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Honda joins select group with win at world juniors

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The depth of Japan’s skating prowess was on full display at the world junior championships in Debrecen, Hungary, over the weekend, where Marin Honda, Wakaba Higuchi and Yuna Shiraiwa took three of top four places in the women’s competition.

Honda, a 14-year-old from Kyoto, was absolutely magnificent in becoming the seventh Japanese woman to win the world junior title. In taking the gold, Honda joined the likes of Yuka Sato (1990), Kumiko Koiwai (1993), Yukina Ota (2003), Miki Ando (2004), Mao Asada (2005) and Kanako Murakami (2010) in accomplishing the feat.

The world juniors were first held in 1976. Three of the previous six Japanese female winners of the world junior crown — Sato, Ando, Mao — went on to become senior world champions as well.

Honda was in second place, though in a statistical tie with Russia’s Alisa Fedichkina with 66.11 points, after Friday’s short program. Fedichkina’s higher technical element score (38.16 to 37.57) put her in first on the leader board.

Looking radiant in a dark red outfit, Honda performed to the soundtrack from “Beetlejuice” in her free skate and exuded confidence from start to finish. She reeled off seven triple jumps and received level-fours on two of her spins, plus extra credit for highlight distribution on five of her jumps.

With her beautiful display of line and edge and outstanding speed, Honda reminded Ice Time of a young Mao.

“Before the competition, I was aiming at the podium,” Honda was quoted as saying by the ISU website. “After the short program I felt stronger about making the podium.”

Honda, with a total score of 192.98 points, beat Russia’s Maria Sotskova (188.72) by more than four points to earn the victory, with Higuchi finishing with 183.73. Honda established new personal bests in both the short program and free skate.

Higuchi, a 15-year-old from Tokyo, earned the bronze medal for the second straight year, coming from fifth place after the short program to make the podium. After finishing second behind Satoko Miyahara at the senior nationals, Higuchi was one of the favorites entering the event.

“Before the competition my condition was good,” stated Higuchi. “Unfortunately I missed an element in the short program and I was very disappointed. I had some concerns in the free skating about the triple lutz/triple loop, but I think I did a good job.”

Higuchi fell on the back end of her triple lutz/triple toe loop combination in the short program, but got high marks for it in the free skate, where she turned in a polished performance.

Shiraiwa (171.59) vaulted from eighth after the short program to place a very respectable fourth in her first world juniors. She also came in fourth at last month’s Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway.

The results in Hungary are another feather in the caps of coaches Mie Hamada and Yamato Tamura, who train both Honda and Shiraiwa. Both skaters have enjoyed outstanding seasons, with Shiraiwa winning her two Junior Grand Prix assignments (Colorado Springs; Logrono, Spain) and Honda winning one (Zagreb) and taking second (Colorado Springs) in the other.

Honda was also on the medal stand at the JGP Final in Barcelona, Spain, this season where she claimed the bronze, while Shiraiwa finished fifth.

It was interesting to see how Hamada touched heads for several seconds with both Honda and Shiraiwa before each of their programs. It was as if the teacher was transferring energy to her students through the connections.

Hamada, who also coaches Miyahara, and led Ota to the world junior title in 2003, outlined her goals for her top trio to International Figure Skating Magazine in October.

“For Satoko, I would like to see her on the world podium again,” Hamada commented. “I feel Japanese skaters lack a bit of power compared to skaters from other countries, so I want to see her improve on that.

“For the juniors (Honda and Shiraiwa), this is their first season since moving up from novice, so I would like them to get the experience of competing two days in a row. I think that their goal should be to skate well in both their short and free.”

Japan ended up with two of the six singles medals on offer at the world juniors, but could have well ended up with three (and perhaps both golds) if Sota Yamamoto had not fractured his ankle in his final training session on March 12.

Yamamoto, the gold medalist at the Youth Olympics, took home the bronze at last year’s world juniors.

Inspiring effort: There is nothing better in sports than seeing somebody come off the bench and give a great performance. Such was the case in Hungary, where Japanese-American Tomoki Hiwatashi captured the bronze medal in the men’s competition after being added to the U.S. team following an injury.

Hiwatashi, from Hoffman Estates, Illinois, made the podium with a total of 222.52 points.

Israel’s Daniel Samohin (236.65) won the title, with Canada’s Nicolas Nadeau (224.76) taking second.

Hiwatashi, whose parents are from Kobe, was sixth after the short program. He landed eight triple jumps in his free skate to a Charlie Chaplin medley.

“I came here as a substitute for Nathan Chen and I wasn’t expecting to get this position right now. I was only aiming for top eight or 10,” Hiwatashi commented. “I just wanted America to get three places for junior worlds. It was really fun out there, I did a clean program. When I landed the second triple axel I just felt I was going to make it.”

Interesting fact: In the 41-year history of the world juniors, Japan has hosted the event just once — in Sapporo in 1984. This seems like something that should change sometime soon, especially with Fonix Arena in Debrecen appearing less than half full throughout this year’s event.

With the trio of female skaters that represented the Hinomaru in Hungary, Japan could have filled up arenas in any number of cities had the competition been held at home.

Farewell: Takahiko Kozuka, the silver medalist at the 2011 worlds is retiring. The 27-year-old will begin working for Toyota, which has sponsored him, next month.

Kozuka, who represented Japan at the 2010 Vancouver Games (where he finished eighth), was always a class act. He was the world junior champion in 2006, the national champion in 2010, won four senior Grand Prix events in his career, and medaled at two Grand Prix Finals.

The Nagoya native followed in the footsteps of his father Tsugihiko, who was a three-time national champion (1967-69) and represented Japan at the 1968 Grenoble Olympics.

It’s shaping up to be a busy year for Kozuka, who married television announcer Yukari Oshima last month.

Ice Time wishes Takahiko all the best in the future. He will be missed by all in the skating community.

New challenge: Daisuke Takahashi, the 2010 world champion and bronze medalist at the Vancouver Olympics, has been hired by Fuji Television as a skating analyst. His first assignment will be the upcoming world championships in Boston starting next week.

Takahashi, who retired after the 2013-14 season, will take on a more prominent role with Fuji beginning next season with interviews and event coverage.