move his skating base to eastern Kanagawa.
Yet he will never forget his coach's parting words, consoling him with a gentle and fatherly smile as he sets a hand on his shoulder.
"Because you have a special sensibility, I want you to succeed in the future not just as an athlete, but through figure skating in order to become someone known as an artist."
But this is not goodbye. He will continue to skate no matter what. It will be difficult moving his training base to Katsuyama Skating Rink and on the weekends traveling to Kanagawa to continue his harsh training with Tsuzuki-sensei.
Though this time, it will be his new coach, Tatsuyoshi Matsuda, who will bear witness to this young boy's growing strength in the face of adversity.
"Yuzuru-kun, that's enough for today." his coach for two years now calls out, ushering the boy towards him. "You can practice your jumps tomorrow." he frowns when he notices how the twelve year old winces as he brushes his fingers against his side on accident.
"Matsuda-sensei, I can still practice some more--" he starts, looking up at his coach with fire in his eyes and gritted teeth despite his muscles protesting and sweat pouring down his face and with erratic breathing.
"No, you had enough for today." the man cuts him off with a firm hand on his shoulder, expression grim. "And you still have to meet up with Tsuzuki-san the day after tomorrow. I don't think he'll be happy to know you've been practicing to the point of hurting yourself. Think about your health more, Yuzuru-kun." then with a gentle hand, he steers him towards the rink's exit where a woman stands behind the boards, eagerly waiting with a rather anxious expression.
"Good afternoon, Hanyu-san." Matsuda greets the woman.
"Good afternoon to you as well, Matsuda-san." the woman gives him a half-smile before shifting her gaze towards the silent boy who's refusing to meet her gaze. "Yuzu, it's time to go. You still have school tomorrow. Now go get changed. I'll wait here, okay?" she hands him his skating guards, gesturing at the locker rooms.
Yuzuru nods without a word, taking his skating guards and inserting them in his skates and stepping out of the ice before walking off as the two adults follow his disappearing figure.
"I know I shouldn't be intruding, but I can't help but be worried from time to time." his mother sighs, returning her gaze to address her son's coach. "Yuzu has been coming home injured more so than usual. I know it's part of his training, but I fear that if this continues…" she lets her words trail off, not bothering to hide her imminent concern.
"It's normal to worry as a parent, but I assure you Yuzuru-kun knows what he's doing." he assures her with a smile. "I'm always here to step in when needed. But I guess he has reasons to feel… well… riled up these days, I should say." the man drops his smile, donning a contemplative expression.
When she frowns at his words, eyes filled with confusion and worry, he coughs out a quick response.
"Oh, no! There's no problem, Hanyu-san." he gives her a reassuring smile, trying to ease her anxiety. "It's just that your son hates to lose. How should I explain this? Well, you see… when a skater reaches the stage of training triple jumps, they all struggle with their lack of physical strength. And since Yuzuru-kun reached this stage at an earlier age than others, he's experiencing this barrier to a much greater extent." Matsuda explains, looking over several skaters skating around the rink. "I think he's probably frustrated when he sees skaters who are a year or two older than him who could jump beautifully." he chuckles. "I'm not sure if he's aware, but I know that he has been practicing the triple axel behind my back."
The woman nods her head in response, contemplating her son's coach's words.
"I see. Thank you for taking care of my son these past two years." she replies. "It hasn't been easy since Tsuzuki-san left for Kanagawa, but we're managing just fine. So thank you, and please continue to watch over Yuzu until then."
Matsuda can only accept the woman's words with sincere gratitude.
Of course, it is no surprise nor anything new about the boy's undeniable admiration towards his two idols: Evgeni Plushenko and Johnny Weir. Everyone, at this point, already knows his goal is to win a gold medal at the Olympics after watching the 2002 Salt Lake battle between his Russian idol and his long-time rival, Alexei Yagudin. From the Plushenko-esque haircut he dons to his fascination of variations of spins and eccentric fashion choices for his costumes (Johnny Weir inspired, as most would assume), it's no secret that he's fond of those two iconic skaters.
So when the current two-time World Champion and the 2006 Torino Olympics silver medalist, Stéphane Lambiel, visited Sendai, it was a sight to see and a memory Matsuda will never forget.
Currently in junior high, the boy has grown yet he's still as stubborn and determined. But more so than usual with a fiery streak of vengeance.
His coach has lost count how many times the gasping boy has performed numerous spins in front of the Olympic silver medalist. But no matter how many times he has tried a variation and combination of spins--from camel spins and upright spins, to layback spins to sit spins to his Biellman--the older man remains unfazed.
Finally, the boy almost collapses on the ice on his behind if not for his unfathomable willpower, he forces himself to stand up straight to look in the eyes of the man he wanted to impress. He mutters and sputters out words of encouragement from his lips, something Matsuda has noticed since the visit of the Olympic medalist.
"I can do it. It's alright."
He squares his shoulders and returns the older skater's even gaze with an unyielding one of his own.
A few moments of silence passes by before Stéphane cracks a smirk, corners of his mouth lifting up to curl at the edges.
Yet there's no hint of mockery or indignant arrogance, just plain and assured confidence.
And just like that, a fire was lit.
Yuzuru answers his challenge with an expression one can describe as with murderous intent or something akin to insatiable hunger for something.
Taken aback, the older skater did not expect that such an innocent and adorable-looking boy with delicate features would make such a terrifying face.
Matsuda doesn’t exactly recall if Yuzuru managed to impress Stéphane before he left. But he does remember the expression of victory on his student's face and the same smile mirrored across the older skater's face. Then he left but not before giving perhaps some words of encouragement that only him and Yuzuru shared.
Of course, that may as well be the last time he will coach and see such a dazzling smile on Yuzuru's face.