Figure Skating

Satoko Miyahara holds slim lead over Kaori Sakamoto after short program at nationals

by Jack Gallagher

Staff Writer

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Four-time national champion Satoko Miyahara is in the lead after the short program at the Japan championships on Friday night.

Miyahara, gunning for her fifth straight title, skated last and gave the fans an evening to remember. The 20-year-old cleanly landed her opening triple lutz/triple toe loop, before hitting a double axel and triple loop to “Song for the Little Sparrow.”

The Kyoto native earned a score of 76.76 points to top the field.

Kaori Sakamoto is firmly in second place with 75.65, while her training partner Mai Mihara is third on 72.88.

World silver medalist Wakaba Higuchi, who missed her second Grand Prix assignment due to an injury to her right foot, is fourth at 72.63.

The biggest surprise is Grand Prix Final champion Rika Kihira standing in fifth place with a tally of 68.75.

Kihira came into the competition as a heavy favorite, and could still pull it off if she can cleanly execute both of her triple axels in the free skate on Sunday night.

“I had a problem with my boots at the Grand Prix Final,” stated Miyahara. “So I changed back to the ones I wore at the NHK Trophy. They feel good for now.”

Miyahara was not encouraged by her training session in the morning.

“In practice this morning I didn’t do too well, but the competition was good and I’m happy about that,” Mihara commented. “I want to be more relaxed when I skate.”

Sakamoto put on a sublime performance to “From My First Moment,” opening with a nice triple flip/triple toe loop combo, before landing a double axel and a triple loop. She was poised and in control from start to finish, executing her jumps with flair and her interpretation with panache.

“I was surprised when the score was announced,” Sakamoto said. “There were some small points like my layback spin and twizzle that were not good, so I was amazed by the score.”

Sakamoto, who earned level fours on all of her spins and step sequence, said she had a premonition about her short program.

“I had a strong feeling that I could do well and I did. As an Olympian I had to do well,” Sakamoto added.

Mihara gave a lovely effort to “It’s Magic.” She began with a solid triple lutz/triple toe loop combo, then hit a double axel and triple flip. The audience was absolutely enraptured as she glided around the ice like an angel.

“I was a bit nervous, but the support of my coach and audience really inspired me,” Mihara stated. “I was happy to get my personal best in the last short program of 2018.”

Wakaba Higuchi was absolutely electric to “Engergia.” She put aside any doubts about her condition, starting with a double axel, then landing a triple lutz/triple toe loop combo, before hitting a triple flip.

Higuchi did get an edge call on the flip and only garnered a level three on her step sequence, but it hardly mattered as she was given a standing ovation by the audience.

Kihira competed to “Clair de Lune” and went down hard on her opening triple axel, she then doubled the back end of her planned triple flip/triple toe loop combo. The 16-year-old fought back to hit her triple lutz, and received level fours on all of her spins and step sequence.

Kihira claimed that an equipment issue was partially responsible for her off night.

“My boots didn’t fit well tonight,” noted Kihira. “My right boot was too loose because the gel pack moved. I wasn’t nervous. My focus was on boots and jumps.”

Kihira is confident she will bounce back in the free skate.

“I know how to fix the problem, so the free skate should be fine,” Kihira commented.

Mako Yamashita (62.94) is ninth after stepping out on the back end of her triple lutz/triple toe loop combo and two-footing the landing on her triple flip.

Ayaka Hosoda, a 23-year-old from Kansai University, landed a nice triple axel and is 10th with 61.41.

Marin Honda (52.75) had another poor outing and is in 18th place.

“I’m so sorry about the performance, because I could hear the voices of the supporters,” Honda said. “I couldn’t pay them back. I feel impatient with my scores, but my coach (Rafael Arutunian) told me this season is just a warmup for where we want to go. I need to experience this kind of season to get better.”

The men’s short program is set for Saturday night.

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