Rika Kihira lands two triple Axels, with Shoma Uno makes it Japan sweep at NHK

Leave a comment

Rika Kihira has arrived on the senior Grand Prix.

Kihira, 16, became the first woman to land two fully rotated triple Axels in one program on the top senior international level since Mao Asada at the 2010 Olympics and the youngest Japanese skater to win a Grand Prix since Kanako Murakami, also in 2010.

Kihira leaped from fifth after Friday’s short program to win NHK Trophy in Hiroshima on Saturday, beating winners of two of the first three Grand Prix events — Japanese Satoko Miyahara and Russian Elizaveta Tuktamysheva. It was her senior Grand Prix debut.

Kihira’s free-skate and total scores (154.72 and 224.31, boosted by an opening triple Axel-triple toe loop combination and standalone triple Axel) rank second in the world this season behind Olympic champion Alina Zagitova, whom she will likely face at December’s Grand Prix Final.

Kihira came into NHK as a wild card. Eighth at last season’s junior worlds, she won her senior international debut in September with two triple Axels in her free at a lower-level event. She fell on an under-rotated triple Axel in Friday’s short program, putting her six points behind Tuktamysheva and training partner Miyahara.

“Yesterday there were some concerns about my triple Axel, but in the morning practice I checked on my Axel, and this was reflected in my performance,” Kihira said, according to the International Skating Union. “After the short program I wasn’t sure if I could come back and be here today. The mistake motivated me today, but I didn’t imagine I could get such a high score.”

Tuktamysheva, the only other senior woman performing the triple Axel, turned out of her landing in Saturday’s free skate. Miyahara had two under-rotated jumps and an edge call, but passed the Russian for silver by .45. Mariah Bell was the top American in fifth.

Kihira still has maturing to do, evidenced by ceding four points to the elegant Miyahara in artistic marks.

“[Kihira] is working very hard on the artistry, because I want her to become a very beautiful lady skater with triple Axel and quad,” the Japanese stars’ coach, Mie Hamadasaid last month. “This year I am not planning to have quads in her programs, but I want beautiful edges, beautiful flow.”

NHK TROPHY: Results | TV/Stream Schedule

Shoma Uno won the men’s event for a Japanese singles sweep. The Olympic and world silver medalist attempted six quads between two programs, with a fall and missed combination in the short program and some messy landings in the free.

He totaled 276.45 points and remains ranked third in the world this season behind Yuzuru Hanyu and Nathan Chen, whom he will likely face at the Grand Prix Final.

Russian Sergei Voronov took silver, 22.17 points back, followed by Matteo Rizzo, the first Italian man to earn a Grand Prix singles medal. U.S. Olympian Vincent Zhou was fourth, then revealed on social media that he was off skates the week before with a dislocated shoulder.

Earlier Saturday, Russians Natalya Zabiyako and Alexander Enbert and Chinese Peng Cheng and Jin Yang qualified for the Grand Prix Final by going one-two in pairs. U.S. Olympians Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim improved from fourth after Friday’s short to take bronze, their first Grand Prix medal in three years.

Zabiyako and Enbert, who were seventh at the Olympics, won back-to-back Grand Prix events and rank second in the world this season behind French Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres, who were not in the NHK field. None of the Olympic medalists are competing on the Grand Prix series.

Russians Tiffany Zahorski and Jonathan Guerreiro topped the rhythm dance with 75.49 points. U.S. couples Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker and Rachel Parsons and Michael Parsons are in second and third, respectively, going into Sunday’s free dance.

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. GO HERE to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season…NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Bradie Tennell working to hammer home jumps

2021 Burton U.S. Open snowboarding event canceled

Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Burton U.S. Open, snowboarding’s most storied event, canceled its 2021 competition due to uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

“The truth is, we just can’t be sure it will be safe from a public health standpoint for us to host the event in 2021,” a statement read.

The U.S. Open, held since 1982, is usually around the first weekend in March, making it the season-ending event for many riders. Halfpipe champions include Shaun WhiteChloe KimKelly Clark and Ross Powers, who also earned Olympic gold medals.

Other 2020-21 winter sports events affected by the coronavirus pandemic include figure skating’s Junior Grand Prix. The first two stops of that eight-event series, scheduled for late August and early September in Canada and Slovakia, have been canceled.

The Italian Winter Sports Federation, which is due to put on the February 2021 World Alpine Skiing Championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, made a formal request on Monday to postpone the event until March 2022, one month after the next Winter Olympics in Beijing. The International Ski Federation (FIS) council will decide July 1.

MORE: Takeaways from abbreviated 2019-20 winter sports season

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Kara Eaker eschews fear, back on balance beam to resume Olympic quest

Kara Eaker
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Kara Eaker hasn’t qualified for an Olympics yet, but she is already part of a historic club of U.S. gymnasts. The list goes, most recently, Eaker, Simone BilesKyla RossAly RaismanNastia LiukinShawn JohnsonShannon Miller and Dominique Dawes.

