Rika Kihira's super season continued over the weekend with a decisive victory at the Grand Prix Final in Vancouver, British Columbia. The young star dethroned Olympic champion Alina Zagitova of Russia to take the crown.
The 16-year-old Kihira has won all four of her events this season and has to be considered the favorite to capture both the national and world championships. She is riding a rocket right now and it appears she will be difficult to defeat.
Despite landing just two of her planned three triple axels in Canada, Kihira posted a total score of 233.12 points to beat Zagitova, who finished with 226.53. Zagitova's compatriot Elizaveta Tuktamysheva (215.32) was third.
It's not just that Kihira is winning that is resonating with analysts and fans, but how she is winning. Her jumps are solid, but it is the growth of her interpretation and skating skills that is truly exceptional.
Kihira set a world record with a mark of 82.51 in her short program to "Clair de Lune" on Thursday to open a nearly five-point lead over Zagitova, before completing the victory on Saturday.
Ted Barton, who called the Junior Grand Prix Final on YouTube, threw some intrigue into the senior women's event when he revealed afterward that Zagitova had tripped over a television cable at some point before the free skate and had considered withdrawing.
But that ended up being just a footnote after Kihira's elegant performance.
Tara Lipinski raved about Kihira on the NBC telecast after watching her short program.
"What a star. She just floated across the ice," Lipinski stated. "Her jumps were magnificent. She connects with the audience. She has great skating skills. This girl is it."
Lipinski's fellow analyst Johnny Weir was equally impressed by Kihira.
"She was refreshing. She was ethereal," Weir commented. "Those jumps could make any skater — male, female, pair, dance — drool."
Kihira's free skate to "Beautiful Storm" earned similar plaudits despite having her opening triple axel downgraded.
"A great skate after that very, very nervy start," said Eurosport's Chris Howarth. "It could have gone south very quickly, but she regrouped and kept her focus. Absolutely sensational. She really does have nerves of steel."
Kihira landed seven triples in her free skate and four-time world champion Kurt Browning, commentating on CBC, also noted Kihira's fortitude.
"She skates with attack and energy. It seems to suit her personality as a skater that she would end the program with a jump," Browning remarked after Kihira's triple salchow.
"I think her secret weapon is her mental strength. When you watch her, she rotates so tight and so clean," added Browning. "Patrick Chan said it well, it's the details. He appreciates the details of her skating.
"You can talk about the triple axel all you want, but there is a little bit of everything there."
Lipinski, the 1998 Olympic champion, highlighted Kihira's all-around ability.
"We focus so much on her jumps, which are incredible," Lipinski remarked. "But what's interesting to me is she's mature beyond her years. She has such a solid base and foundation when it comes to her skating skills and ice coverage and extension."
Weir provided a description of why he believes Kihira is such a reliable jumper.
"Her technique is kind of perfectly squared off her shoulders," Weir stated. "They sit right over her hips for the majority of her jumps, which makes them very secure."
Kihira acknowledged that her free skate was not perfect.
"I'm really happy to perform that way on this big stage at the Grand Prix Final," Kihira said in an interview in the arena after her victory. "It was not my best. The first jump was a bit of a miss. After that I was able to go out there and perform with no mistakes. I'm really happy about that."
Last year's Japan junior champion admitted that she has far exceeded her own expectations this campaign.
"It was my goal this season to just get into the senior ranks. The Grand Prix Final was not at all in my goals," Kihira noted. "I've been really training hard from the offseason and I'm really happy that all of my training has borne fruit. In all of the big competitions I was able to perform and control my feelings."
Kihira, a Hyogo Prefecture native, was asked if her win at the GP Final would put additional pressure on her for the remainder of the season.
"It just inspires confidence in me. There is no pressure whatsoever," Kihira responded. "I think it was a great experience for me. Instead of pressure, this is going to motivate me going forward."
There was one fan who was especially interested in Kihira's performance on Saturday. It was Jennifer Thomas, the pianist who wrote and performed "Beautiful Storm." She traveled from her home in Seattle to watch Kihira compete.
After Kihira's victory, Thomas sent her a congratulatory tweet.
"Congratulations on your win today! So incredible to see in person! You interpreted my music beautifully," Thomas wrote.
