Rika Kihira continued Japan’s fine start to the Junior Grand Prix season on Saturday when she finished a close second at the event in Ostrava, Czech Republic.
Close second is almost too ambiguous to describe how narrowly she missed topping the platform in her JGP debut. Kihira, who led after the short program by more than three points (66.78 to 63.51), lost to Russia’s Anastasiia Gubanova by just 0.08 of a point (185.59 to 185.51).
The defeat came because Kihira exhibited fortitude in her free skate by trying to open with a triple axel (a jump she has been landing regularly in practice since last year) when she could have played it safe by doing a double and walked out of the arena with the gold medal.
Unfortunately, Kihira went crashing hard to the ice on the triple axel, but gamely skated on to complete her program. The 14-year-old from Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, already has those in the skating community buzzing with her future potential with the difficult triple axel, which she also does in combination with a triple toe loop.
Kihira’s short program to “Tzigane” in a burgundy outfit was nearly flawless. She looked very polished and earned just a single negative score from the nine judges. It was an impressive effort for her first time on the ice in a JGP.
ISU announcer Ted Barton summed it up best when he stated at the end of Kihira’s short program, “Wow . . . There was quality, detail, maturity, well-taught, exquisitely presented. She is the real deal, full package. Looking forward to seeing her free program.”
Barton specifically cited how Kihira, who is coached by Mie Hamada, stayed in tune with the music throughout her short program.
“It was the detail by which she performed to every phrase of the music,” Barton stated. “She paid attention to the notes and to the phrasing, as well as excellent spins and jumps. What a wonderful young skater.”
Kihira performed to “Rhapsody in Blue” in the free skate, and came back strong after her opening fall. She stumbled and under-rotated the double loop at the back end of a three-jump combination late (triple flip, double toe loop, double loop), but showed good determination throughout the program.
Once again, Barton was effusive in his praise of Kihira after her free skate.
“This young lady is a brilliant skater. She is a brilliant performer and she is a brilliant competitor,” Barton said. “That was a tough start at the beginning of the program and she just knocked it all off after that.”
When Kihira saw how close she came to winning, she just threw her head back in exasperation and smiled.
Yuna Aoki, a 14-year-old from Yokohama, placed fourth in the competition with a total score of 155.79. She set personal bests in both the short (56.60) and free (99.19), despite falling in each.
Aoki is in her second season on the JGP circuit. She placed seventh in her lone assignment last season in Latvia.
After Aoki’s short program, Barton made clear how moved he was by the exceptional ability of Japanese skaters, something that Ice Time has been citing for years.
“There always seems to be something special, some special quality about in all the Japanese skaters,” Barton noted. “They fly over the ice. It’s free. They soar with the music. It’s just beautiful.”
Mitsuki Sumoto, a 15-year-old from Izumi, Osaka Prefecture, came in fifth in the men’s event that was won by Russia’s Dmitri Aliev. Also in his second JGP campaign, Sumoto was seventh in his JGP assignment last year in the United States.
“He has some very nice basic skating skills, especially jumping,” Barton commented after Sumoto’s short program to “Singing in the Rain.” “He is really well centered and rotates fast. Spins are a little bit slow and needs work on positions.”
Hot commodity: Kihara’s performance in Ostrava was the latest feather in the cap of Hamada, who continues to display a golden touch with her young skaters. She is also the coach of world junior champion Marin Honda and rising junior star Yuna Shiraiwa, as well as 2015 world silver medalist Satoko Miyahara.
Prior to the start of the competition in Ostrava, the 56-year-old Hamada spoke briefly with Barton in a video interview and provided some insight into her philosophy as a mentor.
When asked if she liked to coach juniors or seniors, the Kyoto Prefecture native was diplomatic with her reply.
“I like both. Even I like very much to teach little kids,” she told Barton. “I enjoy teaching.”
She was questioned on why she takes the time to teach all levels when she has elite skaters in her camp.
“I enjoy to see their development — each step,” Hamada said.
When queried about why she decided to go into coaching after her own skating days were over, Hamada gave a heartfelt response.
“I love to teach. I love skating,” she stated. “I have an ideal — I want to make good skaters, who love to skate.”
Up next: The JGP circuit comes to Japan this week for the third of seven stops on the tour starting Friday at the Shin-Yokohama Skate Center. The event will provide fans their first chance to see Honda in competition at home since she won the world junior title last season in Hungary.
Joining Honda in the women’s field will be Mako Yamashita, while Kazuki Tomono, Sena Miyake and Yuto Kishina are slated to skate for Japan in the men’s event.
Marin’s musings: At the end of July, Honda spoke to the media in Nagoya about the upcoming season at a training camp with her fellow juniors. She had earlier competed in a camp with the senior skaters in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, where former two-time world champion Stephane Lambiel of Switzerland was an instructor.
“I was the youngest skater at the senior training camp, so I had a lot to learn from my senior skaters as to how they perform and practice,” stated Honda. “But (at this junior camp) I’m not the youngest, and mentally it’s not easy and I kind of have to lead others, but that’s what I would like to do.”
Honda will skate to “Smile” for her short program this season and was asked her thoughts about the selection.
“First, as the title indicates, I would like to perform with smiles,” she said. “I’ve been able to jump better compared to last year and I’m going to do even better going forward, so I’ll have to work on my artistic part, but if I do my jumping portions well, I believe positive results will follow.”
Honda has chosen the theme from “Romeo and Juliet” for her free skate.
“For the free program, I have always wanted to use ‘Romeo and Juliet’ for years, so I feel like I have finally been able to use it. I think that the program will become one that will excite even myself.”
When asked her goals for this season, Honda provided a concise answer.
“I would like to increase the number of tournaments in which I will perform better.”
Honda is aiming to join the senior ranks next season for the Olympic year.
“I have wanted to move up to the senior group once I become eligible, so I hope to go to the senior competition next year,” she commented. “With that being said, I will have to have better results this year. This is going to be my last junior training camp to be in, so I will do my best.”