Figure Skating | ICE TIME

Shoma Uno, juniors steal show at Japan Championships

by Jack Gallagher

Last week’s Japan Championships provided a mixed bag for skating fans. There was some very good skating and some not so good.

It was great to see Japan’s three male Olympic medalists (Yuzuru Hanyu, Shoma Uno, Daisuke Takahashi) all together in the same competition, but significant issues for some skaters became evident.

Uno skated off with his fourth straight national title with a steady performance, while Hanyu came undone in his free skate with an uncharacteristically poor effort.

Uno has to be saluted for coming in as the underdog after spending most of the season without a coach and prevailing over his chief rival.

“I know it was not his best skate, but still to top him was one of my big goals in my skating life as I was always looking up to him,” Uno commented after his victory over Hanyu. “This result is maybe just a coincidence, but still it means a lot to me.”

Hanyu, skating in his third event in one month, was likely exhausted by the time the free skate rolled around and his rough outing opened the door for Uno to triumph. So not too much should be read into this result.

“I felt like my body was deteriorating day by day,” Hanyu noted following the loss. “After missing the lutz, I was thinking hard about where I could make it up, but I just did not have the physical strength to recover.”

Both Uno and Hanyu were sublime in their short programs, setting the stage for what looked like a real battle in the free skate. But when Hanyu had trouble from the outset of his long program, the drama quickly diminished.

Hanyu showed he has a champion’s heart by electing to participate in the Four Continents in February in Seoul, where he will compete against Uno and possibly Nathan Chen. Hanyu clearly wants to get right back on the ice and re-establish his supremacy, rather than just training for three months while waiting for the worlds.

Ice Time believes this is a good move by the two-time Olympic champion.

After missing out on a medal at the Junior Grand Prix Final earlier in the month, Yuma Kagiyama bounced back to come in third behind Uno and Hanyu with an outstanding free skate. The 16-year-old became the first junior man to medal at senior nationals since Uno in 2014.

Kagiyama’s fellow junior and friend Shun Sato, who won the JGP Final, showed the home crowd what he is capable of with a fine effort in the short program. The 15-year-old Sato ended up fifth in the final standings.

With Hanyu and Uno still in their primes, the present looks great for Japan. With Kagiyama and Sato on their way up, the future also appears very promising for the Hinomaru.

It is a pity that Takahashi could not have had a better sendoff in his final competition as a singles skater. But more than his skating, Ice Time will always remember the courage he showed by putting himself out there in the spotlight once again.

Takahashi’s legend in the sport is secure, and he could have easily remained retired and rested on his laurels. But by taking the more difficult path, Takahashi’s greatness has been burnished even further.

Kihira stands alone

Rika Kihira, who won her first senior national title, is the clear class of the women’s field at this point. There is a significant dropoff after her, however.

Kihira has been working on a quadruple salchow in practice this season, but has yet to try it in competition. If Kihira is going to challenge the young Russians for the world title in 2020, she is going to have to go for it.

Wakaba Higuchi put on a respectable showing in finishing second to make the podium at nationals for the first time in three years. Higuchi has been landing a triple axel in training, but did not try it at the nationals. She is going to need to land the difficult jump soon to remain relevant on the world stage.

Tomoe Kawabata showed the true beauty of her skating in becoming the first junior female to medal at nationals since Higuchi took second in 2015. The 17-year-old Kawabata reminds Ice Time of 1968 Olympic champion Peggy Fleming with her ability to skate smoothly and interpret artistically.

Kawabata has struggled with inconsistency at times during her junior career, but when she puts it all together, the dynamism in her skating really resonates.

Satoko Miyahara’s outlook for the future is very unclear. Presuming that Japan will have three places for the women at the 2022 Beijing Olympics, I have a tough time envisioning Miyahara making the team.

She was very fortunate to come in fourth at nationals and be given a spot on the team for the worlds. The feeling here is that she is getting by on reputation now. It is hard to imagine her improving markedly in the next couple of years while being challenged by younger competition that is getting better.

Kaori Sakamoto came in a disappointing sixth place and admitted that the absence of training partner and best friend Mai Mihara has made it difficult for her to find motivation this season. Sakamoto’s best trait has always been her guts, and she is going to need them to get back on top again.

Lambiel’s impact profound

Coach and choreographer Stephane Lambiel must be considered one of the stars of the nationals, even though he didn’t skate.

The two-time world champion was an enthusiastic mentor to Uno, who has chosen to train full time with him in 2020, and also arranged both of Kawabata’s programs (“The Blue Danube” and “Yumeji’s Theme”) this season.

Uno will relocate to Switzerland to train with Lambiel next year, which should also have a positive impact on Koshiro Shimada, who has been a part of Lambiel’s stable the past few years.

With Kawabata currently training under Yutaka Higuchi and Yukina Ota at the Meiji Jingu rink, one has to wonder if an eventual move to join Lambiel might be in the cards for the teen, who turns 18 next month.

More kudos for Eteri

Laura Lipetsky, the coach of U.S. champion Alysa Liu, had high praise for Russian mentor Eteri Tutberidze in a recent interview with sport-express.ru that was translated into English and posted on fs-gossips.com.

When Lipetsky was asked who is an idol or a truly great skating coach, her answer was very clear.

“Eteri. She prepared a lot of really cool skaters, and not just one bright student,” Lipetsky stated. “In the USA, Tutberidze is well known. And I really respect Eteri for how she started her career from scratch, coaching almost everyone who came to her.

“She became famous by bring up Polina Shelepen from a young age and later (Evgenia) Medvedeva, and not just beautifully packed prepared girls and presented them as holiday gifts.”

Lipetsky was questioned about Eteri’s contention that quads are not killing the beauty of women’s skating.

“I agree with her. Quads do not kill women’s skating, but make it more exciting,” Lipetsky remarked. “If some girls can do them, why shouldn’t they? Plus, as soon as quadruples become easier for skaters, they will have the opportunity to develop other aspects of their skating.

“Think of Yuzuru Hanyu and Nathan Chen when they included a large number of quadruple jumps into their programs,” Lipetsky continued. “Before their skating was not at all as amazing as it is now. That same thing is happening with the girls now.”

Shibutani receives diagnosis

Japanese-American ice dancer Maia Shibutani, who had surgery to remove a tumor from one of her kidneys earlier this month, provided an update Sunday on Instagram.

“I got my pathology report back — the tumor that was successfully removed was unfortunately malignant (cancer). (SDH)-deficient renal cell carcinoma,” Shibutani wrote. “This wasn’t the news I was hoping for, but I am beyond thankful that it was detected early and that my surgery went well. No further treatment is required at this time — the next steps are for me to continue focusing on recovering and healing.”

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