[ENG TRANSLATION] The gateway to Yuzuru Hanyu’s Quad Axel – a message from Kenzo Shirai (Part 1)

Photo by Naoki Nishimura, AfloSport

Article originally published 17 January 2021

Translation: @axelsandwich
Proofreading: @yuzueco @smpkyk

T/N: We have chosen to keep the suffix of ‘senshu’ as-is as it is the respectful way Kenzo and the interviewer refer to Yuzuru in the third person.


Yuzuru Hanyu has his hand on the door of history’s first quadruple Axel. He challenged it for the first time in competition at the Japanese National Championships 2021. Though [the 4A] was judged to be of insufficient rotation, he showed that he was closing in on the ‘truth of rotations’. And then there is one other person, a human who has taken on this world of ‘4.5’. The person who is the leading expert on ‘twisting’, who has landed a 4.5 twist in practice, Kenzo Shirai. Shirai spoke about the 4A from the viewpoint of achieving such ‘rotations’. revolutions. 


Hanyu-senshu is currently challenging the world of the quadruple Axel. I’d like to ask you about the possibility of the 4A through the angle of rotations 


I’m watching Hanyu-senshu’s 4A challenge with bated breath. What both gymnastics and figure skating have in common is the question of how you create the twist (horizontal rotation) and how you control it, so I’m thinking about various things from the perspective of a gymnast while watching.


During your competitive days, you had 6 eponymous ‘Shirai’ skills. There was the 3.5 twist, the quad twist, which were all high speed rotation skills that overturned the common understanding at the time. In the world of gymnastics, horizontal rotation is known as ‘twisting’ but does it have points in common with figure skating’s quadruple jumps? 


In the case of gymnastics, we use both vertical rotation and twisting (horizontal rotation) but we have a leg and arm that establishes the axis and allows us to control rotations which is the same [as figure skating]. In addition, as the number of revolutions increases, I think the thinking around ‘how do we create more rotations’ is similar. I twist to the right (clockwise direction) so my right arm is my ‘axis’ arm. Hanyu-senshu’s jump just happens to go in the opposite direction. I think the theory behind rotation is something gymnastics and figure skating have in common. 


Also in terms of the aerial position, your type is one where you cross your legs, which is very similar to skating. What kind of impact does the air position have on the skill?


The air position and positioning of the arm varies depending on the athlete. Some athletes don’t cross their legs. There are athletes who bring in their elbows in order to narrow their axis and athletes who stretch their elbows out to help regain balance. The air position and positioning of the hands and face in figure skating is also different depending on the athlete. Hanyu-senshu jumps with his elbows spread outwards so he might be the type who does so to balance his rotational axis. If he draws in his arms, the rotational axis becomes narrower but the axis is more prone to instability. The balance between the speed of rotation and the axis differs between athletes.


In any case with Hanyu-senshu, his rotation itself is beautiful and his axis isn’t shaky – that’s something you can tell even from his air position, isn’t it?


I have this impression that, before the Axel, Hanyu-senshu keeps his head still and then jumps. In gymnastics also, when you’re connecting skills, if your head moves, you may not be able to enter the rotations in an ideal way, so the positioning of the head is important. Maintaining the position of my head from the start to the end of the skill was my forte as well. Having said that, even though ‘you must not move your head’ is the theory up until doing quad (twists), when it comes to challenging the 4.5 twist, you are to move your head. 


Actually I heard you have succeeded at doing a 4.5 twist in practice. What kind of difference in technique exists between the quad twist and 4.5 twist?


Up to doing the quad twists, I tried not to move my head and the right shoulder that I was using to lead into the movement since I was focusing on the axis. I’ve learned since childhood to do it that way since the rotational axis is important for being able to land. But when it was time for the 4.5 twist, I didn’t have time to focus on my axis. When I put 4.5 revolutions in the air and then thought about how densely the movement was packed, there was not enough time no matter what I did. Up until the quad twist, first I’d establish an axis after jumping up and then have time to start twisting, but for the 4.5 twist, I couldn’t make it unless I condensed the time I took to establish the axis. And if I were to describe how I did it, it was that from the moment I jumped, I’d start twisting both my leading right shoulder and my head in the direction of rotation. 


To change the method of training that you were taught since childhood requires a change in thinking and courage doesn’t it?


Of course. When I was taking on the 4.5 twist, I tried various things that failed. At first, I was trying the method of ‘rotating a quad and then adding a half rotation after’ but even when I established a good axis and tried rotating 4.5 times, I couldn’t complete the rotation in time no matter what I did and fell sideways on the landing. It was the equivalent of a step out in figure skating. It was when I changed the approach to start rotating the same moment I took off that I landed it for the first time. Based on what I’ve deeply felt in my experiences until now, the more you feel like you have a really good swing (on takeoff) or establish a good axis, the less you can achieve the new skill. You only succeed at it when the internal feeling is closer to an ‘oh shit’ level of strangeness. 


