Figure Skating | ICE TIME

Rika Kihira making right call by moving up to senior ranks

by Jack Gallagher

Japan junior champion Rika Kihira, one of only eight women in history to land the triple axel in international competition, has decided to move up to the senior ranks for the coming season.

Ice Time has confirmed this news with a source, after the story was first reported by the Nikkan Sports last week.

Kihira, a 15-year-old from Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, has competed on the Junior Grand Prix circuit the past two seasons. She qualified for the JGP Final both years, finishing fourth each time.

One of the stars of coach Mie Hamada’s stable, Kihira came in a disappointing eighth last season at the world junior championships in Bulgaria, but nonetheless has shown that she has the talent and potential to compete with the seniors.

With Marin Honda having left Hamada to move to the U.S. and train with Rafael Arutunian, Kihira’s move up makes even more sense. Hamada’s 1-2 punch will now be four-time Japan champion Satoko Miyahara and Kihira.

Ice Time contacted a veteran coach, who requested anonymity, to get their viewpoint on Kihira’s decision to take on a bigger challenge.

“Rika matured last season at the same time as she continued to expand her technical ability,” the coach noted. “Her performance level was 10 times what it was the year before. I’m sure it will have grown as she will grow herself emotionally.

“I think this is the right move for Rika, because her maturity and physical growth are kind of merging into a senior package as opposed to a junior.”

Reaction to ISU decisions

The ISU Congress met in Seville, Spain, earlier this month and made some rule changes, while deciding against others. Included amongst these was not voting on a rule that would have required skaters to be at least 17 to compete as a senior, while also deciding to eliminate the repetition of quads in the free skate, and backloading of all jumps to the second half of programs.

“I’m thrilled that it didn’t even come to any discussion,” the coach commented about the proposed age-limit rule. “I thought it was ridiculous. The beautiful junior skaters may not have the same age, but they do have the same skills.

“There is no question that maturity brings a certain element of emotion, perhaps a little bit more than a younger skater would have,” the coach continued. “But when it comes to the beautiful execution of technical elements, beautiful flow and ability to interpret music, some of those juniors are just as good as the seniors. You can’t look at them as little kids. They are talented young people.”

Regarding the limiting of repeating quads in the free skate to just one, the coach was less opinionated about it.

“I’m sort of in the middle of the road with that,” the coach stated. “I know that the physicality of the quad is quite remarkable. It is one of the ways that one can measure the physicality and technique of an athlete. But I don’t like limiting the sporting aspect of skating.”

The coach then took a look at the other side of the issue.

“You can do the toe, salchow, loop, flip, lutz. You still have a shot at doing five quads. If you can do that, it’s pretty awesome,” the coach noted.

“I think they wanted to eliminate the amount of time that the same element took. From that perspective, I think I can live with that. We just have to wait and see how it is all presented by the skaters.”

Backloading of programs has now been limited. Only one jump in the short program can receive a bonus in the second half, and only three jumps in the free skate.

“I am very much against restricting the skater from developing a strategy to maximize their points,” the coach said. “Who is to say what is exactly well balanced? Front load a program and then perform like crazy at the end or start your program with performance and jump at the end. What difference does it make? It is an athlete’s approach and strategy.”

Cup of China to be moved

Very strange developments last week when the Chinese Skating Association suddenly announced it would be unable to host any skating events during the coming season, including the Cup of China annual GP event.

This move forced the ISU to quickly seek an alternative site, with South Korea being the front runner. The ISU also moved the JGP planned for Harbin, China, in September to Vancouver.

The Xinhua News Agency quoted a CSA source in explaining the moves.

“There are two reasons for our quitting hosting events temporarily,” the source said. “First of all, every national team in ice sports needs to ‘go out’ more and better integrate themselves into international training and competition systems.

“Secondly, the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics is coming up. A lot of venues will be renovated and cannot be used to host events in the planned time. We tried our best but can’t make it in the end.”

Ice Time isn’t buying this explanation, nor is the coach I spoke with.

“It sounds strange,” the coach stated, “because Harbin would not have been used in any part of the Beijing Games.”

Ice Time contacted the ISU for a comment on the unusual situation created by the CSA’s decision and received the following response from Selina Vanier, the ISU’s communications manager.

“The ISU Events that were scheduled to be hosted in China for the season 2018-19 have not yet been confirmed by the Chinese Skating Association. Therefore, the ISU is currently reviewing the situation.”

So the plot thickens, with speculation having arisen that the real issue could be some dispute with between the CSA and ISU.

Ice Time (@sportsjapan) conducted a Twitter poll last week after the news about China emerged, and asked if Japan should be allowed to host a second GP event this coming season.

Seventy-one percent of respondents voted yes on the issue, while 29 percent said no.

The open date (Nov. 2-4) on the GP schedule now is the week before the NHK Trophy in Hiroshima (Nov. 9-11), which would actually line up nicely for skating officials and skaters who choose to participate in both events. They could travel domestically from one GP to the next without having to leave the country and Japan is known as a popular destination to visit within the global skating community.

Certainly, tickets for a second GP in Japan would quickly be sold out.

Medvedeva’s motivation

The coach also weighed in on Evgenia Medvedeva’s recent move to Toronto to train under Brian Orser.

“Eteri (Tutberidze) did an amazing job with Medvedeva,” the coach said. “She is not a big jumper, but she is a dramatic skater. She never misses. When not making a mistake and being as dramatic, she dominated.

“But then you have a young girl coming up that jumps a little bit bigger, who skates a little bit faster. Not as dramatic. Eteri probably told her, ‘I have a girl doing a quad lutz/triple toe loop. I have another girl doing two different quads. The reality is they are going to challenge you.’ “

The coach believes that this likely caused Medvedeva to evaluate her position going forward.

“I think Medvedeva thought about it and felt the biggest competition in the world was in her own rink, so maybe she needed a fresh look at that,” the coach commented.

“This is one of the intriguing things about skating. Can Brian Orser, David Wilson and Tracy Wilson, and all the people around them, help Medvedeva get better? Can they reinspire her and make her compete against what is coming up behind her? It’s going to be interesting to watch.”

Murakami done competing

Daisuke Murakami announced his retirement from competition last week. The 27-year-old Murakami said he will become a show skater.

The Kanagawa Prefecture native moved to the U.S. at the age of 10 and skated for the U.S. until 2007. Murakami represented Japan from the 2008-09 season, but was never able to ascend to the truly elite level due to injury and the deep domestic competition he faced.

The high point of Murakami’s career came at the 2014 NHK Trophy in Osaka where he scored a stunning victory over a field that included Sochi Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu (who finished fourth). Murakami was third after the short program and rallied to top the podium with an impressive free skate.

Murakami qualified for the GP Final in 2015, after placing third at both Skate Canada and the Trophee Bompard, where he was sixth. Murakami never made Japan’s world or Olympic team.

Ice Time wishes Murakami all the best in his future endeavors.