This time the Japan Skating Federation got it right.
Twelve years after controversially sending Miki Ando to the 2006 Turin Olympics when Yukari Nakano had enjoyed a better season and finished ahead of Ando at the Japan nationals, the JSF made the correct decision Sunday night by selecting Kaori Sakamoto for the Olympic team for the Pyeongchang Games.
Sakamoto, a 17-year-old from Kobe, got the nod over Wakaba Higuchi by claiming the silver medal behind Satoko Miyahara at the nationals on Saturday night. The reasons the JSF went with Sakamoto are numerous, so let’s take a look at a few of them.
In sports there is an old adage of “going with the hot hand” or the athlete with momentum.
In basketball you pass the ball to the player that is hitting their shots, in American football you give the ball to the running back that is breaking off long runs, and in baseball you stick with a hitter that is on a hot streak.
Sakamoto has clearly been surging in the past couple of months, nearly winning Skate America (where she came in second behind Miyahara) and then making the podium at the nationals after winning the short program. This is but one of the reasons the JSF went with Sakamoto.
They also examined how both Sakamoto and Higuchi had fared at big events over the past couple of seasons.
Sakamoto, who is in her first year as a senior, was the Japan junior champion in 2016, the bronze medalist at both last season’s Junior Grand Prix Final and world junior championships, and made the podium at six of the seven events she entered in the 2016-17 campaign.
Higuchi, conversely, was second at last year’s nationals, but placed ninth at the Four Continents and 11th at the world championships. The Tokyo native then finished last at the recent Grand Prix Final in Nagoya, and when she could not make the podium (coming in fourth) at these nationals, I think the handwriting was on the wall.
The reality is that Higuchi had multiple chances to clinch the spot for the Olympics and was unable to do it.
Ice Time predicted Sakamoto would make the Olympic team in last week’s column, which I’m certain many felt was a bit off the wall.
It was intuition. I have been around sports my entire life, and in time you develop a feel for athletes regardless of the sport.
In Sakamoto’s case, it was easy. I first encountered Kaori at the 2014 JGP in Nagoya, where she came in a distant seventh. Despite the result, she caught my eye and I remember thinking, “This kid is going places.”
Then last season I watched her win both the Yokohama JGP and the Japan Junior Championships over Marin Honda.
Again, I sensed that she was primed for the big events.
What is it I most admire about Sakamoto and why is she on the Olympic team?
Kaori has guts. Plain and simple.
She is absolutely fearless. This is something that can’t be taught. It is inherent.
Riding around on two thin blades in front of thousands of people is not easy, but Sakamoto does it like it is no big thing.
Combine this with her outgoing personality and you have a winning combination. There is nothing like see her walking around at competitions where everybody else is tight as a drum and Kaori is her usual exuberant self, smiling, laughing and enjoying herself.
We are living in a time now where analytics have invaded the sports world, and many think that everything can be deciphered by numbers. Fortunately this flawed philosophy has not invaded skating and let’s hope it never does.
When somebody is tough, hungry and talented, like Sakamoto, you can throw your analytics out the window.
Instinct when judging athletes or people is important. That is why I believed Sakamoto was going to make the Olympic team. I based my decision on my observations over the years and my gut feeling.
To me, Kaori represents the 99 percent of the world that at some point in life has felt like they were the underdog. That no matter what they did, somebody else was going to win the contest they entered or get the promotion they wanted.
Her guts and ability overrode everything else and she could not be denied.
Here is this young kid with braces who just said, “I’m going to the Olympics.”
And she did it.
In the highly artificial universe we live in, Sakamoto is both genuine and authentic, which is refreshing. Her reaction to her scores in both the short program and free skate were priceless.
Joy or shock, she wears her emotions on her sleeve. We should all be grateful for that.
I think there would have been some real outrage if Sakamoto had been passed over for the Olympic team. Thankfully that didn’t happen.
Higuchi gracious in defeat
Ice Time also forecast Higuchi to be on the team for South Korea and I will explain why. This was based more on Miyahara and less on Higuchi.
