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Mako Yamashita shows consistency with silver medal

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Mako Yamashita continued her fine run in the Junior Grand Prix over the past two seasons with a second-place finish at the Croatia JGP in Zagreb on Saturday. The result put her on the podium for the fourth time in her four career JGPs.

The 14-year-old posted a personal-best score of 65.22 points in the short program with an enthralling skate to “Bohemian Rhapsody” that saw her in second behind Russia’s Sofia Samodurova going into the free skate. Wearing a sharp-looking fuchsia outfit, Yamashita’s maturity came through vividly as her interpretative skills continue to grow.

Samodurova took the title with a total score of 187.86, with Yamashita ending on 175.75. After taking the bronze medal three times, the Nagoya native collected her first silver on the JGP circuit and kept herself in the running for the JGP Final in her hometown in December.

With the likes of Marin Honda, Yuna Shiraiwa and Rika Kihira dominating the domestic headlines in the junior ranks last season, Yamashita, who claimed the bronze at the Austria JGP last month, was a bit under the radar. Those days are over now, as she is firmly in the spotlight as one of Japan’s bright prospects for the future.

Yamashita’s effort in Croatia earned the praise of ISU announcer Ted Barton during the webcast of the event.

“That was a great performance,” Barton said of her short program. “One of the neat attributes of the Japanese skaters is they go as fast as they possibly can. It’s not just a matter of going fast, it looks like they are pushing hard each time.

“Blinding speed coming into those elements. Huge risk, huge gain if you do them as beautifully as she did tonight.”

Yamashita, who is popular with other skaters, opened her short program with a booming triple flip/triple toe loop combination jump.

“That triple flip was huge,” stated Barton. “Great speed in between. Very solid. Gets that free leg back quick enough to save that landing.”

Barton also liked Yamashita’s flying sit spin.

“She keeps this really well centered throughout the whole spin,” he noted.

“As clean a skate as you can get for her tonight,” Barton concluded, and the judges concurred, not giving her a single negative grade of execution for any element.

Yamashita’s free skate to “Madame Butterfly” was not as smooth, as she struggled on a pair of combo jumps but did land six triples.

Barton still came away impressed.

“She had a good skate, but she didn’t do everything that she had planned to do,” he noted. “She didn’t let anything go in a major way. Little things here and there.”

Again, Barton cited one of Yamashita’s spins.

“A nice entrance into the sit spin,” Barton said. “Look at how perfect that straight free leg is, how perfectly centered.”

Akari Matsuoka, who came in fourth at the season-opening JGP in Brisbane, Australia, was a disappointing seventh (145.00) after placing 11th in the short program.

Barton saluted the 13-year-old Matsuoka’s perseverance and poise following her short program to “Passionate,” in which she fell on her triple lutz.

“One of the things that is so admirable about the Japanese skaters, apart from their great skating skills, is their complete commitment to finishing their program and their curtsy,” Barton stated. “Being polite, keeping their emotion inside, even though they are disappointing.”

As in Australia, the speed on Matsuoka’s spins was sublime.

“She is a great spinner,” Barton commented. “Really unfortunate skate for Akari tonight. She’s such a beautiful performer.”

Barton mentioned that part of a young skater’s growth is going through difficult times and building on them.

“There are tough moments for skaters. They learn more from a moment like that than they do from a great skate,” Barton said. “Great skates are only enjoyed. You don’t really learn as much as you do from a tough one.

“As your career is 10 years or 15 years long, you need to learn so many aspects that are no always fun to go through.”

Matsuoka bounced back in her free skate to “Waltz in the Evening Glow.”

Barton highlighted Matsuoka’s spins in his analysis of her free skate.

“Once again, what a beautiful skater coming from Japan. Very emotional. What a wonderful spinner — so fast, perfectly centered on her spins.”

Matsuoka’s sit spin stood out to Barton.

