Figure Skating | ICE TIME

Medal haul in Yokohama shows depth of young talent

by Jack Gallagher

This past weekend’s sweep of the women’s singles at the Yokohama Junior Grand Prix illustrated just how deep Japan’s talent pool is now.

World junior champion Marin Honda, who came into the event as the favorite, had to settle for second place behind Kaori Sakamoto, while the unheralded Mako Yamashita finished third in her JGP debut.

The podium sweep gave Japan seven singles medals of the 18 available in the first three JGPs of the season in the men’s and women’s events. As if taking almost half of the medals to this point isn’t impressive enough, it should be noted that Japanese skaters have also placed fourth twice (Yuna Aoki in Ostrava, Czech Republic, Kazuki Tomono in Yokohama) in competitions.

Sakamoto’s victory on Sunday was poignant, but despite being the leader after the short program, most of the attention was on Honda. Sakamoto is not blessed with as much natural ability as Honda, but makes up for it with hard work and determination.

The 16-year-old from Kobe had not won an event since the 2013-14 season and it was clear that fact frustrated her. She was overcome with emotion Sunday, burying her face in her hands for several seconds, when the final scores were flashed on the board and she had beaten Honda by more than three points for the gold medal to end her victory drought.

“I got the silver at the junior nationals two years ago, and last year I got hurt,” Sakamoto said. “Then in the JGP in France I got the silver again.

“It is really great for me to win the gold medal,” Sakamoto commented. “I just feel so happy about it.”

Sakamoto clinched a berth in the Junior Grand Prix Final in Marseille, France, in December with the victory. She was second in the season-opening JGP in St. Gervais, France, last month.

Honda came through like a veteran with her free skate on Sunday, vaulting from fifth place after the short program to come in second with a personal best. She refused to consider the result as something negative.

“This competition was a good experience for me,” Honda stated. “I won’t consider it a bad memory.”

Honda, who struggled in her short program to “Smile,” will skate next in Slovenia in two weeks and said that small window of time makes adjustments difficult.

“There is only a short time before the next event. Almost not enough time to have good training,” Honda noted. “I think it is really important to make my short program clean.”

Yamashita, a 13-year-old from Nagoya, was the revelation of the Yokohama JGP. She skated so well in the short program (taking second behind Sakamoto) on Friday, that those in the skating community were buzzing about her debut afterward.

The junior high school student cited a 2015 world junior champion as an inspiration.

“My favorite skater in my club is Shoma Uno,” Yamashita said. “He has amazing performances and I like to study him.”

Up next: The JGP travels to Saransk, Russia, this week for the fourth leg of the series. Rising star Yuna Shiraiwa and Kokoro Iwamoto will represent the Hinomaru there.

Both skaters are part of the incredible junior stable assembled by veteran mentor Mie Hamada. In addition to Shiraiwa and Iwamoto, Hamada coaches Honda and Rika Kihira (who was second in her JGP debut in Ostrava).

Hamada is also the longtime coach of two-time national champion Satoko Miyahara.

Golden start: The ISU Challenger Series began its third season last weekend with the Lombardia Trophy in Bergamo, Italy. The circuit is comprised of 10 events and gives skaters the opportunity to enter warmup competitions before the championship campaign commences.

Japan walked away with both titles in Italy, with Wakaba Higuchi winning the women’s singles and Shoma Uno the men’s.

Higuchi (178.86) finished ahead of South Korea’s Kim Na-hyun (177.27) and Mirai Nagasu (176.86) in the final standings.

Uno (258.93) topped the podium ahead of Americans Jason Brown (256.49) and Max Aaron (218.73).

The series travels to Salt Lake City this week and will also visit Oberstdorf (Germany), Montreal, Bratislava, Espoo (Finland), Kiev, Warsaw, Tallinn and Zagreb over the next three months.

Staying put: The Cup of Russia (also know as the Rostelecom Cup) will apparently be held Nov. 4-6 in Moscow as originally scheduled, the ISU confirmed to Ice Time recently.

The event was in question following the phenomenal revelations of the Russian doping scandal during the Sochi Games. After the release of the McLaren Report in July, the IOC had requested that winter sports federations move major events out of the country.

“Because of the detailed references to the manipulation of samples during the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014 the IOC asks all International Olympic Winter Sports Federations to freeze their preparations for major events in Russia, such as World Championships, World Cups or other major international competitions under their responsibility, and to actively look for alternative organizers,” part of the IOC statement said at the time.

The ISU is apparently ignoring this directive.

“As of today the Rostelecom Cup is scheduled to take place as planned. If this were to change, it will duly be communicated,” Selina Vanier, the communications and media coordinator for the ISU wrote in an email.

Major expansion: With the 2022 Olympics set for Beijing, the country is making major plans to become more of a force in skating in the coming years.

A skating source has told Ice Time that in the next few years, China is planning to build 250 new ice rinks.

You read that right. Not 25, but 250.

Wow.

Despite all of Japan’s success in the past 10 years in skating, it has resulted in the construction of very few new rinks. It might be time for the powers that be in the sport here to think about that.

Prophetic: Several years ago an anonymous source who claimed to work for the Japan Skating Federation would contact Ice Time occasionally offering some inside information. Though the individual did provide some insights, he or she would never come forward and agree to a meeting with me for fear of losing their job.

When four-time Winter Olympian and politician Seiko Hashimoto, who was born in Hokkaido, took over as head of the JSF several years ago, the source instructed me to be on the lookout for skating business being directed to the northern island as a result of her appointment.

Ice Time had not thought about this suggestion much recently, until he realized that in an 11-month period starting late in 2015 and running through this November, Sapporo will have hosted the national championships (last December), the Japan Junior Championships (Nov. 18-20) and the NHK Trophy (Nov 25-27).

Very interesting.

Sapporo will also be the site of the Asian Winter Games in early 2017. That competition will run from Feb. 19-26 and include figure skating.