Feb 13, 2014, 9:15 AM EST
SOCHI, Russia – If the pressure to win an Olympic gold medal wasn’t enough for 22-year-old Patrick Chan, the Canadian has a long-standing curse that many are expecting him to break here Friday night in the men’s free skate, as well.
Four Canadians before him have won a combined nine world championships gold medals, but none of them have come away with that coveted Olympic gold, dating back to Brian Orser’s infamous loss to American Brian Boitano in 1988. The “Canadian curse,” it’s called.
That Chan is the three-time reigning world champion should make things easier, not harder, but his wins bring Canada’s world gold haul to 12 in total, but can he be the first to come away with an Olympic gold?
“Chan is the heavy favorite because he’s won everything up to these Games,” said 2010 Olympic champion Evan Lysacek, a contributor for the “TODAY Show.” “So we’ll see if he can keep it together. But they always talk about the curse on the world champion going into the Olympics, and that could weigh on him. I sure hope not, though.”
Chan hopes not, as well. Below, a breakdown on the men’s singles event, from Chan’s chances to a rising star known as Yuzuru Hanyu, Spain’s unlikely star, a Russian legacy continued and two American longshots.
Pressure was mounted on the slight shoulders of an 18-year-old Chan at the 2010 Vancouver Games after the Canadian had been a silver medalist at the World Championships the year before. But the teenager was hobbled by injury, and later admitted to being hobbled by the pressure of the home crowd. He finished fifth.
Since then, however, the quad-jumping, Detroit-based skater has been virtually unbeatable, winning the World Championships in 2011, 2012 and 2013 and capturing gold in 11 of 16 international competitions he’s entered. The Ottawa native set a world record score in November, but has otherwise struggled over the last twelve months, including at the most recent Worlds, where he fell twice in the free skate and barely hung on to gold, a win that detractors pinned to the “Chan-flation” of his scores.
He again struggled in the short program of last week’s team event (in which Canada won silver), placing third behind Hanyu and Plushenko in that segment of the event.
“Chan knows that his team short program score was reflective of the errors that he made out on the ice,” said Lysacek, who ended his attempt at a comeback for Sochi in December. “That was uncharacteristic for Patrick, especially in the short program. It might be good for him in the sense that he feels like he didn’t waste it, or leave his best skating in the team event. Chan has been very vocal about the individual medal – he wasn’t worried about the individual event – he wants that gold on his own.”
The pair of skaters who are most likely to challenge Chan for the gold medal happen to train in Canada, where Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu and Spaniard Javier Fernandez live and work in Toronto with former world champion Orser, who helped Yuna Kim to her record-breaking gold medal at the Vancouver Games.
Hanyu has been a teenager on the rise over the last two years, the world junior champion in 2010 capturing his second straight national gold this past year and, at 19, winning the all-important Grand Prix Final in December, winning a gold over Chan for the first time in his career.
“Hanyu has burst onto the scene in a big way by beating Chan at the Grand Prix Final,” Lysacek said. “But he’s been very consistent and was far and away the best in the team short program and has been looking the best in practice. He’s young. I don’t know if he’s not feeling pressure or he’s just so good at dealing with it but it’ll be interesting to see how he takes that momentum from the team event into the individual competition.”
While Hanyu had the team event to get warm, two-time European champion Fernandez did not. The 22-year-old has been a breakout star for Spain, moving to the U.S. five years ago to train in New Jersey before joining forces with Orser – and in effect, Hanyu – after placing 17th at the Vancouver Games.
“Javier is in that mix,” Lysacek added. “There are just so many top-ranked guys, this is a deep field. This is going to come down to who can perform on the Olympic stage.”
Plushenko’s Final Push
A skater that has proved himself time and time again on the Olympic stage is 31-year-old Yevgeny Plushenko, who helped Russia to a team-event gold medal by performing solidly in both programs, particularly the free skate – which he won.
Petrenko has a record-tying four Olympic medals to his name, including individual podiums in Salt Lake (silver), Torino (gold) and Vancouver (silver). While he’s not favored to nab a medal here, he checked off every box he needed to in the team event, hitting his quadruple jumps and bringing the Russian crowd into his performances.
“Everyone is talking about Yevgeny Plushenko and speculating whether he’ll be able to keep his condition up through the team and individual events,” said Lysacek, who beat Plushenko for gold in Vancouver. “In the team event he won the free skate, and you can’t really argue with that because it’s the more physically demanding of the two.”
At 28 and 19, American hopes Jeremy Abbott and Jason Brown at the opposite end of the Olympic spectrum, Abbott saying he’ll call it a career after this season and Brown expressing hope to skate in not one but two more Games.
While Abbott has all the tools to be in medal contention, but has famously froze on the international stage. The four-time national champion was ninth at the Vancouver Games and hasn’t placed inside the top five at the World Championships in four appearances.
“Jeremy had a really good skate at Nationals,” Lysacek said. “A short program like he had in Boston would put him in the mix; it would put him in the skating final group.”
Brown, however, lacks a quad jump and will need to be near-perfect in both his programs to help him contend. He’d need a near-repeat (or even better) of his viral performance of his “Riverdance” free skate from Nationals last month.
“For Jason, overall, he has the capability to post a high score, but I don’t know if it will be with the top guys in the world,” Lysacek said. “He’s fresh on the international scene and a newcomer here, but either way it’s great experience for Jason.”
Keep an Eye On
Japan has the best depth of any team in the world, with Tatsuki Machida and Daisuke Takahashi joining Hanyu in the men’s event. Takahashi was a bronze medalist at the Vancouver Games, and – like Abbott – has the tools to score big when he’s on.
Yan Han, an 18-year-old from China, could be in the mix, as well, as could Denis Ten, the 2013 world silver medalist who has dealt with injury this season. Michal Brezina is coached by former Olympic champion Viktor Petrenko and Brian Joubert, a former world champion, competes in his swan song competition at age 29.
The Last Word
“If everyone skates their best, it would come down to Hanyu and Chan,” Lysacek said. “They are so different and I think the judges really like that. It’s hard to compare them because they have different strengths and very few key weaknesses. It’s all so complex what the judges are looking for. They’re both aggressive, fast skaters, but I would say that Chan overall has more finesse and valuable experience. If it comes down to the Grades of Execution like it did in Vancouver, in that case I would have to give it to Chan.”
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