KARUIZAWA, NAGANO PREF. - Two seasons ago Mai Mihara burst onto the scene with victories at the Four Continents Championships and Nebelhorn Trophy, plus solid showings on the Grand Prix circuit, and a fifth-place finish at the world championships.
It appeared as if Japan had a new star on its hands. She was beautiful, elegant and talented. Almost angelic.
But life in the skating fishbowl can change in a hurry and last season Mihara found her fortunes had turned despite again posting respectable results.
The Kobe native missed out on the Pyeongchang Olympics and world championships, the two prized competitions of the season. Part of that was attributable to the deep pool of talent among Japan’s senior women skaters.
With Satoko Miyahara, Kaori Sakamoto, Wakaba Higuchi, Marin Honda, Rika Hongo and Yuna Shiraiwa all vying for the two Olympic and world spots last season, it was clear that some talented skaters were going to miss out.
The 19-year-old Mihara is hoping to get back on track this season starting with the NHK Trophy in Hiroshima on Friday.
“Last season my performance was not good. I have some regrets,” Mihara told Ice Time in an exclusive interview in September. “The reasons were physical and mental. I felt a little pressure after taking fifth place at worlds. I needed to practice more.”
While acknowledging that she has many challengers in Japan, Mihara believes that is a positive.
“I enjoy the competition among the senior Japanese ladies,” Mihara remarked.
Mihara, who started skating at the age of 8, says she is confident heading into her GP season debut.
“I had good practice at the summer training camp, so now think I will be able to do it in competition,” Mihara stated. “If I feel pressure, I will just try to skate as I normally do. Like at practice.”
Mihara, who says Mao Asada was her idol growing up, is enthusiastic about both of her programs for the season.
“I love both my short (“It’s Magic”) and free (“The Mission”) programs, Mihara commented. “I want to show the audience a mature performance.”
Her free skate is a holdover from last season. Both programs were arranged by legendary choreographer David Wilson.
I wondered what Mihara, who placed fourth at her two GP assignments last season, wants from a choreographer.
“I look to the choreographer for help with the transitions between jumps,” Mihara said. “I want my performance to have big actions.”
Mihara, who was third at the Japan nationals two seasons ago, puts her trust in someone who has the track record that Wilson does.
“The choreographer picks the music. I give my opinion to the choreographer, but I accept the music,” Mihara noted. “The coach (Sonoko Nakano) and David make the final decision.”
Ice Time asked Mihara, who took second behind Olympic champion Alina Zagitova at the Nebelhorn Trophy in September, what her goals were for this season.
“I want to compete at the world championships in Japan,” Mihara commented. “I also hope to make the Grand Prix Final.”
One of the most poignant scenes of the 2017-18 skating season came at the Japan nationals in Tokyo. Mihara, who placed fifth, was leaving the ice after her free skate as her training partner Sakamoto was coming on.
Mihara had to know at this point that her dream of making the Japan team for the Pyeongchang Games was gone. While most people would be devastated at seeing something they had worked so hard for disappear, Mihara somehow found the composure to encourage her teammate.
“Kao-chan, gambatte,” TV cameras picked her up saying. It was an incredible gesture and tells you what kind of person Mihara is.
Ice Time questioned Mihara about this moment.
“Kaori and I have been skating together for 10 years,” Mihara told me. “She is my good friend.”
How did Mihara feel watching Sakamoto (who finished sixth) skate in Pyeongchang?
“I was cheering for her at the Olympics. I’m so glad Kaori was smiling there,” Mihara recalled. “I did feel a bit of sadness not being there, but I felt more like cheering for Kaori. I also got motivation for the future.”
Mihara told Ice Time she was moved by the efforts of all of her compatriots in Pyeongchang.
“As a Japanese I was very proud of Yuzu (Hanyu) and Shoma (Uno),” Mihara said. “I was so happy to see Satoko’s performance in the Olympics. Satoko was perfect in the short and free. She was so amazing.”
I questioned Mihara about the most difficult aspects of being a skater.
“The diet is the hardest part,” Mihara confessed. “Also, the skate rink is so cold.”
In the little spare time she does have, Mihara relaxes with music.
“My hobby is listening to music. I like many artists. Both foreign and Japanese,” Mihara stated, then added, “recently I have also been cooking a lot.”
I queried Mihara about which skaters from her era she most admired.
“Yuzu, Patrick (Chan) and Carolina Kostner,” Mihara responded.
When the curtain comes down on her days as a competitor, Mihara would like to remain close to the sport.
“I want to become a show skater after my competitive career,” Mihara commented. “I don’t think I can be a coach. But my coach is now saying that I should be a coach of the Kobe club.”
Ice Time wanted to know if Mihara found it challenging to skate overseas.
“I don’t feel stress skating outside of Japan,” Mihara claimed.
Mihara, who told me she likes skating in shows, indicated that she most enjoys taking part in the exhibition gala after an event.
“If I win a competition I feel emotional and comfortable during practice for the exhibition afterward,” Mihara said. “Only the top finishers can make the exhibition, so it is meaningful to be in it and you can meet your friends from overseas.”
Mihara concluded by saying that she finds inspiration from her many fans in Japan.
“I am recognized sometimes. It does make me happy,” Mihara stated. “Somebody told me ‘gambatte’ on the shinkansen ride up here, so that makes me want to work hard.”