Reigning American junior champion Tomoki Hiwatashi will compete in the senior U.S. nationals for the first time this week when he takes the ice at Kansas City's Sprint Center.

The 16-year-old Hiwatashi, who is from Hoffman Estates, Illinois, made his senior debut in the Challenger Series at the Warsaw Cup back in November. Despite finishing ninth, it was another step up the ladder for the youngster whose parents hail from Kobe.

Hiwatashi is a four-time U.S. champion, having won titles in the juvenile, intermediate, novice and junior categories in the past six years. While he is not favored against the older skaters at this season's nationals, it will offer him an opportunity to test himself against the best his country has to offer.

With this in mind, Ice Time asked Hiwatashi for his thoughts before he left his base in Colorado and headed to Missouri. Hiwatashi responded via email with his answers.

How are you feeling going into nationals?

"I feel pretty excited but a bit nervous because it is my first year in seniors."

Has your training in Colorado been good?

"I think so. My footwork and my choreography increased in my opinion, but I'll see what judges at nationals say before I say it got better or stayed the same."

Do you have a goal in mind on results at nationals?

"My goal is to become top eight at nationals."

How do you feel about the season so far?

"It hasn't been the best but I would like to end it saying it was a good year."

What is currently your biggest challenge with your programs?

"My biggest problem would probably be my stamina. Though, I came to Colorado, I still don't have much stamina, so I need more and more."

Hiwatashi, the world junior bronze medalist last season, began this campaign with a sixth-place finish at the Junior Grand Prix in St. Gervais, France, back in August.

Before the summer he moved from Illinois, where he was coached by Ukrainian Alex Ouriashev, to train with Kori Ade at the Colorado Sports Center in Monument, Colorado. The city is approximately 35 km north of Colorado Springs.

Hiwatashi trains alongside Jason Brown, the 2015 U.S. champion, who is also coached by Ade. Brown will enter the nationals as a medal favorite.

Nathan Chen, who finished second behind Yuzuru Hanyu at both the Grand Prix Final and the NHK Trophy this season, is expected by most skating analysts to claim his first senior national title in Kansas City. Chen was third last season behind Adam Rippon and Max Aaron.

Rippon withdrew from the nationals last week with a broken metatarsal in his left foot, while Aaron was fourth (Cup of China) and fifth (Cup of Russia) in his two GP assignments this season.

Bold move: Two-time U.S. champion Gracie Gold made news last week when she admitted in a video conference with media that her poor results this season stemmed from her inability to move past her fourth-place finish at the world championships on home ice in Boston last season.

Gold, who was born in Newton, Massachusetts, led after the short program at the worlds, but came undone in the free skate and missed the podium. What followed was a summer of discontent and little training that carried over into this season, where she came in fifth at Skate America and eighth at the Trophee de France.

The bottom for Gold, who was fourth at the Sochi Olympics, came when she placed sixth at the Challenger Series Golden Spin in Zagreb last month, an event won by Carolina Kostner.

To her credit, Gold knew she had a serious problem, particularly with her jumps, and must do something about it. She asked coach Frank Carroll if she could go work with Ouriashev, her former coach in the Chicago area, for a while to regain her skills.

Carroll gave his blessing and Gold went to train with Ouriashev, who was also instructing new Japan national champion Shoma Uno at the same time. It sounds like the sessions went well, with Ouriashev even challenging the pair to do jumps one after the other.

"I would say, 'Shoma, you do a quad flip, Gracie will do a triple flip, and we'll (measure) the distance and see which one is bigger,' " Ouriashev told Ice Network's Lynn Rutherford. "She likes to be in company. It doesn't have to be world-level skaters. Even if somebody just works on the double axel, and you're working on triple-triples, it gives you energy and motivation."

Gold split with Ouriashev in August of 2013, just before the Olympic season was to begin, joining Carroll in Los Angeles. The breakup was less than amicable and in fact Gold and Ouriashev had not spoken since.

One of the great things about skaters is how they wear their hearts on their sleeves. Nick Zaccardi of reported that when 21-year-old Gold turned up at the rink and saw Ouriashev again, she cried, unsure about the type of reception she would receive.

"You will always take care of your kids, whether they are six or 65 years old, no matter (if they are) juvenile skaters or national champions," Ouriashev was quoted as saying by Rutherford. "If someone is in a bad moment, you help."

Gold's primary competition at nationals is expected to come from world silver medalist Ashley Wagner, former U.S. champion Mirai Nagasu and Mariah Bell.

Ice Time really respects what Gold did in backtracking to work with Ouriashev and him for taking her on. It is difficult for elite athletes in any sport to admit they need help and actually do something about it. Skating may not be the toughest sport, but you don't get to the level Gold has by being weak.

Three-time world champion Mao Asada, currently mired in the worst slump of her long career, could learn something from Gold.

When Gold was asked on the teleconference about her decision to seek help from Ouriashev, she said, ". . . I needed a change of pace. I needed a jump start, some change of air."

Discussing Mao: Last week The Skating Lesson reviewed the recent Japan nationals on its YouTube channel. The popular show is hosted by David Lease, and he and guest Jonathan Beyer analyzed the event and discussed the performances of several skaters. They also spoke about Mao's situation and Ice Time's recent column on it.

The pair didn't seem to feel that Mao's problems were that great, and thought that instead of seeking out Brian Orser as a new coach, as Ice Time has suggested, that she might be better off going back to Rafael Arutunian or even her long-ago coach Machiko Yamada.

While I respect the opinions of Lease and Beyer, I think they are underestimating the gravity of Mao's situation. She doesn't just need some minor adjustments, she needs major help.

Athletically speaking, this is a Code Blue situation, with the patient on the operating table in very critical condition. Though Gold may have felt comfortable going back into the past, this is the wrong move for Mao.

Mao needs to get out of Japan and into a training environment where the coach is not going to stroke her, but break her down and rebuild her. She needs a fresh voice to lead her. She will come out of it stronger if that is the case.

Mao must leave her comfort zone (and soon) if there is going to be any hope of her making the team for the Pyeongchang Olympics. The clock is ticking.

New addition: Ice Time wants to extend sincere congratulations to Yoshie Noguchi on the birth of her first child, a boy born on Jan. 4. Noguchi is considered by many to be the top skating writer in Japan.

Noguchi has been an analyst on television and regularly chronicles the sport in magazines. She has also written several books. Her most recent was the "Yuzuru Method" that was published by Number magazine last year.

I have strong suspicions that this young fellow is going to grow up to be quite a skater someday.