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Kihira shines as Japan skaters sweep titles

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Japanese skaters dominated at the Asian Open Trophy last week in Hong Kong in the first event of the long Olympic season.

How comprehensive were the victories for the Hinomaru?

Japan swept the titles in the senior women (Kaori Sakamoto), senior men (Keiji Tanaka), junior women (Rika Kihira), junior men (Sena Miyake), advanced novice boys (Kao Miura) and advanced novice girls (Mana Kawabe).

That is as good as it gets.

Yuna Shiraiwa finished second to Sakamoto, while Ryuju Hino did the same behind Tanaka after leading following the short program.

About the only disappointment, if it could be termed that, was Mako Yamashita coming in fourth in the junior women’s classification. South Korea’s Lim Eun-soo (second) and Kim Ye-lim (third) were wedged between Kihira and Yamashita in the final standings.

Keeping in mind that this was a regional competition, and only had five judges instead of the traditional panel of nine, the results were very encouraging at this point. Skaters are traditionally working out the kinks at this early stage after installing their new programs.

Though it was a dominant team effort by Japan, the real buzz was generated by the sensational performance of Kihira. The 15-year-old really blew the doors off it in her free skate to “La Strada,” landing a triple axel at the outset of the program and going on to hit six more triple jumps.

It could have been eight triples, but Kihira under-rotated the triple lutz on the front of a three-jump (triple lutz/double toe loop/double loop) combination late in the program. A very minor issue when taking into account the totality of the accomplishments.

Kihira first gained recognition last season when she became just the seventh woman ever to land a triple axel in international competition when she accomplished the feat in winning the Slovenia Junior Grand Prix. In that same free skate Kihira also made history by becoming the first woman to cleanly hit eight triple jumps in one program.

So stunning was Kihira’s triumph in Slovenia that she beat defending world junior champion Marin Honda and last season’s eventual junior champion Alina Zagitova of Russia.

Kihira, who is coached by Mie Hamada, went on to finish fourth at the JGP Final last season.

Despite being just three weeks too young to be a candidate for Japan’s Olympic team for the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, the native of Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, is garnering significant attention in the skating community.

I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say that she is going to be considered one of the top contenders to win the world junior title this season in Bulgaria.

Kihira won with a total score of 183.06 points, with Lim second on 177.25, Kim third at 176.05 and Yamashita fourth with 168.80.

Before the competition began Kihira was planning to do two triple axels in her free skate, but reconsidered due to the smaller size of the Mega Ice rink.

Kihira took the lead after her short program to “Kung Fu Piano” and then expanded on it with her exquisite free skate. After opening with the triple axel, she followed with a double axel/triple toe loop combo before landing a nice triple flip.

Ice Time was impressed with the speed and energy Kihira displayed throughout her free skate. She does not yet have the refined elegance of training partner Honda, but she is only going to improve as time goes on.

What Kihira has now is what is most important for a skater — confidence. If she continues skating like she did in Hong Kong, she is going to be very tough to beat this season.

Yamashita, a 14-year-old from Nagoya, began her free skate with a nice triple lutz/triple toe loop/double toe loop combo before receiving an edge call on her subsequent triple flip.

The two-time bronze medalist during last season’s JGP cleanly executed a total of six triples in the free skate and was solid if not spectacular. Yamashita is off to a decent start, and based on her track record, has to feel pretty good.

Sakamoto, Japan’s junior champion last season, took the senior women’s crown in dominating fashion, scoring a total of 176.11 to Shiraiwa’s 164.36. After fine short programs, both Sakamoto and Shiraiwa had a few hiccups in their free skates.

Sakamoto, a 17-year-old from Kobe, started out well in her free skate to “Amelie” with a triple flip/triple toe combo, followed by a solid double axel. But things got strange when she stumbled during her step sequence and had to put her hand down to keep from falling, then botched the landing on a triple lutz, before under-rotating consecutive triple jumps.

Suffice it to say that despite the victory, Sakamoto has some work to do on her free skate before the GP season begins.

“There will be seven figure skaters competing for two Olympic spots for Japan,” Sakamoto told the South China Morning Post after her short program. “The battle for making it to the Olympics is fierce from my country but I am keen to make it. The Olympics is the biggest dream for any athlete.”

Shiraiwa, who wore a stunning blue-sequined outfit in her free skate to “La fille aux Cheveux de Lin,” also has some issues to address in the coming weeks. The 15-year-old, who hails from Kobe, fell on consecutive jumps (triple lutz, triple flip) in the free skate, while also being dinged for a pair of under-rotations (triple toe loop, triple salchow).

Despite her struggles Shiraiwa, who placed in the top five in the world juniors that past two seasons, still has time to get it together. Her charming smile and warm demeanor continue to make her a fan favorite.

After taking second in the short program, Tanaka rallied past Hino to take the title with a tally of 220.08. Hino’s total was 207.86. This marked the second year in a row that Tanaka has won the Asian Open Trophy.

Tanaka tried just two quads in his free skate and had trouble with both. He had a shaky landing on the first and then fell on the second. He will have to show significant improvement if he wants to be in the running for the third spot on Japan’s Olympic team.

Miyake, a 15-year-old from Okayama Prefecture, put together a solid free skate. The only major blemish being a fall on his triple axel early in the program. Last season Miyake, who physically resembles a young Yuzuru Hanyu, came in sixth at the Japan Junior Championships.

Miyake, whose idol is fellow Okayama native Daisuke Takahashi, looks to have a lot of potential for the future.

Assignment update: Those hoping to see Kihira or junior debutante Moa Iwano attempt a quadruple jump in competition can mark down the Austria JGP in Salzburg (Aug. 31-Sept. 2) on their calendars.

That will be the first JGP assignment of the season for both of the young stars, which should make it a very compelling competition. Iwano is planning to include a quad salchow in her free skate this season.

Interesting fact: As mentioned last week, Ice Time recently finished reading the book “Wings on My Feet” by three-time Olympic gold medalist Sonja Henie. One of the things I found most amazing was something the Norwegian legend had in her house in Southern California.

After finding fame in the movies, Henie had a house built in Hollywood that was designed by famous architect Paul Williams. One of the features on top floor of the house: a skating rink.

That is how rich and powerful Henie was at the time. She could afford to have a rink in her own house.

Incredible.