Figure Skating | ICE TIME

Miyahara's injury should be cause for real concern

by Jack Gallagher

Bad news arrived last Tuesday when it was announced that three-time defending national champion Satoko Miyahara has suffered a slight fracture to her left hip and would be forced to withdraw from both this week’s Four Continents Championships and next week’s Asian Winter Games in Sapporo.

It is unfortunate enough that Miyahara will have to miss the Four Continents, a warmup for the world championships, and one of the marquee events in Hokkaido, but there looms a much larger issue.

Any doctor or athlete will tell you that a hip injury is serious business. Even if it is just a hairline fracture, the potential for making the problem worse is ever present.

But the greater concern for Japan now is will Miyahara be able to skate at the worlds later this season in Helsinki?

If she does not, Japan would be in serious jeopardy of not securing three berths in the women’s singles for next year’s Pyeongchang Olympics. The Hinomaru has to have its top two skaters finish a combined 13th or higher to clinch the three places for the Winter Games.

Just to give you an idea of how tenuous this can be, consider that Japan barely held on to its three spots at worlds this season. At last year’s worlds in Boston, Japan’s top two skaters came in a combined 12th (Miyahara fifth; Mao Asada seventh).

If you take Miyahara out of the equation for this season’s worlds, where she would be almost certain to finish in the top five again, Japan could find itself in a real pinch. Behind Miyahara, the roster is very young.

If Miyahara is unable to go in Helsinki, the job of clinching the three positions would fall to senior rookies Mai Mihara and Wakaba Higuchi, along with another skater (likely Rika Hongo — Miyahara’s replacement at the Four Continents).

Mihara and Higuchi (who both placed third and fourth in their two Grand Prix assignments this season) have enjoyed successful maiden seasons on the senior circuit, but Hongo has struggled this campaign (coming in fifth and sixth in her two GPs).

It will be difficult enough on Mihara and Higuchi as it is, skating in their first senior worlds, but with the pressure of locking up the slots for Pyeongchang added on, the stress could be extraordinary.

Japan would really miss Miyahara’s poise and consistent performances on the big stage. The world silver medalist two years ago, robbed of a medal last year, has also finished second at the Grand Prix Final the past two seasons.

The graceful and elegant Miyahara is one of the shining lights of the sport, a skater who is always reliable. Coaches revere these kinds of athletes, which likely explains her long partnership with Mie Hamada.

In basketball, coaches love players that average 20 points a game. In American football, it is the running back who rushes for 100 yards every contest. In baseball, it is the batter who always averages .300.

Steady and solid. These types are priceless.

When the word came through that Miyahara was injured, the Japan Skating Federation and Miyahara herself seemed to downplay the news.

“Right now I’m giving my undivided attention to my treatment, and I want to prepare as well as I can at the worlds where I hope to deliver a quality performance,” Kyodo News reported Miyahara saying in a statement released by the JSF.

The timing of the diagnosis of Miyahara’s injury, which first caused her to feel pain at the GP Final in December, could not be worse. The initial report was that she needed four weeks of rest before resuming regular training, with the latest forecast saying she could be back to full practice as early as next week.

That’s good and well, but if there is any kind of setback, Japan will have to face the very realistic proposition that it will have only two spots in South Korea.

With a strong Russian team certain to do well at the worlds this season, along with a resurgent group of North American women (Canada’s Kaetlyn Osmond, and the U.S. trio of Karen Chen, Ashley Wagner and Mariah Bell), Miyahara’s absence in Finland would add up to trouble for Japan.

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to this. Ice Time has been an admirer of Miyahara for a long time, having recognized her potential many years ago.

Up next: The Four Continents Championships will be held this week at the Gangneung Ice Arena, the site of skating competition for next year’s Pyeongchang Games. Even without European skaters, the lineup will be loaded, especially on the men’s side.

Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu and national champion Shoma Uno will take on new American title holder Nathan Chen and three-time world champion Patrick Chan. There is understandably a lot of buzz surrounding Chen following his five-quad performance in the free skate at last month’s U.S. nationals in Kansas City.

Rockerskating.com has projected Chen as the winner at the Four Continents in its preview, ahead of Hanyu. While the excitement of the U.S. media is understandable after several barren years on the world stage, Ice Time isn’t sold just yet.

Skating is a lot more than jumping. The stuff I’m reading and hearing now is the same type of thing I heard a few years ago when China’s Jin Boyang came on the scene.

In Ice Time’s view, Chen’s program components are still not in the same league as Hanyu’s. Chen certainly has great potential, but needs some more seasoning. Time will tell if he is in the picture for the long term.

When I see Chen doing Biellmann spins, Ina Bauers and hydroblading, then I will consider him on a similar level as Hanyu.

On the women’s side, without Miyahara it won’t be easy for Japan to come away with a medal at the Four Continents. Osmond, Karen Chen, Bell and Mirai Nagasu are all scheduled to compete.

It will likely fall to Mihara or Higuchi to muscle their way onto the medal stand. Japan has earned at least one medal in women’s singles at the Four Continents for nine straight years (2007 being the last time it did not). In the past four years, Japan has brought home two medals each time.

Insight on Nitaya: Akiko Suzuki, who choreographed both of Winter Universiade silver medalist Rin Nitaya’s programs this season, provided her take on the Chukyo University student’s recent success in Kazakhstan.

“Rin creates a Japanese feminine atmosphere when she is skating,” Suzuki wrote in an email to Ice Time. “Her second jump is very sharp in her combination jumps.

“She is a bright character and she always takes care of her friends when off-ice,” added Suzuki. “I think she can express an emotional performance if she moves more boldly.”

Congratulations are in order for Suzuki herself. She was married Feb. 1. Ice Time wishes the two-time Olympian and her husband all the best.

Inter-Junior High: Reigning world junior champion Marin Honda won Japan’s annual junior high championship in Nagano earlier this month. The 15-year-old triumphed with a total score of 188.93 at Big Hat.

Rising star Mako Yamashita was second with 178.51, while Riko Takino took third on 175.72. Yuna Shiraiwa came in fourth at 170.08.

Yuto Kishina (182.35) claimed the boys title, with Tatsuya Tsuboi (181.61) and Takashiro Shimada (181.12) joining him on the podium.

Hard to believe: It was 25 years ago this month that American Kristi Yamaguchi won the Olympic gold medal at the 1992 Albertville Games in France. Yamaguchi beat out Midori Ito, who took the silver, and compatriot Nancy Kerrigan, who settled for the bronze.

Tonya Harding finished fourth, with Yuka Sato coming in seventh.

People magazine spoke to Yamaguchi recently, whose 11-year-old daughter Emma is now a skater. Yamaguchi believes skating still has much to offer, even if you don’t make it to the big time.

“It’s great — there’s so many positive life lessons you can learn, even if you’re not competing at that elite level,” she says. “I don’t know if it will be her ‘thing,’ but for now, it’s a great activity for her.”

Emma certainly has the genes to become a great skater. Her father is Bret Hedican, a two-time Olympian for the U.S. and former defenseman who played 16 seasons in the NHL.

Yamaguchi and Hedican first met at the Albertville Games.