Risa Shoji was Japan’s top medal hope going into last weekend’s world junior championships in South Korea, and though she finished a respectable fifth in ladies singles, the 14-year-old was overshadowed by compatriot Keiji Tanaka, who claimed the silver medal in men’s singles.
Tanaka, a 16-year-old from Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, vaulted from sixth after the short program to nearly grab the gold, winning the free skate and finishing just over three points behind Canada’s Andrei Rogozine.
Yuzuru Hanyu won the world junior title last year but opted to move up to the senior level this season. He finished second at the recent Four Continents Championships behind world champion Daisuke Takahashi.
Tanaka, a student at Okayama University of Science High School, and Takahashi share the same coach — Utako Nagamitsu — and hometown, so there is no doubt that after Tanaka’s showing in South Korea, expectations for him are going to be great. He took third place at the Junior Grand Prix in Romania and was sixth at the JGP in England earlier this season.
Tanaka hit eight triple jumps — including two triple axels — and recorded two level-four spins in his free skate to Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Bolt” to tally an overall score of 196.98 to Rogozine’s 200.13.
At least one report said that many rinkside observers felt that Tanaka should have been awarded the gold.
“I came in sixth in the short program and I actually didn’t think too much about my position,” Tanaka said. “I just wanted to skate well in the free skating and I focused on that. For next season, I not only want to work on jumps, but I want to enjoy my skating. I don’t know yet whether I’ll skate in seniors or juniors.”
Ryuichi Kihara placed 10th, while Kento Nakamura came in 14th.
Russia’s Adelina Sotnikova was dominant in winning the gold, capturing both the short and free programs to post a more than five-point victory over compatriot Elizaveta Tuktamisheva.
Shoji, who narrowly missed out on the bronze medal at the Junior Grand Prix Final this season, was seventh after the short program, but a strong free skate to “The Lake House” moved her up to fifth.
Shoji enjoyed an outstanding season, winning the JGP event in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, placing second at the JGP in the Czech Republic and notching fifth place in the senior ranks at the Japan nationals.
“I was very nervous throughout this competition,” Shoji admitted. “I did my best. I give myself 99 points out of 100.”
Shoji was clearly inspired by the skills of Sotnikova and Tuktamisheva.
“I saw good Russian skaters,” she said. “It was stimulating. I want to come up to top-level skating and performance.”
Miyabi Oba took eighth place in South Korea, while Yuki Nishino was 12th.
Kanako Murakami, who also chose to skate in the senior ranks this season, was the world junior champion last year.
Narumi Takahashi and Mervin Tran earned the bronze medal in the pairs. The duo was second after the short program but could only manage third in the free skate.
Anticipation builds: Olympic gold medalist Kim Yu Na skipped the Grand Prix season to take a break and is scheduled to make her return at the world championships in Tokyo later this month. South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo reported recently that she will arrive in Japan on March 20 with coach Peter Oppegard.
With the incredible season that Miki Ando is enjoying, most recently winning the Four Continents with a career-high score, she has to be considered the favorite going into the worlds. It promises to be quite a show, one way or the other, with Mao Asada trying to defend her title and Murakami skating in her first senior worlds.
Kim’s return will only thicken the plot, with U.S. and Grand Prix Final champion Alissa Czisny also a medal contender.
New platform: The Chosun Ilbo also reported that Kim will likely tape a pilot for a potential television show called “Kim Yu Na’s Kiss and Cry” in May for South Korean network SBS.
Kim’s management firm, All That Sports, was quoted as saying, “It seems like a program that could boost the popularity of figure skating and help grow the sport in Korea.”
Flying high: Japan champion Takahiko Kozuka signed a sponsorship deal with United Airlines last month. Kozuka joins training partner Mao in the United camp.