|

Yuzuru Hanyu and Rika Kihira top podium in season debuts

by Jack Gallagher

Yuzuru Hanyu and Rika Kihira continued Japan’s winning ways over the weekend by claiming the Autumn Classic International and the Nepela Trophy in varying fashions.

Hanyu began his season with an inconsistent performance in Oakville, Ontario. Though the two-time Olympic champion topped the podium with a total score of 263.65 points to best South Korea’s Cha Jun-hwan (259.78), it was not the kind of effort Hanyu was happy with and he said so afterward.

In an unusual occurrence, Hanyu struggled with his spins in both the short program and free skate. He had one spin invalidated in the short program and got level threes on the others, and also fell on his planned quad salchow while doing just one combination jump in the free skate.

“My first competition of the season is always this level, unfortunately,” NBC Sports quoted Hanyu as saying. “I wanted to skate my short and free without any regrets here, and I was not able to do that.”

The superstar said he does not have the necessary stamina he needs this early in the season.

“I was not strong enough to skate this program yet,” Hanyu added. “I feel fine, I am not injured. Another program, maybe (last season’s) ‘Seimei,’ I might have been able to do well, but not this program. I am just not ready.”

Perhaps the biggest news that emerged out of the Autumn Classic was the revelation that Hanyu was practicing a quad toe loop/triple axel combination and appeared ready to insert it into his free skate.

Though he did not execute it in the free skate, the mere fact that he contemplated it caused a buzz. Had the Sendai native pulled off the difficult combo, he would have been the first skater in history to achieve it in competition.

With several weeks before his next event, the Helsinki Grand Prix in early November, don’t be surprised if Hanyu establishes another first by pulling it off.

Kihira, meanwhile, tore it up in Bratislava, Slovakia, winning by more than 25 points with 218.16 over Kazakhstan’s Elizabet Tursynbaeva (192.30), and putting on a show in the free skate by hitting eight triples including two clean triple axels.

The 16-year-old from Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, seems primed for a breakout season in her senior debut campaign. Outside of a shaky landing on her final jump (a triple salchow), Kihira was sublime to “Beautiful Storm.”

Ice Time likes both of Hanyu’s new programs “Otonal” (short) and “Origin” (free) and believes he will be fine once he has had more time work with them. The key point is that Hanyu does not want to be peaking in the first event of the season, but later when it comes to competitions like the Grand Prix Final and world championships.

“He knows how to use the momentum,” noted announcer Ted Barton on the webcast of the Autumn Classic. “Look at the mohawks into this quad salchow. Just brings the speed and momentum straight up in the air. Right underneath, that landing foot was with great speed and flow carrying him out of the jump.”

Barton’s broadcasting partner Debbi Wilkes liked Hanyu’s short program.

“That was really a beautiful approach to this program,” Wilkes stated. “It started out so understated. The movements were very minimal and then ka-pow, hit the footwork and kind of came to this whole other level of energy.”

Barton was effusive in his praise of Hanyu after the short program.

“An extraordinary skater,” Barton commented on Hanyu. “I watch a lot. It’s my life. When you watch him, it’s just everything that you hope skating would be, can be and is.”

Following Hanyu’s free skate, Barton refused to be negative.

“From the sport perspective, it wasn’t perfect,” Barton remarked. “But from a performance perspective, in a moment, it was magic.

“He pays, and the coaches pay, attention to every detail, because he is capable of doing every detail,” Barton continued. “At this point in history, he is probably the best men’s skater ever. . . . It’s an honor to be in the building when he skates.”

Kihira’s performance in Slovakia will come as no surprise to one person — choreographer David Wilson. He arranged her short program this year to “Clair de Lune.”

“She is amazing. She really sparkles,” Wilson told Ice Time during the summer about Kihira. “She is really talented technically. I was really thrilled because she has a great ear for the music.”

Wilson has worked with enough great skaters to know when he has come upon something special.

“Rika knows how to move her body. She is open in her facial expressions and she is happy,” Wilson stated. “She loves it. There is nothing she is really missing. It will be nice to watch her blossom and solidify what she has got.”

Rough start for Higuchi

World silver medalist Wakaba Higuchi (167.01) finished a disappointing fifth at the Autumn Classic in her season debut after struggling with her triple flip in both the short and free.

It was downgraded in Higuchi’s short program to “Energia” and she fell on it in the free skate to “The Four Seasons.” The flip issues along with the fact that she only did one combination in the free kept her from making the podium.

American Bradie Tennell (206.41) was the surprise winner over two-time Russian world champion Evgenia Medvedeva (204.89) in Canada.

Barton liked what he saw from Higuchi even when she was clearly not at her best.

“She explodes off the ice. Great height,” Barton commented after her short program. “I like the fresh approach to her program. It’s different.

“We’ve watched this young lady grow up over the years and change the sophistication and the entertainment and the approach to the programs,” Barton continued. “I like this. I think it is a good direction. She’s a really good skater.”

Barton was amazed by Higuchi’s natural talent in the free skate.

“The first thing that comes to mind is sheer power and effortless acceleration,” Barton said. “Some people push themselves to get speed. She looks like she’s got motorized blades. She carries the flow so easily.”

Wilkes admired Higuchi’s final spin in the free.

“Beautiful layback spin. Perfectly centered all in one spot on the ice,” Wilkes observed.

Tanaka lands bronze

Keiji Tanaka (221.92) brought home the bronze in the men’s event at the Nepela Trophy. He made the podium behind Russia’s Mikhail Kolyada (274.37) and Sergei Voronov (239.73).

Mihara, Honda ready to go

The Challenger Series continues this week in Germany with the Nebelhorn Trophy, the sixth event of the 10-competition campaign. Mai Mihara and Marin Honda will skate for the Hinomaru in Oberstdorf against a lineup that includes reigning Olympic champion Alina Zagitova.

The Nebelhorn will mark the season debuts for both Mihara and Honda.

Japan does not have any skaters entered in the men’s field.

Junior season resumes

The Junior Grand Prix starts up again this week in Ostrava, Czech Republic, with the fifth stop on the eight-city circuit. Nana Araki and Shiika Yoshioka will represent Japan in the women’s field, while Mitsuki Sumoto skates in the men’s event.

Sumoto was second at the Slovakia JGP in August, while Yoshioka was third at the Austria JGP in her first assignment.

This will be Araki’s first JGP of the season, after she withdrew from the Lithuania JGP earlier this month due to illness.