The golden age of Japanese skating is now in its 12th season and shows no signs of abating anytime soon.
Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu became the first skater ever to cleanly land a quadruple loop in an ISU competition during his short program on Friday night at the Autumn Classic International in Montreal.
The Challenger Series event provided the perfect platform for Hanyu to try the maneuver ahead of the upcoming Grand Prix season. Hanyu skated to Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” and opened his program with the quad loop that he landed with his usual feathery touch.
“There were some nerves,” Hanyu was quoted as saying by Kyodo News. “You people might be surprised (with quad loop) but it doesn’t matter to me. I can execute the loop better and I’m just frustrated I couldn’t complete my program.”
Hanyu fell on the front end of his planned quad salchow/triple toe loop combination jump in the short program.
“I was trying to be careful (on the combination) but I lost my balance as I took off. The mark didn’t reach 90 and I have to practice more,” Hanyu stated about his short program mark of 88.30.
Hanyu (260.57 points) ended up winning by more than 30 points over Uzbekistan’s Misha Ge (230.55) in the final standings.
Hanyu’s achievement comes just six months after compatriot Shoma Uno broke new ground by executing the first clean quad flip at the season-ending Team Challenge Cup in April in Spokane, Washington.
Just as Mitsuo Tsukahara raised the bar in gymnastics decades ago with his “Moon Salto” and “Tsukahara Vault,” Hanyu and Uno are doing the same now for their sport.
The rise of Japanese skating can be traced back to the 2005-06 season, when Mao Asada won the senior Grand Prix Final in Tokyo as a 15-year-old, and then Shizuka Arakawa claimed the gold medal at the 2006 Turin Olympics two months later.
Since that season, Japan has won 19 medals at the world championships and three at the Olympics. Japan has also had five world junior champions during that time period.
Hanyu (the 2010 world junior champion) and Uno (the 2015 world junior champion) have both broken new ground in a sport in which elemental progression comes slowly.
When Rika Kihira landed a triple axel at the Junior Grand Prix in Slovenia last month, she was the first junior to do it since Mao more than 10 years earlier.
Japan’s gilded era is about more than medals, however. It is also about innovation — Mao’s multiple triple axels, and now Uno and Hanyu.
Ice Time believes that Japanese skaters excel at the highest level for three reasons — work ethic, determination, physique.
Japan’s love of practice in any sport is especially useful in skating, where the elite train for countless hours in frozen rinks, often at odd hours.
The “fighting spirit” that we so often hear about in Japanese baseball also translates to skating, where it is not so much skater vs. skater, as skater vs. program elements.
The anatomical build of Japanese skaters also makes them perfect for a sport which has become increasingly athletic. Launching yourself into the air and rotating four times requires not only a high level of skill and an incredible amount of fortitude, but a finely tuned body.
In the wake of Hanyu’s most recent achievement, Ice Time reached out to a couple of experts for their take on whether the quad loop or quad flip is the tougher one to hit. The base value of a quad flip is 12.3 points, while a quad loop is 12.0.
ISU announcer Ted Barton believes it comes down to the individual skaters and their comfort levels.
“In regards to difficulty much depends on the specific skills of the skaters,” Barton wrote in an email to Ice Time. “Some are better at edge jumps which take off from one foot and others are better at toe jumps which have both feet involved in the takeoff. Generally though I would personally consider the quad loop as slightly more difficult than the quad flip because of the one- foot takeoff.”
Veteran skating writer Yoshie Noguchi, the author of several books on the sport, thinks the difference in the jumps is negligible.
“I think both jumps are close in difficulty,” Noguchi wrote to Ice Time. “Every skater likes their own style. Some are good at the lutz, some are good at the flip and some the loop.
“Yuzu likes the triple loop, so then he attempts the quad loop. Shoma favored the triple flip, then he tried the quad flip.”
In a technical comparison, Noguchi cites similarities in both jumps.
“The loop and flip, both jumps you take off by the right foot, and the landing is the same,” she noted. “The turning energy is also very close.
“With a flip, you are skating backward on the left edge, but takeoff is on the right toe.”
Noguchi also mentioned how narrow the difference is when scoring the two big jumps.
“The point values of the quad loop and quad flip are also very close,” she wrote. “Both are more difficult than a quad toe loop or a quad salchow.”
Encouraging start: American Mirai Nagasu won the women’s event in Montreal with a tally of 189.11. Rika Hongo (170.34) and Mariko Kihara (161.21) were fourth and fifth, respectively.
“I’m so happy to walk away with the title today,” Nagasu commented after her victory on Saturday. “I definitely have a lot to work on . . . To be earning 115 (points) now, which is what I was earning at the end of last season, is exactly where I want to be right now.”
The Challenger Series travels to Espoo, Finland, this week for the Finlandia Trophy, where Mao will make her season debut.
Bronze again: Teenager Mako Yamashita continued her fine season with a third-place finish at the JGP in Tallinn, Estonia, on Friday. The 13-year-old from Nagoya burst onto the scene last month when she took third behind compatriots Kaori Sakamoto and Marin Honda at the Yokohama JGP.
Yamashita was second after the short program in Estonia, and held on to make the podium with a total score of 184.06, behind Russia’s Polina Tsurskaya (194.02) and Elizaveta Nugumanova (188.43).
Barton praised Yamashita’s short program to “Nocturne” on the ISU webcast of the event.
“That was a beautiful program,” said Barton. “Lovely choreography, beautiful movement to the music. Maybe could use some more facial expression. That will come in time as she matures.
“But everything else was simply perfectly executed.”
Yamashita’s bronze medal gives her 22 points for the JGP campaign and means she is the first alternate at this point for the JGP Final in Marseille, France, in December.
Rin Nitaya (150.48) was a distant fourth behind Yamashita.
Koshiro Shimada also finished fourth in the men’s competition won by Russia’s Alexander Samarin.
Next up: The JGP circuit moves to Dresden, Germany, this week for the final installment of the seven events. Yuna Shiraiwa and Yuna Aoki will represent Japan in the women’s field, while Mitsuki Sumoto will be the Hinomaru’s lone male entrant.
Shiraiwa and Aoki could become one of the three alternates for the JGP Final depending on their placements. Both were fourth in their first assignment.
Title retained: Shoma Uno beat reigning two-time world champion Javier Fernandez at the exhibition Japan Open in Saitama on Saturday. Uno landed his quad flip and earned a score of 198.55, while Fernandez posted 192.20 in the event which features the free skate only, as Japan was victorious for the second straight year.
Satoko Miyahara (143.39) was second behind Russia’s world champion Evgenia Medvedeva (147.07) in the women’s competition.