Figure Skating | ICE TIME

Kihira, Sakamoto look to lead Japan to sweep again at Four Continents

by Jack Gallagher

The skating season gets back in full swing this week with the Four Continents Championships in Anaheim, California, starting on Thursday. Japan’s women will be looking for their second straight sweep of the podium at the event.

Japan is sending a strong team that includes Grand Prix Final champion Rika Kihira, national champion Kaori Sakamoto and Mai Mihara. Just before the Pyeongchang Olympics last season, Sakamoto (first), Mihara (second) and Satoko Miyahara (third) swept the medals in Taipei.

With European nations being ineligible to compete in Anaheim, the odds are good for a repeat sweep for the women. The Japanese trio’s primary competition will likely come from American Bradie Tennell and South Korea’s Lim Eun-soo.

This will be an important event for Kihira, as she tries to shake off her loss to Sakamoto at the Japan nationals in Osaka in December. Kihira, with her triple axels in order, is certainly capable of victory, but one wonders what will happen if she is beaten a second straight time by Sakamoto ahead of next month’s world championships in Saitama.

World and Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno, who was second last year in Taiwan, leads Japan’s men’s squad, which will include Kazuki Tomono and Keiji Tanaka. The men’s field is deep and includes last year’s winner Jin Boyang of China, South Korea’s Cha Jun-hwan and Americans Jason Brown (who finished third in Taipei), Vincent Zhou and Tomoki Hiwatashi.

Miyahara back in action

Four-time national champion Satoko Miyahara will take the ice this week at the Bavarian Open (Feb. 5-10) in Oberstdorf, Germany, the Japan Skating Federation announced last month.

Miyahara, who was fortunate to finish third at the nationals, will try to get back on track ahead of the worlds. She will be joined in Germany by Yuna Aoki, Yuto Kishina and Koshiro Shimada, who finished fifth at nationals as a junior, and will be skating as a senior. The 17-year-old is Japan’s first alternate for the worlds this season.

Other notable assignments released by the JSF will see last season’s world silver medalist Wakaba Higuchi and Kihira compete at the Challenge Cup (Feb. 21-24) in The Hague, where Uno and Sota Yamamoto will also take part. Japan junior champion Yuhana Yokoi and Yuma Kagiyama will also make the trip.

Kihira reveals thoughts

Kihira provided some interesting insights in an interview posted on the ISU website last week. The 16-year-old talked about the evolution of her triple axel, her use of a “Beautiful Storm” for her free skate this season, and not being affected by who she is competing against.

“I started practicing it when I was in grade 6 or 7. When I was about 13 years old,” Kihira told the site about her triple axel. “It was under-rotated, but I landed it, when I was about 14.”

Kihira said coach Mie Hamada suggested she try the difficult 3½-rotation jump.

“The lesson kind of started all of a sudden,” Kihira recalled. “It wasn’t that I was told specifically that we would be practicing the triple axel, but since I had become able to do all my triple jumps up to the triple lutz with the proper edges, it was like, ‘Why don’t we do the triple axel one time.’ “

Kihira noted that Tom Dickson did the choreography for her skate to the song by Jennifer Thomas.

“How I selected this music was Tom gave me a few options and I selected ‘Beautiful Storm’ among those,” Kihira said. “The costume was made with me giving some ideas for color and feel and once I got a few drawings I was able to make my choice.

“The highlight of the program is the choreographic sequence. The choreography there is very cool and unusual, and I like it a lot.”

After beating out Olympic champion Alina Zagitova for the gold at the GP Final in Vancouver, British Columbia, in December, Kihira noted how far she had come in just a year. “I think what I found important is to not be swayed by whom I am competing against,” Kihira stated. “During the Olympics, I was just simply in awe (at everybody competing there), and I wasn’t at all thinking, I could do that too. But maybe it was also that I was seeing myself at such a lower level, and I was convinced I was not good at all.”

Kihira also paid tribute to training partner Miyahara, whom she has the greatest respect for.

“I see her (Miyahara) practicing every day, and watching her push herself is what has been giving me the motivation to push myself,” Kihira commented. “The attitude she brings to practice is my biggest stimulation. When there is something she cannot do, she tries it over and over again, and I learn so much from her. Just watching her, I can learn things that I myself have not experienced and I really admire her. She has such a strong work ethic, and it teaches me a lot.”

Barton gives thoughts on Rika

Ice Time asked ISU YouTube announcer Ted Barton, who broadcasts the Junior Grand Prix each season, recently about his thoughts on Kihira’s growth since her junior days.

“I will be going to worlds this year and of course look forward to an amazing event as is always produced in Japan,” Barton wrote in an email on Monday. “It has been a lot of fun following Rika’s development into a mature and confident athlete and performer. Looks like she will be a main contender leading up to and including Beijing 2022.

“It will be fun to also follow the young Russian ladies and see if they can navigate through the maturity process and maintain their spectacular skills so far. Lots of interesting stories and journeys to follow.”