It was a mixed bag of results for Japanese skating over the weekend.
The good news arrived from Krasnoyarsk, Russia, where Mai Mihara won the Winter Universiade in decisive fashion.
The bad news emanated from Zagreb, where Japanese skaters struggled at the world junior championships and suffered setbacks that will impact next season.
Let’s begin with the positive result.
Mai Mihara’s beauty and elegance were on full display in two enchanting performances at the Platinum Ice Arena in the biennial event for university students. The 19-year-old from Kobe was in command from start to finish, winning with a total score of 220.68 points.
Kazakhstan’s Elizabet Tursynbaeva was second with 214.77, with Russia’s Stanislava Konstantinova taking third on 205.91.
Mihara, who attends Konan University in Kobe, led by more than five points after the short program, with a clean skate to “It’s Magic.”
Mihara’s smoothness impressed announcer Pj Kwong on the telecast of the competition.
“A clean performance, beautifully skated by Mai Mihara,” Kwong noted. “There was not anything about this performance that I didn’t like — construction and the execution. This program was magic for me.”
It was more of the same in Mihara’s free skate to “Gabriel’s Oboe” in which she landed six clean triple jumps and received level fours for all of her spins.
“Such polish in her skating,” commented Kwong, “Every movement completely finished. Free leg extended, fingers stretched, and then that great jumping technique.”
The always considerate Mihara showed her gratitude to the Russian audience for their backing.
“In today’s performance I was a little nervous,” Mihara commented in English after her victory. “The audience cheered for me and I appreciated the audience supporting me. I was happy to skate here.”
Mihara’s teammate Hina Takeno, a student at Fukuoka University, finished sixth with 175.38.
Juniors struggle in Croatia
The skaters representing the Hinomaru at the world juniors had a tough time over the weekend, with neither the women or men bringing home a medal.
In the men’s competition won by American Tomoki Hiwatashi with a tally of 230.32, Koshiro Shimada was a distant ninth at 212.78, while Tatsuya Tsuboi was even farther back in 14th on 195.88.
Russia’s Alexandra Trusova defended her title in the women’s event, posting a mark of 222.89 to finish ahead of compatriot Anna Shcherbakova (219.94), who took second.
Yuna Shiraiwa, who skated in the senior ranks for the second season in a row, dropped back down to juniors to compete in Croatia, but could only manage to take fifth place with 185.46.
Japan junior champion Yuhana Yokoi (170.17) ended up ninth after a poor short program put her way behind the leaders, while Tomoe Kawabata (157.47) came in 12th.
The ramifications of the poor showings by both the men and women will result in Japan having fewer places at next season’s world juniors in Estonia.
To retain three spots at the world juniors for next year, Japan’s top two finishers needed to have a combined placement of 13th or better. Neither the women or men were able to achieve that, so that means Japan will have only two slots each for women and men in 2020.
The finishes by Shiraiwa (fifth) and Yokoi (ninth) means that Japan missed out by one spot of holding onto the three positions for next year.
Shiraiwa’s fifth-place showing was crucial, however, as it gives Japan two entries for the women for all seven of the Junior Grand Prix events next season.
Japan was very fortunate in this instance, because normally fifth place would have meant it would have only received one slot for each JGP in 2019-20. However, because Russia took three of the top four places in the women’s field, Japan qualifies as the third country after Russia and the U.S., and thus gets two spots.
The news on the men’s side was not good, though, as Japan will receive a total of just six placements for the JGP circuit. This means just one entrant per event and Japan will have to skip one competition entirely.
Hindsight is always 20-20, but one has to wonder if Japan should have sent Mako Yamashita, who competed in seniors for the first time this season, instead of Kawabata. Yamashita has always been a reliable performer, and the combination of having both her and Shiraiwa there would almost certainly have retained Japan’s three spots for next year’s world juniors.
Triumphant in junior finale
Hiwatashi, a 19-year-old whose parents are from Kobe, won it all in the final junior competition of his career and in doing so likely secured two Grand Prix assignments for himself in his debut GP campaign as a senior next season.
“I still can’t believe what I did yesterday,” Hiwatashi told Ice Time exclusively the day after winning the gold. “I’m really happy that I was able to get first place.”
Despite the dramatic victory, Hiwatashi is already looking ahead.
“Since I wasn’t able to do the second quad (in his free skate) and made some mistakes here and there, I am still really determined to get ready for next year.”
Hiwatashi was second behind compatriot Camden Pulkinen after the short program and said he wasn’t thinking about victory when he took the ice as the final skater on Friday night.
“When I got on the ice, I didn’t really think I could win,” Hiwatashi admitted. “I just thought I was going to go on the ice and try my best. I didn’t think about the podium. I think that worked in a positive way for me, because I wasn’t thinking about it too much.”
Hiwatashi has really been coming on strong this season, finishing fourth at the U.S. nationals in January, then eighth at the Four Continents as a senior.
In the wake of the poor outings by Shimada and Tsuboi, one wonders what might have been.
Last month Hiwatashi told Ice Time that back in 2016, after he earned the bronze medal at the world juniors, he had considered leaving Team USA to skate for Japan.
If Hiwatashi had decided to skate for Japan three years ago, he would have definitely been in the running for the third spot on the Japan team for this year’s worlds, behind Yuzuru Hanyu and Shoma Uno, and ultimately the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
Ice Time asked Hiwatashi if the Japan Skating Federation had ever been informed about him considering skating for Japan back then.
“I don’t think so,” Hiwatashi replied.
Kihira favored for world title
Russia’s Elena Radionova, who did not compete this season due to injury, was asked recently by website rsport.ria.ru about Evgenia Medvedeva’s chances of winning the world title in Saitama next week in an interview that was translated and posted on fs-gossips.com.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” Radionova was quoted as saying. “But, in my opinion, if Rika Kihira skates clean, then it will be impossible for anyone to beat her. Everything at this world championships depends on Kihira. But if she makes mistakes, then someone can squeeze through.”
The interviewer then posed a question to Radionova about Kihira’s program layout.
“Kihira tries to secure and simplify the program. She deliberately makes the second axel a double, not a triple.”
Radionova disagreed with the contention that Kihira was making her program easier.
“Don’t you think that, on the contrary, she has complicated her program, making the combination 3/3 at the end?” Radionova replied. “Math — in points it’s no worse than having two triple axels. Of course, it’s more spectacular when she jumps two axels, but mathematically one triple and another 3/3 combination in the second half of the program give her more options. But whatever option she chooses, it is impossible to beat her if she skates clean.”