Those are the women who qualified for back-to-back balance beam finals at the sport’s highest level: Olympics or world championships. For Eaker (pronounced like acre), they came in her first two years as a senior gymnast in 2018 and 2019 (Biles and Johnson are the only other U.S. women to do that in the last 25 years.)

This was supposed to be Eaker’s Olympic year, but the coronavirus pandemic postponed the Games to 2021, after her Missouri high school graduation. It also kept her out of the gym for nearly two months until the GAGE Center reopened last week in Blue Springs, near Kansas City.

It was the longest Eaker had been off a regulation beam (and out of the gym) since she could remember. She began competing at age 5.

Eaker’s mom, Katherine, said her daughter never feared the four-inch-wide beam, but Eaker said the thought of returning last week “was definitely kind of scary at first.” That is, until one of her coaches eased her back with basics and work on a floor beam, one that’s not raised as high as the four feet you see in competition.

“By the time we were ready, and she was comfortable putting us back up there, it wasn’t scary,” Eaker said. “It felt normal.”

Eaker, adopted from a Chinese orphanage around age 1 in 2003 (her parents’ travel then delayed by SARS), excels on the senior elite stage with a level of normalcy.

Which is not entirely normal in this sport. She lives with her family, 10 minutes from her world-class gym. She still attends regular high school. She’s committed to continue gymnastics at the University of Utah after the Tokyo Olympics.

“I started out in dance, actually,” said Eaker, whose hobbies include robotics and calligraphy. “A little, little girl with the stuffed animal, twirling around in the dance room. And then we had our little recital and I just wasn’t … I couldn’t do the standing in front of an audience kind of thing.”

Her mom believes it was around Christmas. Eaker was 3 or 4.

“She just froze like a deer in the headlights, and all the other girls froze, too, because they were used to following her,” Katherine said. “Then she tried gymnastics. We had to drag her out [of the gym]. From then on, it was always, she’s first one in, last one out. Still is.”

The family, including Eaker’s father, Mark, retired Navy and a flight engineer, and younger sister, Sara, moved three times within Missouri in part to get Kara closer to GAGE to pursue what would eventually become an Olympic dream.

Gymnastics meets were appointment TV before Eaker entered kindergarten. She watched the Beijing Olympics, or perhaps an even earlier meet, while dancing around the living room in a leotard. Sometimes she mimicked the gold medalists by doing back bends. She continued to watch Beijing highlights, with Liukin and Johnson, on replay on YouTube.

Back at the gym, Eaker developed with the help of her coaches, plus future University of Nebraska gymnast Catelyn Orel, her “gym mom” under the GAGE program to pair older and younger athletes. Orel was a state champion on beam. Eaker proved a natural, too.

“A lot of the girls would get up there and have trouble balancing, but she just always seemed to do it just like she was on the floor,” her mom said. “She’s never really had a fear. Some girls get up there and are nervous. She just never seemed to be that way.”

In 2018, Eaker was 15, old enough to start competing on the senior level with the likes of Biles. Exactly 10 years after she would have watched Johnson win the Beijing Olympic beam title, Eaker finished second on beam at nationals behind Biles. She was invited to the world championships team selection camp, where she had the top beam score and placed sixth in the all-around. Six gymnasts would be chosen by a committee to travel to the world championships.

Eaker didn’t expect to make the team. In a large meeting with coaches and staff, the roster was announced. Eaker made it as the youngest member.

“It was a goal, but there were so many other girls and it was my first year as a senior,” she said. “I was very happy and surprised to make that team.”

Eaker again won beam at the 2019 World Championships selection camp. If Eaker endured adversity those first two years, it came at worlds.

In 2018, she fell on her mount in the beam final. The rest of her routine was medal-worthy gymnastics. She waited an eternal three minutes for her score, which placed her sixth. Eaker’s routine from the team final earlier that week would have earned silver.

In 2019, Eaker again qualified for the eight-woman beam final. The U.S. federation submitted an inquiry on her qualifying score, contesting a lower start value given to her. That backfired. Judges lowered Eaker’s score even more upon review, which took her out of the final. However, another gymnast who had qualified later withdrew due to injury. Eaker was back in the final, where she placed fourth.

She was asked afterward what she would take away from the meet.

“Just the experience of it all,” she said, composed. “How it makes me feel. How to use that [in the future].”

In 2021, Eaker will have to prove to a selection committee that she can be reliable on all four apparatuses. The Olympic team event size is four — with three gymnasts going per apparatus in the Olympic final — down from five in 2016, putting a greater emphasis on the all-around. Eaker could also be a candidate for one separate spot in individual events only.

“I definitely want to be seen as a great beam worker, but I also need to be a great all-arounder because they’re going to be looking at not just your one event,” said Eaker, who was third in the all-around at the 2019 Worlds selection camp. “You have to be able to benefit the team with your other events, even if they aren’t as strong as your [best] one.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Laurie Hernandez, Maggie Haney react to coach’s suspension