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Japan women look for Four Continents sweep

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The final tuneup for the Pyeongchang Games begins Wednesday when the Four Continents Championships kicks off in Taipei. Japan is sending its entire Olympic team — minus Yuzuru Hanyu — to get one more competitive run through on their programs ahead of the extravaganza next month in South Korea.

National champions Satoko Miyahara and Shoma Uno will lead the team that includes Kaori Sakamoto, Keiji Tanaka, pairs Miu Suzaki and Ryuichi Kihara, and ice dancers Kana Muramoto and Chris Reed.

Mai Mihara and Takahito Mura, though not on the Olympic team, are also entered in the event that is limited to skaters from the Americas, Asia, Africa and Oceania.

Mihara won the Four Continents last season before going on to finish fifth at the world championships.

Mura was the Four Continents champion in 2014 and is an alternate for Pyeongchang.

A sweep by the Japanese women seems a strong possibility, while Uno looks like a lock for the podium. The Japan team in singles is clearly the strongest of any country entered.

The major question is who will top the medal stand in the women’s event?

Sakamoto is surging, while Miyahara is coming off a strong showing at the Japan nationals, where she won her fourth consecutive title.

Mihara, though not having enjoyed as successful a season as Sakamoto and Miyahara, is clearly capable of pulling off a surprise victory.

Jackie Wong of Rocker Skating is predicting that Sakamoto will take the gold this week.

“Momentum is on her side, and it may very well just carry her all the way to the title this week,” Wong wrote. “She has had one of the most surprising rises in skating this season, and the confidence that she carries into this competition this week could be her ticket to the biggest win of her career. It will take two clean programs, but she’s up for the challenge.”

Wong forecasts Miyahara claiming the silver and Mihara the bronze.

More important than medals, though, is that the skaters feel confident about their programs heading into Pyeongchang.

The women’s roster in Taiwan includes, American Mariah Bell, Kazakhstan’s Elizabet Tursynbaeva and South Korea’s Choi Da-bin.

Prominent names in the men’s lineup are China’s Jin Boyang, Kazakhstan’s Denis Ten and American Jason Brown.

The women’s short program is scheduled to begin Wednesday afternoon, with the men’s short program slated to start Thursday afternoon. The women’s free skate is set for Friday, with the men on Saturday.

Based on recent results, the likelihood is that Japan’s best hope in Pyeongchang in the women’s event will be a shot at the bronze medal. With Russia’s Alina Zagitova, the new European champion, and two-time world champion Evgenia Medvedeva in the field barring injury, it is hard not to envision them going 1-2 (one way or the other) at the Olympics.

That leaves the battle for bronze to everybody else, with Miyahara, Sakamoto, Russia’s Maria Sotskova and Italy’s Carolina Kostner among the contenders.

Also competing in Taiwan will be North Korea’s pairs team of Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik. The duo has been cleared by the ISU to skate in Pyeongchang where they are certain to receive a warm reception.

Guessing game continues

Ice Time spoke to a North American-based coach on Monday in search of the holy grail — inside information on Hanyu’s condition. The veteran mentor told me they spoke to Brian Orser recently but no details were revealed.

Orser told the coach that Hanyu “was recovering” and “hopeful,” while adding that “he is in the game.”

The coach believes that Orser is maintaining the right strategy ahead of Pyeongchang by playing it close to the vest.

“By keeping everything undercover it protects both the skater and the coach because the expectations and pressure are not increased,” the coach stated. “It is a wise thing to do.”

So while Hanyu’s fans and the media continue to be frustrated by the lack of specifics, Orser’s wisdom again is crystal clear.

Depending on what happens with the team event at the Olympics, Hanyu’s true condition may not be known until he takes to the practice ice in South Korea next month before the singles competition.

Upcoming assignments

The Japan Skating Federation will send Wakaba Higuchi, Marin Honda and Rika Hongo to the Challenge Cup (Feb. 22-25) in Den Haag, Netherlands.

Sakamoto, Mihara and Yuna Shiraiwa will compete in the Coupe de Printemps (March 16-18) in Luxembourg, where they will be joined by Kazuki Tomono, Hiroaki Sato and Sota Yamamoto.

Yamamoto’s assignment is noteworthy, as after battling an ankle injury and missing all of last season he made an inspired return at the Japan nationals last month where he finished ninth.

This will be Yamamoto’s first competition outside of Japan since he won the gold medal at the Youth Olympic Games in February of 2016 in Lillehammer, Norway.

Seen as a future heir to Hanyu, Yamamoto’s popularity among skating fans endured even while he was out of action. The cheers for Yamamoto at nationals were both raucous and heartwarming.

Ice Time (@sportsjapan) ran a Twitter poll recently asking the question, “Which young skater has the most potential for the future?”

Yamamoto was the runaway winner, receiving 63 percent of the vote. Mitsuki Sumoto was second with 25 percent, while Sena Miyake earned 7 percent and Tatsuya Tsuboi 5 percent.

Meanwhile, juniors Tomoe Kawabata, Rinka Watanabe and Kazuki Kushida will be dispatched to the Bavarian Open (Jan. 26-31) in Oberstdorf, Germany.

In a separate Twitter poll, Ice Time asked, “Which junior skater has the most potential for the future?”

Riko Takino took top honors (40 percent) over Yuhana Yokoi (34 percent), Moa Iwano and Akari Matsuoka (13 percent each).

Hall of Fame follow-up

Emi Watanabe, Japan’s first female medalist at the world championships (taking bronze in Vienna in 1979), reached out to Ice Time following last week’s column on a future Japan Figure Skating Hall of Fame.

I wrote that the prospective inaugural class should include Nobuo Sato, Midori Ito, Etsuko Inada, Machiko Yamada, Watanabe and Minoru Sano.

“What a honor it would be to be inducted,” wrote Watanabe. “Unfortunately Ms. Etsuko Inada is in heaven. Many legends are getting old. Hope it can be held sooner, than later.”

In another Twitter poll, Ice Time asked, “When a Japan Figure Skating Hall of Fame is opened, in what city should it be located?”

Sendai was the runaway winner (59 percent) ahead of Tokyo (22 percent), Nagoya (13 percent) and Osaka (6 percent).

Reader Kumi Mihara of Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture, discussed the reason for her vote in a Twitter message to Ice Time.

“I vote for Sendai. (Olympic gold medalists) Yuzu and Shizuka (Arakawa), that is the reason. And it would help revitalize Tohoku region,” Mihara commented. “Yuzu’s poster exhibition was a great success, people from many countries visited Sendai. China, Korea and Japan still have many issues. But love for Yuzu and skating has no borders.”