Rika Kihira’s bronze medal at the Junior Grand Prix in Egna and Bologna, Italy, on Saturday was good enough to qualify her for the JGP Final for the second straight season, but it didn’t come easy.
After a wonderful short program on Friday that saw her in second place, the 15-year-old from Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, wobbled considerably in the free skate but still managed to make the podium.
The result means Kihira edged out compatriot Mako Yamashita on a tiebreaker to make the JGP Final in Nagoya in December with 24 points, where she will take on five Russians in Alexandra Trusova (30), Sofia Samodurova (30), Alena Kostornaia (28), Daria Panenkova (28) and Anastasia Tarakanova (26).
Yamashita (24) will be the first alternate for the JGP Final in the event of illness or injury, with Nana Araki (22) the second alternate.
So dominant were the Russian junior women this season that they won all seven JGP events. Trusova and Samodurova won two apiece, with Kostornaia, Panenkova and Tarakanova each taking one.
Samodurova captured the Italy JGP with a total score of 192.19 points, just narrowly edging Kostornaia (192.15) for the title. Kihira’s tally was 185.81, while Araki (181.00) settled for fourth place.
Kihira, who was fourth at last season’s JGP Final, had a legitimate chance to win the competition after her sublime skate to “Kung Fu Piano” in the short program where she earned a season’s best mark of 66.72.
“She needed a clean skate and she delivered it,” stated ISU announcer Ted Barton on the webcast of the event. “What an improvement over last season. A very excellent skater last year as well. The range of movement that she has and her connection with the music is much improved. Another year of maturity, another year of growth with choreography and with teaching.”
Barton highlighted her opening double axel in his analysis.
“Look at the distance and the speed on that landing,” he commented. “That’s quality all the way.”
Trailing Kostornaia by exactly one point going into the free skate, it looked good for Kihira, but it didn’t happen.
Kihira wasn’t able to cleanly land her opening triple axel, put her hand down on her double axel/triple toe loop combination jump, then fell twice during her step sequence.
The pair of falls in the step sequence was especially bizarre. It was as if the Ice Monster had reached up and tripped her — twice. Very strange.
Barton admired Kihira’s poise after the calamitous free skate to “La Strada” that nearly cost her the ticket to the JGP Final.
“First of all, how classy was that? She had two falls in the step sequence,” Barton observed. “How unusual was that? She finishes the program with a smile on her face, holding the position, taking the time to thank the audience, over her own concerns.”
Barton said Kihira’s triple axel appeared fine at the outset.
“It looked pretty good in the air, just started to lean at the last second and had to step out,” he pointed out.
“I have seen her skate much cleaner,” Barton concluded. “She had to work through the program and she did. This an experienced competitor, gaining more experience every time out.”
Kihira thanked her fans for their support in an Instagram post from Italy while evaluating her own performance.
“I think that there were both good and bad points,” she wrote. “A lot of tasks must be worked on before the next event. The final has been made and I was a little relieved, but as the season is still going on, I will review the performance this time and I think I will practice even more! Since the next event is West Japan (regionals), I will try my best to overcome the problems and I will try hard for the perfect performance!”
Like Kihira, Araki entered the event with a second-place finish already in the books and knowing she had a shot at a spot in the JGP Final.
Araki posted a season’s best (64.57) in her short program to “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen,” which put in her in fourth and kept her in the JGP Final chase until the free skate.
“That was pressure. This young lady had to know that she had to skate clean,” Barton said. “She didn’t have a choice. She couldn’t afford a mistake. The other girls were clean. That is a trained athlete — both physically and psychologically. Strong all the way.”
Barton especially liked Araki’s triple flip/triple toe loop combo.
“Great speed in, up and out of that jump. Look at the flow,” he commented. “Straight back over the triple toe loop. Wow. That was nice. Not hooked, not curved, no great loss of speed. Just continuous flow.”
Araki can really elevate on her triple lutz, as Barton noted.
“Watch the lift on this. Boom. Look at the height. Amazing.”
After landing her opening triple lutz/triple toe loop combo to “Come, People of God” in the free skate, Araki under-rotated her triple loop and her to put her hand down to keep from falling. She ended up fifth in the free skate.
Another medal for Hiwatashi
American Tomoki Hiwatashi took the bronze in the men’s field for his second podium finish of the JGP season, which gave him 22 points but left him on the outside looking in for a spot in the JGP Final. Hiwatashi ended up 10th in the standings.
Hiwatashi, a 17-year-old who was born in Englewood, New Jersey, the same hometown as Olympic legend Dick Button, put up his season’s best marks in both programs.
He scored 73.28 in the short program to “Emerald Tiger” and impressed Barton with his flying camel spin in the process.
“Look at how beautiful his position is, then switches to the outside edge. Just so solid,” Barton said as he reviewed the replay. “What an excellent spin. Keeps the speed up, turns over for the difficult variation.”
In his free skate to “Last of the Mohicans,” Hiwatashi recorded a score of 133.00 for a total of 206.28 to finish behind Italy’s Matteo Rizzo (229.18) and Russia’s Vladimir Samoilov (211.74).
Hiwatashi under-rotated his open quad toe loop, then had to step out of both a triple axel and triple flip at the end of a three-jump combo.
“Tomoki certainly delivered some quality elements,” Barton said. “Some challenges on the first two — the quad toe and triple axel — but other than that some beautiful work in the rest of the program.”
In an email to Ice Time after returning to his training base in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Hiwatashi provided his thoughts on his performance.
“In this competition, I was pretty happy that I was able to get third but at the same time, I wasn’t able to make it to the JGP Final so I still feel like I could’ve done better,” Hiwatashi wrote. “I could’ve done the triple axel and quad in my program without making a mistake. I could’ve skated better, I could’ve worked much harder . . . I feel like there was so much that I could have done to make it to the final.”
Despite the disappointment, Hiwatashi, whose parents hail from Kobe, vowed to fight on.
“But, at the same time, I cannot be depressed about it because I have a competition still ahead of me including sectionals and the national championships, so I will work my best,” Hiwatashi added. “At the end of the season, I don’t want to say I could’ve done better. I want to say that was that best I’ve done and in order for me to do that, I have to start skating again and do my best.”
Though Hiwatashi did not qualify for the JGP Final, Japan will be represented by Mitsuki Sumoto (24 points) in a field that will include three Americans — Alexei Krasnozhon (30), Camden Pulkinen (28), Andrew Torgashev (22) — and two Russians — Alexey Erokhov (30), Makar Ignatov (24).
Tsuboi makes an impression
Tatsuya Tsuboi (198.44) came in fifth in Italy and Barton mentioned his potential for the future after his short program to “Your Song.”
“His ability and maturity on the ice. Good speed and acceleration,” Barton said. “His basic skating skills so well taught and very well delivered as well. All of the Japanese skaters, their basics are quite amazing. Nice, clean program.
“This young man is only going to get stronger, which is going to help him get better. More confident. A lot of fun to watch over the next couple of years.”
Senior campaign to begin
The senior Grand Prix season kicks off this week in Moscow with the Cup of Russia. World champion Yuzuru Hanyu will enter as the favorite in the men’s field and be challenged by U.S. champion Nathan Chen and Sochi bronze medalist Denis Ten of Kazakhstan.
Wakaba Higuchi and Kaori Sakamoto will represent Japan in the women’s competition against a strong roster that includes world champion Evgenia Medvedeva, Sochi bronze medalist Carolina Kostner and Mirai Nagasu.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.