The 4.5 twist is an ‘oh shit’ feeling? (Laughs)


On top of that, I was still a high school student when I succeeded at the 4.5 twist so I didn’t have any muscles yet and had not increased the height of my somersault. Therefore, it wasn’t increasing the height or air time but thinking about how much I could compress the movements into my rotations that allowed me to succeed. Of course, I think you can’t succeed if you don’t get sufficient height, but I think there’s a way to succeed at “4.5” without having the height and airtime. 


I’d like to ask you about whether there’s a possibility the 4.5 twist and the 4A are connected. Firstly, in the case of Hanyu-senshu’s 4A, he’s rotating in the opposite direction so he needs to open his left shoulder, doesn’t he?


The foundations of gymnastics and figure skating are different so this is talk from an amateur’s point of view, but for Hanyu-senshu, my impression is that he opens his left shoulder and leads the rotation with his right arm. For the triple axel, at the moment of takeoff, he doesn’t open his left shoulder and jumps towards his right arm, which he raises forward. The moment he raises his right leg, he keeps the rotational axis around his right side while trying not to open his left shoulder. With this method, he’s only creating the rotation using his right arm. However, if he opens his left shoulder and starts the rotation from there, he might be able to get more rotational power.


If you start rotation from the left shoulder, there’s this feeling you won’t be able to shift to the right rotational axis – what do you think about that? 


I think it’s fine if you only use the left shoulder at the start. Open it up at the start and create power for the rotation from there, try to shorten the time between takeoff and opening the shoulder and then catch up to your left shoulder with your right shoulder soon after. The method is that you’re not starting by creating an axis with your right side, but instead, you start rotating first with your left shoulder and add in the rotational axis with your right shoulder.


I can picture how you can generate strong rotational strength. It does indeed change the method of how to create the axis. 


In my case, when doing the “4.5”, my way of thinking was not ‘create an axis first’ but rather ‘fix the axis I created at the time at the point of landing’. After I’m in the air, I’ve already let it go. If, while in the air, I got the sense of ‘this is where my axis is’, then I was able to decide how to position my feet when I landed. If I created the axis in the air or tried to fix it, I couldn’t ensure I completed all 4.5 revolutions. 


You land on both feet in gymnastics but because you land on one foot in skating, fixing (the axis) on landing is difficult. 


In Hanyu-senshu’s case, he’s very good at using his hip joint. In the Free Skate at the Pyeongchang Olympics, in the final 3Lz, he was able to land with one foot when his head was low. Being able to react like that in that instant is something other athletes can’t do and is Hanyu-senshu’s strength. Therefore, if Hanyu-senshu himself can understand this idea that ‘I can respond by landing in this wide variety of ways at the moment of touchdown’, I think he may be able to lighten the degree of focus on the axis. If you think only that you must establish the axis, you may be late to enter the rotation, or you can’t put enough power in the takeoff and there are various kinds of effects from that. If you think about just taking off and rotating as you imagine and then think about how you can recover the axis on landing, you may be able to find a different kind of balance. If it’s Hanyu, he definitely has the ability to respond that way. 


I feel that it’s possible theoretically but it’s so different from the theory for jumping the Axel that it’s a shocking idea. 


In the same way as you’re taught to not open your left shoulder going into the Axel, we’re also taught from childhood in gymnastics too that you should not open your shoulder when you do the twists. [Opening the shoulder] isn’t something you do normally, but what you’re attempting isn’t ordinary. I think if you don’t also do something out of the ordinary with your technique, you probably can’t achieve the 4A. Because there is a textbook way to jump, everyone can do the 3A. But for the 4A, Hanyu-senshu has to write a new textbook. I think he can do it. 


A technique that is out of the ordinary. I think Hanyu-senshu has the power to overturn this concept of “the usual”.


It’s a skill no one has done before, so any method is the correct answer. Therefore it’s an even more simple principle. For techniques everyone can already do, judges/referees also understand it so, in a sense, they have a ‘preferred’ method of execution. But for new skills, the correct way is how the person who completes it does it. Therefore, the way Hanyu-senshu executes it would become the ‘correct’ way to do the 4A. He’s challenging a world no one has reached yet. I will cheer for him!

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We are the Axel with Wings translation team, made up of fans of Yuzuru Hanyu. We hope to share videos of him and Japanese figure skating content with more people around the world. We aim to do our best to accurately capture the spirit of what's said. Hope you enjoy our videos and other contents.

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