Looking at the way Miyahara had skated this season, coming off a serious injury, I thought there was a real chance that Sakamoto could win the title and the automatic Olympic berth.
Satoko struggled with under-rotations at the GP Final earlier this month, and I believed that if there was a repeat performance of that at the nationals, Higuchi could very well finish ahead of her and be picked for the Olympic team.
I admire Miyahara, and her record speaks for itself, but you never know how an athlete is going to perform coming back from injury.
Miyahara won her fourth straight national title when it was most crucial and my hat is off to her. But it was no sure thing by a long shot.
I wonder what the JSF would have done if Sakamoto had won and Higuchi came in second?
That would have been a real conundrum for it.
My heart breaks for Higuchi, who has battled so hard these past four years, and is a wonderful skater. Wakaba is a highly emotional gal and I’m thankful I wasn’t in the room when she received the bad news on Saturday night. That would have been too much.
As I stood on the train platform at my station on Sunday on my way to the nationals, tears welled up in my eyes as I thought about Sakamoto and Higuchi.
“Here are these two kids who have worked their entire lives in pursuit of a singular dream, and in a few hours one of them is going to be crushed,” I said to myself. “How will they get out of bed tomorrow?”
So as joyful as I am for Sakamoto, I feel equal sorrow for Higuchi.
During the men’s free skate on Sunday, I walked over to another skating writer and said, “I think I have figured out the solution to the Kaori-Wakaba issue”
“What?” came the reply.
“Send Kaori to the Olympics and Wakaba to the worlds,” I offered.
In the end that is exactly what the JSF decided to do. Again, it made the right choice.
Based on her performance during the GP series, Higuchi deserved a shot at a big event this season. A trip to Milan in the spring will be nice for her.
Higuchi posted a heartfelt message on Twitter late Sunday night:
“It is frustrating, of course frustrating, but I have no choice but to look forward. If we can not go backward we can not see the future either. A big dream is like this. I do not know what is there. But it is important to have such experience in life. Thank you. This is not over yet. There is more. Let’s do it.”
Higuchi will turn 17 next week, and if she chooses can skate for many more years. Hopefully she will have a shot at making the team for the 2022 Olympics in Beijing.
Time will tell.
Honda hype over the top
One of the more bizarre things I witnessed during nationals week was the coverage that Honda received in the national press. I remember perusing all of the sports newspapers in the press room on Thursday and being amazed by all of the huge photos accompanying stories on Honda.
“What is with this?” I thought.
It almost seemed as if they were trying to will her to be on the Olympic team. Like there was some kind of a quid pro quo.
Meanwhile, Sakamoto received little coverage in comparison. It was a disgrace.
Even after winning the short program, the stories on Sakamoto seemed small in comparison to Miyahara and Honda.
Honda is a beautiful young gal and an elegant skater, with some prominent sponsors, but anybody who knows anything about skating had to know she had no chance to make the team for Pyeongchang based on her performance this season.
Yet here were these huge stories and photos. It wasn’t a good look, as they say, and smacked of hype and a lack of objectivity.
Honda finished a distant seventh, 27 points behind training partner Miyahara, and below junior Rika Kihira (who was third), and less than half a point ahead of junior Yuhana Yokoi.
It is pretty clear that Honda is going to have to up her game considerably if she wants to be a contender for the 2022 team.
Uno should be fine in time
Shoma Uno won his second straight national title on Sunday, but struggled in his free skate. It is clear that he has work to do before the Olympics.
Uno traditionally gets better as the season goes on, so assigning him to the Four Continents is probably for the best.
Despite being able to land only two of the four quads he planned for the free skate, the feeling here is that Uno will be back in good form by the time the big show in Pyeongchang begins.
Ice Time believes that his medal chances in South Korea remain very strong.
Not in the picture
There were promotional posters from Fuji Television for the nationals inside the Keio Line trains last week. Pictured in living color were Yuzuru Hanyu and Uno, along with Miyahara, Higuchi, Honda and Mai Mihara.
There was a notable omission that I noticed on the way home after the women’s short program on Thursday night.
Who was it?
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