GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Somewhere in the midst of hundreds of cascading Winnie the Pooh dolls stood Yuzuru Hanyu.
Oh yeah, there he was, at center ice, bowing to a huge ovation for an Olympic-record short program.
At least the defending Olympic champion from Japan knew what to do with the Poohs after he scored 111.68 points Friday, building more than a four-point lead over Spain’s Javier Fernandez.
“I always do this at all the competitions; I will present them to the local community in Pyeongchang and Gangneung,” Hanyu said through an interpreter. He collects the bears, believing they bring good luck, so they have become something of a trademark. “Some people think, ‘Why would you give away the gift that you got from supporters?’ Well, I embrace the emotion that the fans give me, and every time after the competition I am full of joy. So I really appreciate the support and the bears from the fans.”
Thousands of miniature Japanese flags featuring the rising sun waved in the stands to greet Hanyu when he got onto the ice. For Saturday’s free skate, a golden bear might be the best choice of tribute as he tries to become the first man to repeat as Olympic champ since Dick Button in 1952.
Hanyu missed two months of training with an ankle injury and only recently returned to full practices. No matter. He hit every element of a highly difficult program with precision and grace.
“I just wanted to show everyone I’m back, I’m here,” Hanyu said.
Was he ever.
In what amounted to a high-wire act complemented by superb spins and intricate footwork amid intense pressure, the top four skaters were magnificent and spotless.
“I probably could get a little bit more points into the program, but not much more,” said Fernandez, who happens to share the same coach with Hanyu, two-time Olympic medalist Brian Orser. “We’re hitting the limits of figure skating right now.”
Hanyu’s countryman Shoma Uno was third at 104.17, followed by China’s Jin Boyang at 103.32.
Two-time U.S. champion Nathan Chen, a pre-games favorite, was anything but spot-on. He missed on all his jumps, plummeting to 17th place with a tentative and passionless showing.
“I’ve never been in this spot, so I really don’t know what to do,” Chen said. He skated after Hanyu and the Pooh bear delay, something Chen had experienced before without being bothered by it. “I thought I did everything right in my general approach and it just didn’t work out the way it was supposed to.”
Fellow American Adam Rippon finished seventh without attempting a quad in what was otherwise a jumping contest for the men.
The top four men combined to land eight quads and four triple axels in their short programs. They will be flying high again in the free skate, when Chen hopes to do five quads, even if he’s buried in the standings.
“I’m going to talk to my team and see what the best approach is,” Chen said. “It was just rough. Nothing clicked.”
Wearing a military costume complete with epaulets, Russian Dmitri Aliev set the leaping bar very high as the 20th of 30 skaters to perform. He landed two quads, including a lutz that was the second in Olympic competition; American Vincent Zhou did it earlier. Skating in the fourth of five sections often makes it difficult to score too highly, but Aliev shattered that with a strong technical program. He finished with a career-best — by far — 98.93 for fifth.
Aliev, 18, was second to Fernandez at the European championships, yet he was left out of the team event here. Considering his replacement, Mikhail Kolyada, flopped in the short program of that competition, that decision appears unwise.
“I trained here the first time this morning, and the second time (is) in competition,” he said with a grin. “I wasn’t especially worried.”
Sochi silver winner Patrick Chan, who won team gold with Canada on Monday, once more couldn’t overcome his personal nemesis, falling on the triple axel. Competing for the third time in a week, the three-time world champ was sixth, pretty much eliminating any shot at gold — and probably the medals podium.
“Unfortunately, the axel has been just, ugh,” Chan said. “It varies every day, some days I feel (I won’t hit it) — unfortunately they happen to be on the competition days — and I’ve been dealt a bad card since I was growing up, I just never had great technique on the axel.”
Rippon went just before Aliev and Chan, and his scintillating artistry helped him overcome the lack of the quad.
“You know, it was awesome. It felt like a lot of my ups and downs, my hard work, all kind of culminated together in that kind of special Olympic moment,” said Rippon, who lay flat on his back soaking up applause at the conclusion of his routine.
Zhou skated third overall, landed that first quad lutz in an Olympics and was clean except for not getting the full rotations on his triple axel. He was 12th in the standings with a season-best 84.53.
“I had to wake up at 4 o’clock this morning,” Zhou said. “I didn’t get enough sleep. But I tried to make it work. I feel like I should be able to skate regardless of the time, regardless of the place. I mean, I’ve trained the program, the moment, so many times, I trust in myself out there and I’m pretty pleased with how it went.”
AP Sports Writers Dave Skretta and James Ellingworth contributed to this report.
More AP Olympic coverage: https://wintergames.ap.org