This was more like it.
After consecutive weeks of bringing home a solitary bronze medal, Mitsuki Sumoto gave Japan its first gold of the Junior Grand Prix season with a comeback victory at the Latvia JGP in Riga on Saturday, while Rika Kihira collected a silver in the women’s event.
Sumoto vaulted from fourth after a somewhat shaky short program to top the podium with an inspiring free skate to “Les Miserables” that brought him to a personal-best total score of 203.51 points. Sumoto bested Russia’s Makar Ignatov (196.88) and American Tomoki Hiwatashi (189.89) to claim his first JGP title.
On Thursday, the 16-year-old from Izumiotsu, Osaka Prefecture, botched his triple flip/triple toe loop combination jump in the short program and appeared to lack speed throughout.
ISU announcer Ted Barton cited the fact that Sumoto had ability in his commentary, but that he needed some more finishing to be a legitimate contender.
“This young man has some beautiful qualities in his jumping,” Barton said while analyzing Sumoto’s short program. “Had some mistakes in the program. They were costly, but great quality on the triple axel and the triple lutz. Kind of slow all the way through the program with the free leg.”
Barton pointed to Sumoto’s camel spin as something that required work.
“This is one thing I would fix. Watch that free foot pointed down,” said Barton. “Little details like that. Quality makes a difference when it come to wanting to be in the top group of men. . . . All in all quite a skilled young man.”
Fortunes can change in a flash in sports, and that is exactly what happened with Sumoto. Just two days later, in his free skate, he looked like a much different skater.
Sumoto, who finished third and fifth in his two JGP assignments last season, cleanly landed seven triple jumps with a confident performance that left coach Yoshinori Onishi in tears by the end of it.
Barton highlighted the differences he saw in Sumoto’s free skate.
“A performance that was strong from beginning to end,” Barton commented. “Conditioning was not an issue. He had more speed and power as he went through the program. He had great technique on all those jumps. A little bobble on one of the triple axels.”
Barton noted Sumoto’s outstanding effort and Onishi’s reaction afterward as he put his arm around his young charge when he came off the ice.
“What a great performance by Mitsuki today,” Barton commented. “You see the coach, very emotional. He’s got a tear in his eye.”
Onishi’s show of that type of emotion was a rare one coming from a Japanese coach, but illustrated just how invested he is in his skater.
The symbiosis that develops between a skater and coach during thousands of hours spent together in freezing rinks was very evident in this precious moment.
Barton liked Sumoto’s opening triple axel/double toe loop combo in his free skate.
“Look at the height (on the axel),” he said. “Great job right up into a double toe.”
Sumoto’s triple flip also resonated with Barton.
“Right on top (of the flip),” Barton pointed out. “Look at the speed in which he glides on that curve from the ending.”
Barton concluded with a listing of Sumoto’s talents.
“Nice flow on all the landings,” Barton said. “Good posture, great technique, good skating skills. This young man has it all.”
Hiwatashi, born in the U.S. to Japanese parents who hail from Kobe, was a surprise participant in Riga but came away with the bronze. He missed several weeks of training this summer due to a stress reaction in his back and was unsure of when he would return.
“When I received the news I would be in this third JGP, I thought it was too soon for me to compete because I just came back from an injury and wasn’t able to do much,” Hiwatashi wrote to Ice Time in an email shortly after the awards ceremony in Latvia on Saturday.
Hiwatashi, the world junior bronze medalist in 2016, said that the short window to prepare made him alter his approach.
“In the programs, I only did a double axel because I could not get my triple axel ready by this competition and was not expecting much out of it, so I am very happy that I was able to get a medal,” Hiwatashi told Ice Time.
When asked his goals for this season, Hiwatashi focused on his jumps.
“For the rest of the season, my goal is to get my triple axel and quads as soon as possible and, if I get the chance, put it in the programs,” he commented.
Ice Time and Barton were both impressed by the elevation on Hiwatashi’s jumps in Riga.
