Shun Sato's debut on the Junior Grand Prix circuit was a smashing success.
The 15-year-old Sendai native gave Japan its second straight gold medal in the men's event in the JGP with a comfortable victory in Lake Placid, New York, on Friday.
Sato's strong jumping ability was on full display as he racked up a total of 217.12 points on the way to a win over Canada's Stephen Gogolev (203.70).
Sato's triumph came a week after his friend and rival Yuma Kagiyama was victorious at the season-opening JGP in France.
Though not as polished a skater as Kagiyama, who is one year older, at this point, the 160-cm Sato showed that his potential may be greater in the long term. Leading after Thursday's short program, Sato skated to "Romeo and Juliet" in his free skate and landed three quads in his first four jumps.
His spins clearly need some work, but the teen has time on his side.
Sato's short program to "Arrivee des Camionneurs" impressed ISU announcer Ted Barton, who was seeing the youngster compete for the first time in person.
"What a great technical performance that was," Barton stated. "Powerful. Covers the ice so easily. Great height. Solid landings, great flow on those landings. Pretty good spin positions. Some work to do in that area."
Sato held a lead of less than one point over Gogolev going into the free skate, but the level of his technical content in the free skate helped carry him to victory.
"All difficult elements with great point values attached to them," Barton noted after Sato's free skate. "Great recovery after a difficult warmup. Some good work by coach and skater."
Barton recognized Sato's raw talent and ability for growth going forward.
"Mostly a technical skater at this point," Barton commented. "Not totally connected to the music. Lots of work to do in that with growth and maturity. But he has the technical elements under his belt for sure."
Sato spoke about his performance in Lake Placid in exclusive comments obtained by Ice Time.
"The short was good, but I didn't feel satisfied with my free, so I have to improve for next time," Sato said. "I felt good about my axel in the free. I felt good when I was doing my steps in the short."
Sato reiterated that he is not content with just competing in his first season on the JGP tour.
"I want to win the Junior Grand Prix Final and I want to stand on the podium at the world juniors," Sato remarked, when asked about his goals for the season.
Sato felt the experience of traveling far from home for an event was beneficial.
"The competition felt different from Japan because the foreign ice is different," Sato stated. "The applause of the foreign fans was very enthusiastic. It was a new atmosphere."
Kawabe fifth in debut
Mana Kawabe (163.04) finished a respectable fifth in her JGP debut, which was won by American phenom Alysa Liu (208.10). The 14-year-old from Nagoya looked to have a case of the jitters after drawing the short straw and having to skate first in the short program.
Kawabe wore a therapeutic sleeve on her left knee in both programs, which might explain some of her struggles.
"Trouble with lifts on her jumps," Barton commented after Kawabe's short program to "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch." "A beautiful skater, covers the ice, just two or three strokes and she is flying."
Kawabe had some challenges in her free skate to "Black Swan" but persevered.
She singled her planned triple loop early in the program and received edge calls on both of her triple flips.
Despite the mistakes, Barton praised her fortitude afterward.
"A great Japanese tradition, full out, aggressive," Barton said. "Going for everything. Powerful, quick, no holding back.
"A really good example of not letting the one mistake beat into two or three or four. She put it behind her and looked forward into what was coming up and how to focus on that."
Kawabe reflected on her showing after the free skate.
"I had some slight problems with my jumps in the free," Kawabe stated. "I wanted to skate bigger."
Kawabe appreciated the chance to skate outside Japan.
"This was a new experience," Kawabe commented. "It was nice to compete in a foreign country."
When asked what she wanted to work on going forward, Kawabe cited her artistry.
"I want the audience to so see more than jumps in my performance," Kawabe replied.
Tanaka one to watch
Azusa Tanaka, a 13-year-old from Kyoto, came in 14th in her JGP debut with a tally of 125. 74.
Tanaka, like Kawabe, is coached by Mie Hamada at the Kansai University rink.
Tanaka, who was 10th after her short program to "Gypsy Dance," really wowed Barton with her skating skills.
"Remember this young lady. That is some of the best skating skills in the whole competition," Barton noted. "She changes direction effortlessly. She has deep, deep edges, constant flow and speed over the ice."
Barton pointed out what Tanaka needs to work on.
"What she hasn't mastered yet is the triple jumps," Barton stated. "She will because they are very close. I have seen them in the practice sessions, but she is still a little wild on them. She still does not quite know exactly where she is. This is going to come through repetition. You add those triple/triples and it is amazing. Quickness into fast rotation in the air is not there yet.
"It wasn't the jumps, it was the skate ability, the performance and the agility that was amazing. Superior in many forms. She has a very bright future indeed."
Tanaka struggled with jumps in her free skate to "Pride and Prejudice," but Barton accentuated the positives and believes Tanaka could be a force in the future.
"Such charming and beautiful skating," Barton commented. "Speed across the ice. Acceleration is so quick. Sensitive to the music. She is just incredibly delightful.
"That's what makes this lady a threat in the future when she learns to finish the triples," Barton continued. "She could do it, but right now she is at that stage of doubt and feeling of insecurity and it's a normal process. But she will get it, and when she does, she leaps from middle of the pack to top of the mountain. Because everything else is so darn good."
Next stop Latvia
The JGP moves to Riga this week for the third stop of the season. Rion Sumiyoshi, Rino Matsuike and Kao Miura will represent Japan at the competition.
One of the contenders for a medal in Latvia will be South Korea's Lee Hae-in, who placed third and fourth in her two JGPs last season. Ice Time was very impressed with her skating last year.
Hongo taking a hiatus
Veteran Rika Hongo has made a late decision not to compete this season despite having had a new free skate ("Ghost in the Shell") choreographed for her by Shae-Lynn Bourne.
Hongo, who will turn 23 this week, sent a message to her fan club last week saying that she had decided to sit this season out to rest.
The move comes as a surprise, as the Vancouver-based Hongo was in good spirits and looking forward to the upcoming campaign when Ice Time spoke with her earlier this summer.
Tarasova talks coaching
Legendary coach Tatiana Tarasova had some interesting comments in a recent interview with Russian website rsport.ria.ru, that were translated into English and posted on fs-gossips.com, when asked about retaining skaters who are thinking about changing coaches.
"The solution here is the same — continuously improve your coaching level," Tarasova stated. "There is no other way. A coach is a person who should develop and (an) athlete, he should be interested in him all the time.
"He must know more, be able to explain why he takes this or that music for the program, where it was born, what was previously choreographed to it," Tarasova added. "Our sport is a continuous creativity.
"The athlete, of course, must know his weekly plan, but each lesson, the mood of the training should be different. Sometimes fun, sometimes tough, but always interesting."