Thomas provided a description of the inspiration for the song, which was released in 2007, on the website broadjam.com.
"This song was written after standing on the beach in Hawaii one night when there was a strong wind, huge crashing ocean waves, yet the air was warm and you could see the moon overhead. It was beautiful."
Kaori Sakamoto (211.68) settled for fourth place after an unfortunate fall on a double toe loop in her free skate to "The Piano" ended her chances of making the podium.
The fall aside, Sakamoto was absolutely brilliant. Her toughness shone once more on the big stage. She landed seven triples and received level fours on her step sequence and all of her spins.
"She seems to have got better and better," Eurosport's Simon Reed commented. "She's got a terrific combination. She's so athletic, looks really strong. There is a balletic quality about her as well. What a program it was. A lovely feel for the music."
Those who think Sakamoto is just a jumper are mistaken. She is improving with each outing in her interpretation and presentation.
"I love that program choreographed by Benoit Richaud," Howarth said. "He's done a great job. It really suits her style of skating. That sort of contemporary look. Really great.
"She has a fantastic technique, there's no doubt about that. She gets so much elevation, which is unusual for the Asian skaters," Howarth added.
"That softness together with the amount of energy that she puts into every single element is just sensational. She's got the balance just right."
Miyahara struggles to sixth
Four-time national champion Satoko Miyahara (201.31) placed sixth in the six-skater field and had issues with her triple lutz. She under-rotated her first triple lutz in her free skate to "Invierno Porteno" and had her second one downgraded.
Miyahara, who was fifth in last season's GP Final, also under-rotated her triple lutz in her short program to "Song for the Little Sparrow."
Her result in Vancouver will make next week's Japan nationals very interesting. Miyahara looked like a lock for Japan's team for the world championships after her win at Skate America and second-place finish at the NHK Trophy.
Should Miyahara finish off the podium in Osaka, the Japan Skating Federation could be faced with a real dilemma on their selection for the worlds team.
Uno settles for second again
Olympic and world silver medalist Shoma Uno took second behind world champion Nathan Chen at the GP Final. Chen beat Uno by less than a point at last season's GP Final. This time the margin was seven points (282.42 to 275.10).
Uno cleanly landed just two of his four quads in his free skate to "Moonlight Sonata" and had some shaky landings on his triples.
Howarth believed that Uno was having trouble on his triples because he is so used to doing quads.
"Everything was slightly over-rotated. Even something as easy as a triple salchow/triple toe loop," Howarth pointed out. "You can see there that all the time he is fighting all the time to hang on because he wants to go around for that fourth turn."
Weir feels that Uno is a more well-rounded skater than Chen.
"He is a better spinner. His steps are a bit more compelling," Weir said. "He's got better skating skills than Nathan Chen. Nathan has that technique that's like the movements of a Swiss clock and you can rely on them almost every time."
Weir thinks there is a disconnect with Uno's upper and lower torso on some of his jumps.
"He just has a really hard time checking his upper body on those landings," Weir stated. "But his knees are capable of saving him almost every time."
Browning praised Uno's free skate despite his struggles and detailed how he believes his skating has grown.
"I always liked his skating and his ability to flow across the ice and his knees are just incredible," Browning commented. "But sometimes I would feel like his programs were a little monotonous in terms of the tempo of his cross cuts and his connecting steps. I feel like he has really changed up the cadence of things."
Shimada captures bronze
Koshiro Shimada earned the bronze medal in the men's JGP event won by Canada's Stephen Gogolev. The 17-year-old fell on his triple flip late in his free skate to "Winter in Buenos Aires."
Barton has followed Shimada's career for a few years and likes what he has seen of the native of Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture.
"I've had the fortunate opportunity to speak to this young man a couple of times," Barton said on the YouTube webcast. "He is so delightful. Such a positive personality."
Barton cited Shimada's pace as a positive in his skating while reviewing his free skate.
"He is patient with the music and does not race ahead. That is good," Barton remarked. "He just takes his time to make sure he stays within the choreography. He needs some refinement on details of position — pointed toes, stretched free legs — that will happen as he moves toward seniors.
"Good speed and power throughout the program. The small details sound so picky, but they are the difference between the top skaters and the middle, especially in seniors."