The battle for the two women’s spots on Japan’s team for the Pyeongchang Olympics began in earnest over the weekend as Marin Honda and Wakaba Higuchi participated in Challenger Series events on opposite sides of the globe.

Honda was sensational in her senior debut, winning the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in Salt Lake City, while Higuchi was dazzling in finishing a close second at the Lombardia Trophy in Bergamo, Italy, behind Russia’s Alina Zagitova.

The 16-year-old Honda took the lead in the short program with a superb performance to “Smile” and then pulled away in the free skate to “Turandot.” To say she made an impression on observers would be an understatement.

Legendary skating writer Phil Hersh, who covered the event for Ice Network, wrote that, “Honda delivered a brilliant performance to music from ‘Turandot’ that belied her age . . .” and “Honda’s only mistake was doubling a planned triple salchow late in the four-minute free skate. She landed five other triple jumps, including a triple flip/triple toe combination, with élan.”

Honda, who tallied a total of 198.42 points, scored a decisive victory over Mirai Nagasu (183.54) and U.S. champion Karen Chen (182.32).

Hersh, formerly of the Chicago Tribune, also noted in his account of the free skate the massive Japanese media turnout for the competition — six TV networks and 10 newspapers — in Utah.

That is pretty incredible when considering that this was not even a Grand Prix event. Honda’s aura is attracting just about everybody like a magnet and will only get bigger as time goes on.

There was one scary moment at the end of Honda’s free skate, as she appeared in distress immediately after finishing and wobbled on her skates before bowing to the crowd. She then appeared to collapse onto a bench just off the rink as coach Mie Hamada greeted her.

The high altitude of Salt Lake City, 1,288 meters above sea level, apparently left Honda completely gassed. Fortunately, she recovered quickly and participated in the medal ceremony shortly thereafter.

“With the high altitude, I didn’t expect to do so well,” Hersh quoted Honda as saying. “Without a doubt, I did everything I was hoping for.”

Perhaps the biggest compliment for Honda in Hersh’s chronicle came from third-place finisher Chen.

“She’s really beautiful and elegant,” Chen said. “She has a flow on the ice that’s really amazing. Everything looks so effortless, like it’s a piece of cake.”

I don’t think it is a stretch to say that Honda’s star power is rapidly approaching that of retired three-time world champion Mao Asada. Sponsors are lining up to get on board as the Kyoto native’s locomotive continues to gain speed. Nobody wants to be left behind.

Meanwhile, Higuchi, skating in comparative anonymity in Italy, was absolutely fantastic in both her short program to “Gypsy Dance” and free skate to “Skyfall.” The 16-year-old set personal bests in the short program with 74.26, which she won, and total score (217.63) in a narrow loss to Zagitova (218.46).

The Tokyo native cleanly landed six triples in her free skate in an incredibly powerful performance. Everything that Honda has in artistic impression, Higuchi equals in strength.

Throughout her short program, Higuchi was a bundle of energy, constantly moving her arms as she ticked off the required elements. It was an amazing display of force and grace at the same time.

Several observers online felt she should have won the event. I can’t disagree with them.

“I thought I did well in my first overseas event of the season, but I have plenty of room for improvement,” Higuchi told Kyodo News.

Higuchi made it crystal clear what her mission is this campaign.

“I definitely want to skate at the Olympics,” she stated. “This has been a good start that will give me confidence. Bit by bit, I’m shaping up for the Olympics.”

With the massive glare of the spotlight shining on Honda, I got the feeling that Higuchi was almost an afterthought, which is not right. If you have any doubts, go on YouTube and watch her programs at the Lombardia Trophy. You will be moved by both of them.

Ice Time believes that Higuchi’s performances were superior to Honda’s.

Just based on what transpired over the weekend, it is pretty obvious that the Japan Skating Federation is really going to have a tough decision on its hands on that December night at the Japan nationals when it convenes to decide which two skaters will get the tickets to Pyeongchang.

With Satoko Miyahara’s physical condition continuing to be a concern, and Mai Mihara (who was fifth at last season’s worlds) factored into the equation, all bets are off.

A year ago at this time, Miyahara looked like a virtual lock for the Olympic team. But in a bizarre twist, her injury (a fractured hip), which likely cost Japan a third spot for Pyeongchang because she was unable to compete at last season’s worlds, thereby complicating the math, could end up costing her a spot on the team even if she is healthy.

The youngsters are coming on fast, and Mihara has already shown she can compete on the big stage. The next few months are going to be filled with drama until the big decision is made.

Shoma starts off with a bang

World silver medalist Shoma Uno recorded a titanic victory in the men’s competition at the Lombardia Trophy. Uno showed in his season debut that he expects to be on the podium in Pyeongchang with teammate Yuzuru Hanyu just like he was at the worlds in Helsinki.

Uno recorded personal bests for the short program (104.87), free skate (214.97) and total score (319.84) in Italy, surpassing the three marks he earned in Finland, to win the event for the second consecutive year. The 19-year-old’s margin of victory over second- place American Jason Brown (259.88) was nearly 60 points.

Skating to “Winter” in the short program and “Turandot” in the free skate, Uno put on a real show. Though he had shaky landings on the opening jump in both programs (quad flip, quad loop), he didn’t miss a beat after that.

Uno landed four clean quads in the free skate in a commanding performance that earned him a standing ovation, and seemed to execute both programs effortlessly.

“I get worried when my routines are too good,” Uno was quoted as saying by Kyodo News after his victory. “I don’t know why but I was able to do my jumps.”

Despite the staggering margin of victory, the Nagoya native pledged to work harder.

“I’m not sure if my results here were good, but I’ll just keep going by working on the things I could not do at this event,” Uno commented.

Hanyu set to begin season

Olympic and world champion Yuzuru Hanyu will kick off his season this week at the Autumn Classic International, a Challenger Series competition in Montreal. Hanyu will be joined by training partner and two-time world champion Javier Fernandez and compatriot Daisuke Murakami in the field.

Mihara and Rin Nitaya will represent the Hinomaru in the women’s event, where the prime competition should come from world silver medalist Kaetlyn Osmond of Canada.

ISU unveils new website

The International Skating Union opened a new and redesigned website (www.isu.org) last week that is more in tune with the times. It is colorful and features big photos along with links to results, biographical data and social media.

One of the statistics revealed in the first week of the site was that Rika Kihira’s free skate at the Junior Grand Prix in Riga (where she finished second) earlier this month was the most watched performance of the competition.

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