Figure Skating | ICE TIME

Japan's results at worlds not a cause for concern

by Jack Gallagher

The world championships turned out to be a disappointment for Japan. With a realistic chance at four medals in singles, the host nation had to settle for just one in Yuzuru Hanyu’s silver.

Despite the results, Ice Time does not believe there is reason to be discouraged. To the contrary, if a few more jumps had been landed, Japan could have had four skaters on the podium in singles.

Though his legion of fans were unhappy that Hanyu did not win the gold, coming back from an injury and getting the silver behind defending champion Nathan Chen was actually a positive development.

It was clear to Ice Time that Hanyu has still not fully recovered from the right ankle injury he suffered at the Cup of Russia back in November in Moscow. This appeared most evident on his salchow jumps.

Hanyu’s class was on full display at the press conference after the free skate on Saturday night. After thanking all of the people who made the world championships possible, he was full of praise for Chen and bronze medalist Vincent Zhou of the United States.

“I am disappointed with the result somewhat of being in second place,” Hanyu commented. “Even so I’m also very glad I was able to compete with these two skaters here and I want to thank them for making me feel that I want to become better now.

“I have nothing but full respect for these fellow skaters and I would like to thank you because now I am determined to evolve and grow more and become closer to you and catch up as a skater one day.”

Some may see the result in Saitama as a passing of the torch. Ice Time disagrees.

Hanyu is a genius, and when he is 100 percent healthy will figure out a way to defeat Chen.

The decision for Hanyu to skip next month’s World Team Trophy in Fukuoka, though sad for his supporters, is a wise course of action. The hope here is that he will be fully fit by the time the new season rolls around in the fall.

Time for Uno to change

Shoma Uno’s showing in Saitama was a letdown. Coming off his victory at the Four Continents last month, Uno’s place on the podium at the worlds seemed almost a virtual certainty. But he struggled during the week at practice, and was in sixth place after the short program before moving up to fourth after the free skate.

It was a rare finish off the podium for Uno.

The 21-year-old fell on his opening quad flip in the short program and under-rotated his first two quads in the free skate. It seemed apparent that Uno also had still not recovered from the ankle injury he suffered earlier this season.

Even more obvious to Ice Time was the need for Uno to employ some new choreography. Even though there is an elegance to his skating, the movements in his programs generally look the same and it is time for something different.

Sakamoto lets it slip away

On the women’s side, Kaori Sakamoto was poised to take the silver medal near the end of her free skate to “The Piano” when she singled a triple flip that cost her seven points and a place on the podium. She wound up fifth.

Sakamoto, whose improvement this season has been marked, was second after the short program behind eventual winner Alina Zagitova. More important, was the fact that Sakamoto had the second-highest program component score (73.26) in the free skate.

The sad part of Sakamoto’s result at the worlds is that had she taken the silver ahead of Rika Kihira, she was would have established herself as the No. 1 female skater in Japan. Having already beaten Kihira at the Japan nationals earlier this season, a medal and finish ahead of the triple axel sensation at the worlds would have further enhanced her reputation in the eyes of the judges and those in the skating community.

Sakamoto, who will turn 19 next month, was devastated by the outcome in Saitama, but will learn from it and move on. She has become a well-rounded skater over the past two seasons and has great potential going forward.

Kihira needs mental strength

Kihira coming in fourth was the surprise of the event. A strong favorite going into the worlds off her victories at the Grand Prix Final and Four Continents, the 16-year-old managed to land just one triple axel in the competition.

By popping her planned triple axel in the short program, Kihira wound up in seventh place going into the free skate, which meant she had to hit both triple axels in the free skate to have a shot at a medal.

Kihira has a vast amount of technical and artistic ability, but Ice Time believes she should consult with a sports psychologist during the offseason. Her pattern of struggling in the short program and with the triple axel needs to be resolved.

Sakamoto goes into her programs with confidence. She is known for her fortitude.

Kihira, on the other hand, seems to lack belief in herself at times despite her track record of success.

Chen a formidable foe

One could not help but be impressed by Chen’s performance in Saitama. The 19-year-old student at Yale University skated like a real veteran in both the short program and free skate on the way to a record total score of 323.42 points.

Chen became the first American in 35 years to defend the world title. The last to do it was Scott Hamilton in 1983-84.

The Salt Lake City native’s ability to balance the books and skating is a throwback to the days of two-time Olympic champion Dick Button, who did the same while earning an undergraduate degree at Harvard back in the 1950s.

I watched Chen closely after Hanyu’s free skate and the long delay that followed while the ice was swept clear of all the Winnie the Poohs. I think a lot of skaters would have been unnerved by the holdup and inability to use all of the ice.

Chen calmly skated back and forth on the half of the rink that was not flooded with the plush toys. He struck me as a pretty cool customer.

Chen’s accomplishment is significant. That he did it in Japan makes it even more so. Many might have been intimidated by skating against a superstar like Hanyu in his home country, but Chen said he was energized by the huge crowd at Saitama Super Arena.

“To compete for a sold-out crowd is so, so cool and so awesome for the sport,” Chen stated after the free skate on Saturday night. “I was fully expecting Yuzu to bring the house down, just bring everyone to their feet. Just have this crazy atmosphere and it was exactly that. Fortunately, this time all the Pooh bears were on one side of the rink so I was able to skate around and get warmed up.”

Chen saluted the Japanese fans at the worlds for their deep appreciation for skating.

“It’s amazing to see how much the audience cares for us and how much they truly love skating,” Chen noted. “The ice being covered in Pooh bears is really representative of all the passion that they have for the sport. That really touches you as well.”

World Team Trophy

The Japan Skating Federation announced the team for next month’s World Team Trophy in Fukuoka (April 11-14) on Monday. Uno and Keiji Tanaka will represent the Hinomaru in the men’s competition, while Sakamoto and Kihira will skate in the women’s event.

Riku Miura and Shoya Ichihashi will be the pairs team, while Tim Koleto and Misato Komatsubara will be the ice dance duo.

This will mark the sixth time the World Team Trophy has been held.

Japan has won it twice (2012, 2017), while the U.S. prevailed the other three times (2009, 2013, 2015).

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