The crush of the crowd

Yuzuru Hanyu competes during the free skate at the PyeongChang Games en route to becoming a repeat gold medalist. Amin Mohammad Jamali/Getty Images

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By noon there is nowhere to hide. Temperatures rise above 80 degrees, unseasonably warm for this April day in Sendai, a seaside city 200 miles northeast of Tokyo. The parade crowd of nearly 110,000 people doesn't seem to care. Some of them have been here since last night. Grandmothers take turns sitting on the shady part of benches, friends in matching Winnie the Pooh ears lay mats on the sidewalk and cover their heads with towels, an organizer shouts instructions into a bullhorn. Television helicopters buzz overhead. A banner hanging on City Hall declares the occasion: Congratulations Yuzuru Hanyu, first figure skater in 66 years to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals.

Figure skaters typically toil in obscurity, leaping into the spotlight every four years. Hanyu, 23, is no ordinary figure skater. He's a rock star, worshipped by fans who follow him around the world. At the Pyeongchang Olympics, fans waited in line to take pictures with a Hanyu impersonator and threw Pooh toys onto the ice by the armful after Hanyu skated. (He is known for carrying a Winnie the Pooh tissue box to competitions, supposedly because he finds the bear's steady gaze comforting.) He can sell out an ice show in minutes, even if he's not performing, just by attaching his name to it.

The Sendai parade is part of Hanyu's victory lap through Japan. The first event was a three-day ice show in Tokyo the weekend before. He wasn't scheduled to skate, nursing a right ankle injury, but over 10,000 fans still came to see him; he rewarded their faith with a surprise appearance on ice. Waiting outside the arena that day was a mass of middle-aged women twice Hanyu's age, mothers and grandmothers who quietly nibbled rice balls and patiently waited for the doors to open. A woman in a red sweater caught my eye. Her phone case was adorned with photos of Hanyu. She has a case custom-made every time she goes to see him; this is No. 8, she said through a translator. I asked whether Hanyu is her dream son or son-in-law. She paused, then shook her head vigorously. I thought that I'd offended her. "No," she said, "he's my dream lover!"

It's not hard to see why. Hanyu is beautiful. With his floppy hair and flawless skin, his fierce on-ice persona melts into the sweetest of dimpled smiles off the ice. He seems larger-than-life and childish at the same time, powerful and vulnerable. Online, his fans of all ages show their love through drawings, fan fictions and minutely detailed analyses of his every move. One even made a wedding dress inspired by one of his skating outfits. But middle-aged women tend to dominate his live events; they travel all over the world to see him. In fact, travel agencies offer packages for Hanyu performances. For the Olympics, some agencies charged 900,000 yen, or just over $8,000.

As the hours crawl by in Sendai, the parade crowd stays calm, seated neatly in rows on the sidewalk. Supporters from the local soccer club unfurl an enormous banner dedicated to Hanyu. Parents chase after children through a farmers market set up just for the occasion, where there's an array of drip coffee options, chocolate-covered fruit and an iced tea named "Yuzu rouge."

It's a peaceful scene in a city devastated seven years ago by a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that hit northeast Japan and set off nuclear disaster. Hanyu was skating when the ground started to shake that March day in 2011. He ran out of the rink on his skate blades as the ice cracked and the pipes ruptured. The ruined rink was closed for months, and the Hanyu family spent three days in a shelter. The 16-year-old thought about quitting skating -- there was simply nowhere to practice -- but changed his mind after an outpouring of support, including from Sendai native Shizuka Arakawa, the 2006 women's Olympic gold medalist. The next year he won bronze at the 2012 world championships and decided to take his skating to the next level by moving to Canada to train with Brian Orser, the two-time Olympic medalist who had coached South Korea's Yuna Kim to gold in 2010. When Hanyu, then 19, won gold in Sochi -- the first Asian man to do so in figure skating -- he dedicated his medal to the disaster victims.

Fans bring up that shared connection again and again along the parade route. They mention his donations to survivors, how he helped rebuild the rink in Sendai and how he has shown he can overcome any obstacle. Pyeongchang added to this mythos: He managed to win a second consecutive gold medal rushing back from an ankle injury suffered just three months before the Olympics.

Under a stretch of trees, five women dressed in matching white parade T-shirts featuring Hanyu's silhouette wave sparkly gold signs they've made to congratulate him. The women, whose ages range from 40 to 60, are from different parts of Japan but met at Hanyu events. Their friendship developed around him but has also moved beyond him. Through a daily group chat, says one, "we support each other through life." They say they appreciate how Hanyu always thanks his fans. They want their sons and grandsons to learn from him. "At our age, we know what goes on in society," says Yumiko Kimura, who lives in Fukushima, "so he's an ideal figure."

He's also incredibly private. Hanyu maintains no public social media. (He's one of only two athletes on our World Fame 100 who doesn't.) He trains at a private club in Toronto that bans its members from posting information from the rink online in order to protect them. "He's very guarded, and I think he has to be," says Canadian Jeffrey Buttle, the 2006 Olympic bronze medalist who has choreographed many of Hanyu's routines. "He doesn't get recognized that much in Toronto. It's an opportunity for him to live just a normal life." But in six years of living in Toronto, Hanyu has never been downtown or to nearby Niagara Falls, he told Japanese television ahead of the Olympics. Orser says he has no idea what Hanyu does for fun. "Normal for him is skating and performing."

Along the parade route, we hear him coming before we see him. Thousands of smartphones rise into the air. A truck turns the corner, and there he is, standing on a platform, dressed in a dark blazer, smiling and waving, his gold medal shining. A teenager behind me bursts into tears, sobbing into her Winnie the Pooh towel. It's the first time she's seen him in real life.

"When you look at him," a woman told me earlier, "the future of Japan seems bright."

I think of her words as I watch Hanyu go by. In that instant he is so many things -- ideal son, dream lover, hometown hero, earthquake survivor, Olympic champion. And then he's gone.