“Tomoki has great spring in his legs,” Barton stated of Hiwatashi’s short program to “Emerald Tiger.” “He just explodes off the ice. He has got some great creative choreography in particular in the step sequence. Nice quality spins.”
Hiwatashi’s performed to “Last of the Mohicans” for his free skate and was sublime while cleanly hitting six triples.
“Very nice skate by Tomoki today,” commented Barton. “Soft knees. So quick and agile. Flexible. Strong on the landings.
“Beautiful triple flip/triple toe combination. Very powerful legs, so he is able to lift quickly and rotate tight and fast. Yet also very flexible.”
Kihira rallied after a calamitous short program, which saw her in sixth place, to make the podium despite not landing a triple axel. Kihira tallied 180.46 to finish behind Russia’s Daria Panenkova (185.80) and ahead of American Emmy Ma (172.62).
Kihira, a 15-year-old from Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, made some uncharacteristic mistakes in her short program to “Kung Fu Piano,” missing her planned triple flip/triple toe loop combo and falling on her backside on her triple lutz.
“Couldn’t get that free leg back quick enough (on the flip) otherwise she would have got up into the triple toe,” Barton noted.
Of her fall on the triple lutz, Barton maintained that it was a rarity.
“This was unusual. She has a nice triple lutz,” Barton stated. “Pick in too late. Didn’t get the height that she normally does.”
The final scores made it apparent that without those miscues, Kihira would have won the competition.
Barton said he liked what he saw from Kihira, who came in first and second in her two JGPs last season, in the short.
“She made some mistakes technically, but what a transformation from a young girl skating last year to a beautiful young woman this year with maturity, wonderful range of movement, sensitivity to the music, great choreography,” he stated. “The whole package is so much better.
“She made some mistakes today. She’s a strong technical skater. This is not the issue. She has certainly grown and matured in her performance.”
Kihira fell on her opening triple axel in the free skate to “La Strada” but showed the judges enough to be the top scorer in it.
“It looks like she may have just pulled this takeoff edge a little bit too much,” Barton said, analyzing the triple axel. “All the way around. She just hooked it a little bit.”
Barton credited Kihira for not being distracted by the hiccup at the start of her free skate.
“What a great performance by Rika,” Barton said. “The only flaw was the triple axel and she didn’t let it bother her. This is the sign of a fierce and focused competitor. Try the difficult element but not let it bother the rest of the program.
“She has more height on her jumps this year. Mature, solid, graceful, powerful.”
Yuhana Yokoi, a 17-year-old from Nagoya, placed fifth with 169.59 in a solid outing.
“A very powerful skater,” Barton commented after Yokoi’s short program to “The Lion King.” “Full of speed throughout the program. Very aggressive. …”
Yokoi looked stunning in a black and silver outfit in her free skate to “Burlesque” and earned Barton’s admiration for her determination.
“Nice job by Yuhana. Interesting to watch her work through that program,” he said. “A little later in the program she had a triple lutz/triple toe planned. Didn’t pull that off. I think she was trying to get the jump combination later in the program.”
Honda set for senior debut
Marin Honda will skate in her first competition as a senior this week when she takes the ice in Salt Lake City at the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic as the 10-event Challenger Series commences.
Honda, the runner-up at last season’s world junior championships, is in the process of reworking her short program for the Olympic season and will use her short program to “Smile” from last season in Utah.
Kaori Sakamoto, last year’s Japan junior champion, will join Honda in the women’s field as the battle for Japan’s two Olympic spots begins in earnest.
The primary competition for Honda and Sakamoto will come from Americans Karen Chen, the defending U.S. champion, former Olympian Mirai Nagasu and Mariah Bell. All three are in contention for the three U.S. spots for the Pyeongchang Games.
Takahito Mura and Kazuki Tomono will represent the Hinomaru in the men’s field, which will include U.S. champion Nathan Chen and Olympic contender Max Aaron.