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 Hamada, said last month. “This year I am not planning to have quads in her programs, but I want beautiful edges, beautiful flow.”
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.
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