|

Honda primed for defense of world junior crown

by

Marin Honda’s recent trip to the Arctic Edge Ice Arena in Canton, Michigan, to prepare for defense of her world junior title with legendary coach/choreographer Marina Zoueva represented the continuation of a relationship that began two summers ago.

Zoueva, a former ice dancer for Russia, has worked with iconic figures in the sport like pairs Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov, whom she led to two Olympic gold medals (1988, 1994).

In an exclusive interview with Ice Time this week, Zoueva discussed her work with Honda, her fondness for the Kyoto native, and what makes the 15-year-old so special.

“My work with Marin began two seasons ago,” stated Zoueva in a telephone interview. “But the story started long before that.”

Zoueva detailed how a cruise on the Sumida River during the 2007 worlds in Tokyo inspired her to choreograph Honda’s “Spring Sonata” short program that helped her win the world junior crown last year in Hungary.

“My son and I were riding on the boat and the cherry blossoms were blooming and it was so beautiful,” Zoueva recalled. “I had a vision of a Japanese girl doing a program that brought this to the ice.”

Whenever Zoueva would run into Honda’s coach, Mie Hamada, at a competition after that she would mention her wish to choreograph the special program for one of her skaters.

In the summer of 2015, Zoueva got her wish.

“Finally Mie called me,” Zoueva stated. “She said, ‘Marina, I have a wonderful girl. Just a great girl. Can you do choreography for her like you have talked about?’ “

Zoueva, who helped the ice dance teams of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir (2010) and Meryl Davis and Charlie White (2014) win Olympic titles, was stunned when the then-13-year-old Honda turned up in Canton.

“When Marin came, I was actually almost in shock,” Zoueva commented. “She looked exactly perfect for what I was thinking about for the choreography to perform. How she looked, how she moved, how she smiled. Everything. That was how we started.”

Zoueva, who is 60 now, said their work together the first time out was fulfilling.

“The choreography was around a week and I think it was great,” Zoueva said. “I always enjoyed her after that. I had satisfaction because my dream had come true. I expressed in the short program that the best spring in the world was in Japan.”

Honda’s beauty and radiant smile seem to resonate wherever she goes.

“She came again before this season. One of the best things about her is her smile,” Zoueva stated. “It was not so hard for me to pick music for her which would perfectly match with her personality. After working with her the season before, I knew her ability. So I choreographed ‘Smile’ for her.”

Zoueva said that Honda’s most recent trip to Canton, two weeks ago, was a brief one.

“She was here just a couple of days this time because the world juniors were coming. She had her parents with her,” Zoueva noted. “That was the only week I could work with her. It was short but very productive and intensive. At the finish Marin performed well. She looked great.”

Ice Time asked Zoueva, who is currently working with three-time world champion Patrick Chan in Canton, what she and Honda worked on during the most recent visit.

“We worked on a lot of things. We tried to upgrade her performance level,” Zoueva said. “A little bit of a different expression in the program, perform what we want to say about ‘Smile.’ Lots of details in the performance.

“She worked with me and she worked with (coach) Oleg (Epstein). They worked on the footwork,” Zoueva commented. “We tried to upgrade everything a bit, different points. I think it was very successful. She worked so hard and you could see the improvement.”

Ice Time questioned Zoueva on her thoughts about Honda’s long-term potential.

“I hope she will realize all of her talent,” said Zoueva. “There is no question about her ability. But there are many factors. It is hard to prognosticate. That is why I usually don’t do it.”

Zoueva believes that skaters have to make themselves appealing while competing.

“I encourage my skaters to do their best and make the audience happy and get the judges to give them good marks,” Zoueva stated. “Judges love when the skaters perform good and have a clean program. They love to judge this way because it is easy for them.”

I then asked Zoueva to identify Honda’s strong points.

“I think the best thing about her is the ‘total package,’ ” Zoueva noted. “Not like individual things. Someone skates beautifully, but jumps OK. Some have amazing jumps, but need to work on their skating. Others have everything, but need spins.

“The best of Marin is the total package — everything. Like strong elements, skating skills, very good expression. She looks beautiful.”

Ice Time queried Zoueva on Honda’s chances to become the first Japanese female to repeat as world junior champion.

“Of course she can win again,” Zoueva said. “She just has to skate clean.”