“Holds her arms beautifully. Great edges,” he said. “Attention to detail. Really quite beautiful.”

On Matsuoka’s layback spin, Barton had to remind viewers that they were watching a replay.

“Watch the speed of this spin,” he said. “This is in slow-motion, this is like about 70 percent. Perfectly centered, not moving off that center at all.”

The Zagreb JGP also marked the junior debut of South Korean phenom You Young, who won her country’s senior national title at the age of 11, breaking Yuna Kim’s record, two years ago. Young was fourth with 163.42.

No repeat victory for Sumoto

The Japanese men didn’t come away with any medals in Croatia, but did place a respectable fourth and fifth as American Alexei Krasnozhon won the event with 225.48.

Mitsuki Sumoto, who won the JGP in Riga last month, settled for fourth at 207.54, while Koshiro Shimada (196.72) was fifth.

The 16-year-old Sumoto notched a personal-best tally of 73.18 in his short program to “Singin’ in the Rain.”

Barton admired Sumoto’s combination jump in the short program.

“Nice triple flip/triple toe loop combination,” Barton commented. “Look at the flow between them. Just continued the speed. No shaking on the blade. Very nice.”

Unfortunately, Sumoto had difficulty with the first three jumps in his free skate to “Les Miserables” and it proved costly.

“His destiny for the JGP Final now in the hands of others,” Barton accurately assessed.

Shimada, who was born on Sept. 11, 2001, put forth a solid effort that Barton recognized.

“That was a nice performance by Koshiro,” stated Barton after the short program. “This young man has got some nice abilities, nice skills as well.”

Barton liked Shimada’s triple flip/triple toe loop combo.

“See how nice and tight the feet are,” Barton said. “Just squeezed together. That will give you faster rotation.”

Shimada, an Okayama Prefecture native, is coached by former two-time world champion and Olympic silver medalist Stephane Lambiel.

Shimada will be one to keep an eye on going forward, Barton believes.

“Just little details of quality that will improve,” Barton noted. “He’s young, got great skill, good coach. Will be fun to watch the next few years.”

Barton pointed out Shimada’s speed and balance in his free skate.

“Good speed in and throughout that element,” Barton analyzed of Shimada’s triple salchow. “You don’t see any change in the speed from the entrance to the exit, that is when you know it is a quality element.

“Right on top of his feet all the way through this program. I didn’t feel he was ever off balance.”

JGP travels to Poland next

The JGP moves to Gdasnk, Poland, this week for the Baltic Cup, the sixth stop of the circuit. Debutantes Rino Kasakake and Akari Matsubara will represent Japan in the women’s field, while Shimada will be the Hinomaru’s lone entrant on the men’s side.

Shiraiwa skates alone

The Challenger Series continues this week with the Finlandia Trophy in Espoo, Finland. Three-time national champion Satoko Miyahara was originally scheduled to participate, but withdrew last month.

Yuna Shiraiwa, who was second at the Asian Open Trophy in August, will be Japan’s lone entrant in the competition.

A legend passes away

The skating world suffered a great loss last week with the passing of two-time Olympic pairs gold medalist Ludmila Belousova, who died at the age of 81. Belousova and husband Oleg Protopopov were champions at the 1964 Innsbruck and 1968 Grenoble Games.

Though Belousova retained her maiden name after marrying her partner, “the Protopopovs” became synonymous with greatness in pairs.

The duo, who were also four-time world titlists, defected from Russia to Switzerland in 1979 and continued skating and performing into their 70s. They even considered trying to compete for Switzerland at the 1998 Nagano Games when they were in their 60s.

“My sincere condolences to Oleg and all her fans, figure skating fans,” Russian coach Alexei Mishin was quoted as saying by Tass, after learning of Belousova’s death. “I have been at their place (in Switzerland) many times. They dedicated their entire lives to their profession, the cause they have been serving — figure skating. Ludmila was an outstanding athlete and person.”