Figure Skating

Talented field set to compete for top spots at Japan Junior Championships

by Jack Gallagher

Staff Writer

Bragging rights will be on the line when a group of highly successful skaters take the ice on Saturday at the Japan Junior Championships at Tsukisamu Gymnasium.

Reigning world junior champion Marin Honda, Rika Kihira, Kaori Sakamoto, Yuna Shiraiwa and Mako Yamashita will all be in the mix as Japan crowns a new junior queen. Wakaba Higuchi, who won the junior title the past two seasons, has moved up to the senior ranks.

Honda, Sakamoto and Shiraiwa are expected to contend next season for spots on Japan’s Olympic team for the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, so they will come into the event as slight favorites.

Kihira, who became the second junior after Mao Asada to land a triple axel in competition during the Junior Grand Prix season, and 13-year-old Yamashita could make the podium here depending on how the other skaters fare.

The singles competition will begin Saturday with the short program, with the free skate set for Sunday.

Honda, Sakamoto and Kihira have all qualified for the JGP Final in Marseille, France, next month.

All eyes will be on the telegenic Honda, who finished second in both of her JGP assignments this season. She was a disappointing sixth at last season’s junior nationals, but rebounded to find glory months later at the world juniors in Hungary.

“This season has not been so good for me,” Honda said after Friday’s draw, which will see her skate 17th in the short program. “Kaori and Rika are also from the Kansai area and I have not beaten them this season. I’m excited now, so I will try to beat them.”

Honda said she has been training hard in recent weeks.

“I have been practicing my spins and steps again because I have lost some points on them this season,” Honda commented. “Now I am improving on them.”

The Kyoto native made it clear she was here with a firm goal in mind.

“I have never made the podium at this event, so I will be satisfied if I can do it,” Honda added.

Shiraiwa, who was second at this event last season, did not make the JGP Final despite coming in second and fourth in her two JGPs this season.

Sakamoto, fifth at the junior nationals last season, came in first and second in her two JGPs this season. This included a victory over Honda at the Yokohama JGP in September.

Kihira, who was 11th here last season, booked her spot at the JGP Final with a first and second in her two JGPs.

“This rink is easy to skate in,”noted the 14-year-old from Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture. “I will aim for a triple axel/triple toe loop combination in my free skate. I want to focus on each jump one at a time.”

Kihira, who will skate first in the short program, didn’t hide her ambitions for the competition.

“I want to get the best score in the short and free and take first place,” Kihira said. “There are a lot of good skaters here and they are my rivals. But I would like to get first place.”

Yamashita, who was ninth at the junior nationals last season, posted two impressive third-place finishes in her two JGPs but did not qualify for the JGP Final.

The outlook on the men’s side is not quite as clear cut. Sota Yamamoto, last season’s Japan junior champion, has gone on to the senior ranks.

Kazuki Tomono, the silver medalist here last season, was Japan’s top scorer in the JGP campaign, placing 10th overall.

He will be in contention for the crown along with Koshiro Shimada and Mitsuki Sumoto. Shimada and Sumoto finished 11th and 12th, respectively, in the JGP standings.

Shimada was fourth at last season’s junior nationals, while Sumoto came in sixth.

Nearly all of the biggest names in the history of Japanese skating have won the Japan junior title. They include Midori Ito (1983), Yuka Sato (1988, 1989), Shizuka Arakawa (1995, 1996, 1997), Yukari Nakano (2000), Miki Ando (2002, 2003, 2004), Mao Asada (2005), Kanako Murakami (2010) and Satoko Miyahara (2012, 2013).

Japanese men who have worn the junior belt include Takeshi Honda (1995), Daisuke Takahashi (2001), Takahiko Kozuka (2005), Tatsuki Machida (2006), Yuzuru Hanyu (2008, 2009) and Shoma Uno (2014).

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