NAGOYA – With Japan junior champion Yuhana Yokoi having moved on to the senior ranks, 17-year-old Tomoe Kawabata may represent the Hinomaru’s best chance for a medal at the world junior championships this coming season.
Kawabata was the bronze medalist at the Japan Junior Championships in Fukuoka last season and her combination of elegance and jumping ability has been compared to Yuna Kim. Her potential has been evident to all in the skating community and this may be the year she finally realizes it.
Kawabata will have an early start to her Junior Grand Prix campaign, as she has been selected to skate this month at the season-opening event in Courchevel, France (Aug. 21-24).
The native of Nisshin, Aichi Prefecture, has made a steady climb up the junior ranks domestically over the past few years. In 2016, she finished 27th at the nationals in Sapporo, not even qualifying for the free skate.
Then, as if by magic, she vaulted all the way to sixth at the 2017 junior nationals in Maebashi, Gunma Prefecture. I still vividly recall how she skated very early in the short program and dazzled with her ability and beautiful white outfit.
Kawabata was third after the short program and ended up sixth in the competition won by Rika Kihira.
In Fukuoka last November, Kawabata was in tears after a poor short program but pulled herself together in the free skate to make the podium behind Yokoi and Nana Araki.
If Kawabata wins the domestic junior title this season, it would be no surprise. She talked about the upcoming campaign at the recent national junior team training camp at Chukyo University.
Kawabata made a late coaching change last month to join Yukina Ota, the 2003 world junior champion, and Yutaka Higuchi at the Meiji Jingu rink in Tokyo and addressed the move with media at the camp.
She had been working under legendary coach Shoichiro Tsuzuki, who was an early mentor for two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, for the past several seasons in Yokohama.
“I read an article where Coach Higuchi said, ‘Looking at flowers can be utilized in skating,’ and it had a lot that I liked and it made me want to get better with this coach,” Kawabata stated, when asked about the transfer.
She knows it will be a challenge for her changing coaches and rinks at this stage.
“I’m using Jingu as my base this season,” Kawabata commented. “It hasn’t been long, but I have skated on a reserve rink, so I want to put in effort and practice hard.”
When Ice Time interviewed Tsuzuki earlier this year and mentioned Kawabata’s progress, the legendary coach responded with a biting assessment.
“She hasn’t progressed as fast as (Yuna) Aoki,” Tsuzuki said. “It has taken Kawabata longer than it should have.”
Kawabata’s programs for the coming season were both choreographed by Stephane Lambiel. Her short program is “The Blue Danube,” while her free skate is comprised of two songs (“Yumeji’s Theme” and “Sikuriadas”) from a movie about the late poet and painter Yumeji Takehisa.
Kawabata, who came in fifth at both of her JGPs last season, confirmed that Lambiel chose the music for her programs and said the experience of working with the two-time world champion and 2006 Olympic silver medalist was a special one.
“I learned a lot by seeing him dance in person,” Kawabata said. “I learned some new moves I had never tried before and the rhythm of waltz since both programs are waltz.”
The young star admitted she was not familiar with Takehisa before being presented with the music.
“I didn’t know anything about him,” Kawabata stated. “But I went to a museum and saw his art works in Tokyo.”
Kawabata’s talked about her goal for this season.
“My goal for this season is to go to (the) world junior championships and have a good short and free since I couldn’t do it last season,” Kawabata, who came in a disappointing 12th there in March, remarked. “I will skate at my best and I will find and work on issues. I hope to grow this season.”
Sochi Olympic bronze medalist and 2012 world champion Carolina Kostner, who is still competing at the age of 32, was a guest instructor at the training camp. Kawabata acknowledged it was a real charge to work with the Italian great.
“I like Carolina Kostner, so standing on the same skating rink as her makes me elated,” Kawabata stated. “There are a lot of takeaways from the camp, so I want to absorb it as much as I can and make the best use of it in practices.”
Known as a powerful jumper, Kawabata revealed that she is not focusing on quads or triple axels at this point.
“I am not practicing them due to not feeling perfect,” Kawabata commented. “But I will build up my body, practice jumps, and learn new moves and techniques.”
An expert’s analysis
Ice Time reached out to ISU JGP announcer Ted Barton, who watched Kawabata perform on the junior circuit last season, for his impressions of her skating.
Barton wrote in an email that he considers Kawabata “one of my very favorite Japanese skaters” and listed her strong points and what she needs to work on.
✹ Kawabata has endless energy.
✹ As with all Japanese, she has wonderful skating skills, with deep edges and power throughout the program, and flow into and out of all her technical elements.
✹ She skates with a freedom of movement, with a look of enjoyment on her face, which gives one a feeling of comfort and confidence while watching her.
✹ She tends to make small, careless mistakes which affects the overall program impression.
✹ Although she is a powerful skater, she perhaps needs more transitional steps instead of basic stroking.
“Overall, she is wonderful and full of potential stardom,” noted Barton. “We will see if it develops. She is one of my favorites.”
Kanto Summer Trophy
Fans wanting to get an early look at Kawabata’s new programs can do so this weekend at the Kanto Summer Trophy in Ageo, Saitama Prefecture. Kawabata and former training partner Aoki are both entered in the four-day competition that began on Thursday.
The junior women’s short program is set for Saturday and a very early start at Saitama Ice Arena. The first group of skaters will take the ice for their warmup at 7:15 a.m.
The intense passion for the sport is illustrated by the fact that there are 69 entries in the junior women’s category (Level 6 or higher) alone at this preseason regional event.
Fond memories for Hiwatashi
World junior champion Tomoki Hiwatashi made his Japan debut in three-city tour of “The Ice” over the past couple of weeks.
The 19-year-old appeared in the show that stopped in Osaka, Niigata and Nagoya, alongside world champion Nathan Chen, world bronze medalist Vincent Zhou and Olympic and world titlist Alina Zagitova.
Hiwatashi, who trains in Colorado Springs, Colorado, relayed his feelings about skating in his ancestral homeland for the first time in an email to Ice Time.
“I just got back to the U.S.,” Hiwatashi wrote. “Being able to skate in Japan felt amazing! I never skated in a show with so many people. I think I’ll remember all the banners the fans made for me that were held up by them at the ice shows!”