The ice was the only world Yuzuru Hanyu knew perfectly. Beyond the confines of the rink, he believed he would be just like any other ordinary 16-year-old.

Hanyu was skating when the Great East Japan Earthquake hit the Tohoku region. The ice began to break and his world came crumbling around him to the ground.

Thinking back, Hanyu had told himself it was easier to quit, to walk away from something that only brought grim memories of a world reduced to rubble before his very eyes. He nearly did, and as he pushed himself from the side of the rink, it was the last thought on his mind.

At the age of 19, Hanyu has had to come overcome a lot to get to Sochi.

Three years ago, the possibility of winning—or even getting a shot at—an Olympic Gold seemed far out of his reach. His family was forced to leave their home in Sendai in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami.

Last week, Hanyu won Japan’s first Winter Games gold medal since 2006—even after falling twice. A day before, the figure skater became the first ever to score over 100 points in the men’s single short program.

When his long program opened, he lost his timing in the air and fell on his first jump, a quadruple Salchow. He then put both hands to the ice on a triple flip. He was, after all, human, but with conviction he finished his final performance with a total score of 280.09, earning him the gold.

“I thought the gold was not in my hands,” Hanyu said.

“I can’t find the words. It was such a difficult program for me and I felt rough, physically. I’m just shocked. I was trying not to think about winning a gold medal, but I couldn’t deflect the pressure, which was massive,” Hanyu said.

“I’m so proud of this feat as a Japanese … I’ve never been this nervous for a competition in my entire life. I’m upset with the performance I had, but I left everything I had out there.”

Even without saying it, that day in March 2011 was the defining moment in his life that led him here.

His victory could not really help the recovery in Sendai, Hanyu said. “Perhaps,” Hanyu said, “there is something I can do going forward.”

Little did he know that just by taking his place in the rink, he inspired so many lives. That by picking himself up no matter how many times he fell, he has given hope.

By Maesie Bertumen