This is a key point, as Honda has had inconsistent results this season. She was second at both the Yokohama Junior Grand Prix and the JGP in Slovenia in September. Honda then settled for third place at the Japan Junior Championships in Sapporo in November, before pulling out of the JGP Final in December with the flu.

Honda came back later in December to finish fourth at the senior nationals.

I quizzed Zoueva on whether there was a skater now or before that Marin reminds her of.

“No. I think she has pure individuality,” Zoueva replied. “She is very unique. That is what I saw. I can’t see anyone skate like her. She has a very nice and decent personality. She is adorable. I have never seen anyone with a smile like hers. I think she is very unique in the way she skates and how she performs.”

Ice Time cited the incredible growth in the strength of Japanese skating in the past 12 years and asked what she thought about this.

“My first experience working with them was when Takahiko Kozuka and Miki Ando came in 2001,” she remembered. “That was my first experience with them. I think Takahiko was around 11 or 12 then. I later did the choreography for Miki when she won the junior worlds (in 2004).”

Zoueva identified something special in both of the young Japanese skaters while working with them way back when.

“They both expressed the musicality. They were so musical,” Zoueva said. “They could express all the nuances of the music. They (Japanese skaters) have a unique musicality.”

Ice Time inquired about Zoueva’s thoughts on Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu.

“He is amazing,” Zoueva commented. “He flows with the music on ice. That’s the thing. It seems like most of the Japanese skaters have this ability.

“I love the way he interprets the music. It’s very light,” she added. “He doesn’t seem like he is working hard. It looks like the skating and jumps come from within him. It’s natural for him. He is very flexible.”

Ice Time concluded the interview with Zoueva, who was born in Moscow, by asking about her idols growing up as a young skater in the Soviet Union and who she has admired over the years.

“Ludmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov, the two-time Olympic pairs champions (1964, 1968),” Zoueva stated. “When I worked with Gordeeva and Grinkov, they were the inspiration.”

When it comes to singles, Zoueva, who became a naturalized Canadian citizen after moving there in 1991, cited a male compatriot as her favorite.

“Kurt Browning (a four-time world champion), for his performance and attitude for skating,” Zoueva said.

On the women’s side, Zoueva went with a couple of American icons.

“I always loved Peggy Fleming and Kristi Yamaguchi,” Zoueva commented. “Peggy by  beauty. She was the first to perform figure skating that way. With great grace. Kristi was a more consistent skater.”

Strong competition: Honda will not go into the world juniors as the favorite, despite being the defending champion.That billing goes to Russia’s Alina Zagitova.

The 14-year-old from Izhevsk has had a super season, winning the JGP Final and Russian junior title, and finishing second at the senior nationals. Zagitova and teammate Polina Tsurskaya will present a stiff challenge for Honda, Kaori Sakamoto and Yuna Shiraiwa in Taipei.

On the men’s side, Japan junior champion Kazuki Tomono and Koshiro Shimada will face the likes of Russia’s Dmitri Aliev (the JGP Final winner), South Korean senior titlist Cha Jun-hwan and American Vincent Zhou (who placed second at the senior U.S. nationals).

Miyahara tuning up: Ice Time is happy to report that three-time defending national champion Satoko Miyahara, who missed the Four Continents and Asian Winter Games due to a hip fracture, has returned to full strength after taking several weeks off.

“She is back on the ice and practicing every day,” a reliable source said. “She is really exerting herself.”

This is welcome news as Japan needs Miyahara in the field for the world championships later this month in Helsinki. Japan’s top two female skaters must finish a combined 13th or better to secure three places for the Hinomaru at next year’s Pyeongchang Olympics.

If Miyahara was unable to compete at the worlds, the task would be significantly harder for Japan. Now with Miyahara joining Mai Mihara and Wakaba Higuchi, Japan’s prospects are looking brighter for the three spots at the 2018 Winter Games.

Clean sweep: Japanese skaters swept the gold medals in all six classifications they were entered in at the Coupe du Printemps in Kockelscheuer, Luxembourg, over the weekend.

Shoma Uno (senior men), Rika Hongo (senior women), Yuto Kishina (junior men), Rino Kasakake (junior women), Takeru Kataise (novice boys) and Mana Kawabe (novice girls) all were victorious in the lower-level event that featured just five judges instead of the usual nine.