Five-ring Circus

The Lowest-Ranked Male Figure Skater in History Is One of My All-Time Favorite Athletes

Krishna Sai Rahul Eluri's grand finale at the 2016 ISU Junior Grand Prix.
Krishna Sai Rahul Eluri’s grand finale at the 2016 ISU Junior Grand Prix. Screenshot via YouTube

During the men’s free skate event that aired on Friday night, American figure skater Nathan Chen posted a remarkable score of 215.08. Chen now has the third-highest personal best free skate in history. I know this because the International Skating Union keeps comprehensive records of skaters’ personal bests at sanctioned competitions since the body’s current scoring system debuted at the 2003 Nebelhorn Trophy. (It always comes back to the 2003 Nebelhorn Trophy.)

The ISU’s site lists the personal best free skates of 790 male skaters. The all-time best score belongs to two-time Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu, who tallied 223.20 points at the ISU World Championships in 2017. It was an excellent program.

Pyeongchang bronze medalist Javier Fernandez of Spain has the second-highest personal best; he posted a score of 216.41 at the 2016 World Championships. Chen is third, Japan’s Shoma Uno owns the fourth-best personal best, and Chinese skater Jin Boyang sits in fifth place. These five men, unsurprisingly, were the top five finishers in the men’s event this week.

The lowest personal best belongs to India’s Krishna Sai Rahul Eluri. In 2016, at the ISU Junior Grand Prix in Yokohama, Japan, Eluri posted a free skate score of 10.07 points. His total score for the event—his free skate plus his short program—was 13.09 points. This is also the worst personal best total score recorded by the ISU. His personal best short program score of 3.02 is, you guessed it, another record low.

Eluri is the photographic negative of Yuzuru Hanyu: a triple record holder in his own right. But I come here not to mock Krishna Sai Rahul Eluri but to praise him. I have known of his existence for roughly three days, and in those three days he has become one of my all-time favorite athletes.

Eluri hails from Hyderabad, India, and he was just 14 years old when he skated in Yokohama in 2016. He was coached by Anup Kumar Yama, a famed local roller skater, and it was his first-ever international event. His ISU biography lists his hobbies as swimming and making jokes, reveals that he is his own choreographer, and notes that he’d only started skating in 2015. The page does not include the fun fact that he appears to have placed 101st in the first round of a 2013 Rubik’s cube competition in Hyderabad—70 spots above the lowest finisher.

When I found videos of Eluri’s performances in Yokohama, I was afraid I might see a young skater suffering humiliation after humiliation. I shouldn’t have been worried. Although he stumbled on almost every jump and spin he attempted, and though his choreography was extraordinarily basic, Eluri was having a fabulous time competing on the world stage. He loved to skate in front of a big crowd, and the crowd loved him right back.

Eluri’s short program is pure joy. It begins with him attempting a jump and falling down. He then dances around the ice like a man doing the breaststroke through invisible water. The crowd begins clapping along to Eluri’s music, and their energy propels him through a couple of energetic spins. For his big finish, he attempts a few disco-style dance steps, loses his balance, and falls on his butt as the music stops. The crowd goes wild as Eluri throws his arms wide and smiles broadly. “How does one measure courage and determination?” asks commentator Ted Barton as Eluri leaves the ice. “Maybe by the name of Krishna Sai Rahul. He was into the performance, encouraged by the audience, and his joy made everyone happy. What a gift. What a gift.”

His free skate is longer and, technically speaking, better. Though he stumbles on every jump and spin he mostly remains upright, and he ends his routine standing tall.

Eluri’s low score, it’s clear, was the product of an inexperienced skater from a country with limited exposure to the sport getting entered into a competition for which he was unqualified. He was effectively an amateur competing against the best junior skaters in the world. (The second-place finisher in Yokohama in 2016 was American Vincent Zhou, who took sixth place in Pyeongchang.) Earlier that year, Eluri had been skating in the novice level of the Asian Open Figure Skating Trophy; he was not ready for more serious competition. If anyone here deserves criticism, it is the ISU, which allowed Eluri to risk humiliation.

But despite his low score, he didn’t humiliate himself. Much of the appeal of the Olympics or any other competition comes in watching athletes push up against their limits, no matter where those limits lie. In a post-skate interview with Barton, Eluri revealed he practices three hours a day on roller skates because his home city of Hyderabad lacks an ice rink. (In 2010, the city did apparently get a synthetic ice rink comprised of “a fibre-plastic” solution that is allegedly “97 percent” similar to actual ice.) In advance of competitions, he said, he travels to a nearby city to use its rink for a week or two.

Given those limitations, Eluri did remarkably well. And even without adjusting for those limitations, he gave the crowd a fun show characterized by an authentic joy that many skaters lose as their routines become more polished.

A year and a half has passed since the 2016 ISU Junior Grand Prix, and Eluri has not subsequently appeared in any international skating competitions. But I, for one, am looking forward to his return. I was moved by Eluri’s exuberant effort in Yokohama, and so was the crowd. “Well, if you’re human at all, you have to appreciate the courage and the effort that Krishna had made both yesterday and today,” ISU commentator Barton—himself a one-time Nebelhorn Trophy winner—said after Eluri concluded his free skate. “He doesn’t have the skating skill, he hasn’t had the time, he hasn’t had many things that all the other skaters have, but he has the same heart.”

After his free skate in Yokohama, Eluri went to the kiss-and-cry area to await his score. When the judges’ verdict of 10.07 came in, he smiled in utter delight: a record low, a personal best, a cause for celebration.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Pyeongchang Olympics.

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