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Kihira makes history with triple axel at Slovenia JGP

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Rika Kihira jumped into the record books in a big way at the Junior Grand Prix in Slovenia on Saturday night.

The 14-year-old from Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, opened her free skate to “Rhapsody in Blue” in Ljubljana with a triple axel and went on to hit eight triple jumps in total to move up from second place after the short program and win the event.

The level of Kihira’s accomplishment can’t be overstated. In landing the triple axel, she became just the eighth woman and fourth Japanese female ever to accomplish the feat in competition.

Kihira joins Midori Ito (who first did it in 1988), American Tonya Harding (1991), Russia’s Ludmila Nelidina (2002), Yukari Nakano (2002), Mao Asada (2004), American Kimmie Meissner (2005) and Russia’s Elizaveta Tuktamysheva (2015) in the triple axel club.

In executing the difficult element, Kihira became just the second junior skater (behind Mao) to pull it off and the first in more than 10 years in international competition. Mao’s last clean triple axel as a junior came in the short program at the 2006 world juniors.

As if all that wasn’t impressive enough, Kihira’s eight clean triple jumps made her the first woman to do that at any level.

Pretty heady stuff for a junior high school student who wears braces on her teeth and is in just her first season on the JGP circuit.

Kihira’s record performance resonated throughout the skating world.

“Truly fantastic winning free skate and triple axel from Japan’s Rika Kihira!” tweeted three-time U.S. champion and NBC television analyst Johnny Weir. “A new star is born & still junior!”

ISU announcer Ted Barton analyzed Kihira’s triple axel as “beautifully executed” on the YouTube broadcast of the event. Kihira has been working on the jump in practice for a year, according to her coach Mie Hamada.

Attempts by Ice Time to reach Mao, Ito and Nakano for comments on Kihira’s achievement were unsuccessful.

The victory in Slovenia clinched a spot in the JGP Final for Kihira in December in Marseille, France. Kihira will be joined there by compatriot Kaori Sakamoto, who won the Yokohama JGP and was second in St. Gervais, France.

Following Kihira’s short program to “Tzigane” in a sharp burgundy outfit, Barton stated, “Beautiful quality on everything she does, like all the Japanese skaters.”

Kihira narrowly missed winning her first JGP assignment in Ostrava, Czech Republic, earlier this month. She finished second by just 0.08 of a point after trying the triple axel and missing on it.

For those of you wondering about Kihira’s eligibility for the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, I’m afraid it’s bad news.

The ISU’s age rule states that a skater has to turn 16 before July 1 of the year the Olympics are being held. As fate would have it, Kihira’s birthday is July 21. That means she misses the Olympic eligibility deadline for Pyeongchang by just three weeks.

Completely overshadowed by Kihira’s glorious performance in Slovenia was world junior champion Marin Honda, who finished second behind a fellow countrywoman for the second time in three weeks.

Kihira’s margin was decisive over Honda, as the rookie won by more than 15 points (194.24 to 178.75) in the total score.

Honda climbed from fifth after a poor short program in Yokohama to take second behind Sakamoto with an outstanding free skate.

Honda again struggled with her short program to “Smile” in Slovenia, but rallied from fourth to make the podium with a solid free skate to “Romeo and Juliet.”

Barton acknowledged that Honda is a gifted skater in his analysis of her free skate, but also noted that she botched her planned three-jump combination late in the program and it cost her.

“She is a special skater. She has something unique and special and deep as she peforms,” Barton commented. “But this is competition and you have to deliver like the other skaters all of the elements you have planned.”

With two second-place finishes Honda should have a good chance at also making the JGP Final. But with two events still remaining this season it could come down to tiebreakers.

Russia’s Alina Zagitova, who led after the short program, took third behind Kihira and Honda.

“One of the things I like about covering the juniors is the battle between Japan and Russia,” Barton told Ice Time a couple of weeks ago in Yokohama. “It’s like Canada vs. Russia in hockey. It’s Japan vs. Russia in juniors, more so than seniors. There is always this battle and we work with that.”

Kazuki Tomono came in third in the men’s competition in Ljubljana to give Japan half of the singles medals for the third time in five events this season. Tomono was fourth in Yokohama and has a good chance to be one of the three alternates for the JGP Final.

Up next: This week the JGP circuit moves to Tallinn, Estonia, for the sixth installment. Mako Yamashita and Rin Nitaya will represent Japan in the women’s singles, while Koshiro Shimada is the Hinomaru’s lone male entrant.

Yamashita (Yokohama) and Nitaya (St. Gervais, France) placed third in their first JGPs this season, but could equal Honda on points with 26 with a victory in the race for a spot in the JGP Final.

Three in a row: Mai Mihara, who placed second in her two JGP assignments last season to earn a spot in the JGP Final, is moving up to the senior ranks this season. Almost overlooked with the attention directed toward the likes of Kihira, Honda, Sakamoto and Yuna Shiraiwa in recent weeks, Mihara promptly made a splash in her senior debut.

Skating at the Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany, in the third stop of the Challenger Series last weekend, the 17-year-old from Kobe went out and beat 2015 world champion Tuktamysheva to win the competition.

Mihara was second behind Tuktamysheva after the short program, but overtook her in the free skate to prevail with a total tally of 189.03 to the Russian’s 185.93.

The German announcers gave high praise to Mihara after her short program to “Rondo Capriccioso,” with one saying, “Besides her jumps, she was really fast and did some great steps and spins. It was absolutely perfect.”

A second announcer added, “The special thing about the program which I see is the composition of it. It is done in a very dramatic way. To be honest I was a bit skeptical in the beginning if it might be too dramatic. But in the end you got this kind of light skating style which is leading us through the program and makes it very interesting to watch.”

Mihara’s victory marked the third straight week a Japanese woman has won a Challenger Series event. Wakaba Higuchi topped the podium at the season-opening Lombardia Trophy, while Satoko Miyahara followed that by winning the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic.

Thinking big: The Challenger Series will garner big attention this week when Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu makes his season debut at the Autumn Classic International in Montreal.

Hanyu, who was off the ice for two months after last season due to a ligament injury in his left foot, unveiled his programs for this season for the media earlier this month in Toronto.

He will skate to Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” in the short program and “Hope and Legacy” for the free skate in which he may do as many as four quadruple jumps. That is pretty ambitious, even for an elite skater like Hanyu.

Joyful news: The past two years have been busy ones for former skater Yukari Nakano. She got married last year and Ice Time has learned that she became a mother for the first time last month when she gave birth to a baby boy on Aug. 9.

Nakano reported the news in a message on her fan blog goyukarin.exblog.jp.

There is a nice photo of Yukari with her little bundle of joy on the site. The little guy weighed in at 2,624 grams and arrived six days late.

Nakano is one of Ice Time’s all-time favorites, and wants to wish she and her husband all the best with their new addition.