AP Photo

New Japanese phenom Rika Kihira more than a new Miss Triple Axel

Leave a comment

After popping her triple Axel in the Internationaux de France short program, Rika Kihira, the new Japanese phenom, promised she would “double check” her trademark jump the next day, for her free skate.

The 16-year-old hit in morning practice, both by itself and in combination with a triple toe loop, a feat she was the first and still the only one in the world to accomplish. When she took the ice for competition in Grenoble for her free skate, she was determined to land it twice.

She did hit it to open the skate, but it was deemed underrotated, and she could only land a double Axel-triple toe combination instead of the planned triple-triple.

“I couldn’t condition my body well,” Kihira said apologetically, through an interpreter.

She nonetheless won the Grand Prix two weeks ago in the same, come-from-behind fashion she captured NHK Trophy on home ice two weeks earlier.

The triple Axel is far from Kihira’s only weapon. The triple flip-triple toe she landed in her short was also the mark of a great champion, as she landed it not only perfectly, but at full speed.

But still, Kihira was not satisfied with her performance.

“I did what I could, really. My muscles were not adjusting to the competition,” she said, unassumingly. “I’ll work to score a new personal best at the Final.”

Kihira goes into this week’s Grand Prix Final with the highest score of the six-skater field from the Grand Prix season. If anybody is to knock off Olympic champion Alina Zagitova, Kihira has the highest ceiling.

Mastering a triple Axel made Kihira an instant hit in Japan.

“Her reputation was more or less sleeping until three weeks ago, but her clear-cut victory [at NHK] in Hiroshima made her one of Japan’s hottest persons,” a Japanese agent said. “She gives a good face to what Japanese skating will be in the future.”

Kihira has not always been a skating sensation, however.

“When she came to me some five years ago, Rika couldn’t perform any triple jumps,” said her coach, Mie Hamada. “But she already had a high potential, however, and I saw it right away. Rika could run fast. She practiced gymnastics so she had developed a good upper body – in fact the only thing she couldn’t do was skating.

“The first thing I did was not to increase her rotational speed; it was to center her body correctly in the air as she was jumping. When she mastered it, I could start teaching her triples.

“If I compare Rika with Satoko Miyahara [Hamada’s other star pupil], Satoko doesn’t have strong jumping capabilities, so I taught her to rotate faster. Rika has a stronger jumping ability. She already has a quadruple jump [though not yet landed in competition]. Actually, the first day I saw her skate, five years ago, I was convinced that she could master a triple Axel.”

Miyahara, also in the Grand Prix Final, has been instrumental for Kihira.

“She not only is a hard worker,” Kihira said. “She helped me consider how to deal with competition. I always watched how she trained.”

When Kihira skates, she achieves a subtle balance between the incredible strength of her jumps and an equally impressive inner peace.

“Until last year, I couldn’t show my strength in competition,” said Kihira, an impressive third at last season’s Japanese senior championships and eighth at junior worlds. “I just built upon the experience I got. Each time I was losing my focus or making a mistake, I tried not to repeat my mistakes.”

Only two Japanese women have won the exclusive Grand Prix Final since its inception: Fumie Suguri (2003) and Asada (2005, 2008, 2012, 2013). Kihira could very well succeed them. Just like Asada, with that triple Axel.

“I don’t want to put too much forces into jumping,” Hamada said. “Just hit them at the right time and relax. This is true for jumps, but also for spins and every movement. Just make it natural. Also, I like to feel the edges. No noise. No sound. Even for as technical an element as a triple Axel, skate natural.”

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 to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating 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: Yuzuru Hanyu withdraws from Grand Prix Final

Ginny Fuchs hopes to emerge from OCD, tearful Olympic experience

Getty Images
Leave a comment

None of the boxers at this week’s U.S. Olympic Trials competed at a prior Olympics, but flyweight Ginny Fuchs remembers the specifics of her one Olympic experience in Rio.

Fuchs, who won the 2016 Olympic trials but failed to clinch a spot at the Games in international qualifiers, was nonetheless named team captain and brought to Rio as a sparring partner.

She had mixed feelings. Watching from the crowd as Claressa Shields repeated as Olympic champion on the final day of the Games was motivating. Fuchs had toyed with turning professional but, after talking to Shields, decided to forge another four years as an amateur for another chance to become an Olympian.

The Rio Olympic Opening Ceremony, two weeks before that Shields final, was too much for Fuchs to bear. She could not stay in the Athletes’ Village nor march with the U.S. delegation at the Maracana.

“I remember watching the Opening Ceremony at the place I was at with everybody,” she said. “I couldn’t watch. It was hard for me to watch. I went back to my room, cried and went to bed.”

Fuchs is favored to win the 51kg/112-pound division this week at Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino in Lake Charles, La., with finals streaming live on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app on Sunday (4-7 p.m. ET). It’s one of five women’s Olympic weight classes, up from three in 2012 and 2016, the first two editions of the Games for female boxers.

No boxer can clinch an Olympic spot this week, but failing to make a final would all but end Tokyo hopes.

Fuchs’ toughest opponent in this Olympic cycle — which included an undefeated 2017 and a 2018 World bronze medal among more than 130 fights — may be herself. Fuchs has been open about struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

It started in fifth grade.

“I can remember the first time I was on the school bus, and I was looking at the ground and looking at everybody’s backpacks on the floor,” said Fuchs, a 31-year-old from the Houston area. “And an instant thought came in mind, like, Oh my god. Everybody’s backpack is getting contaminated by this dirty floor on the bus.”

She cited a more recent example: spending up to 40 minutes washing her hands searching for that “perfect clean feeling.” Fuchs found boxing via a boyfriend after she was kicked off the LSU cross-country running team as a freshman walk-on for damaging school property in a prank.

She said the disorder hit her hardest this year. In January, she was driving to a Walmart three times a day to buy cleaning supplies, according to The New York Times.

She underwent intensive therapy and skipped October’s world championships, where she could have established herself as a clear Olympic gold-medal favorite.

“I still am going to probably do therapy for the rest of my life,” Fuchs said. “Maybe not as intense as I’m doing it right now, but it’s almost like training for boxing.

“You’ve got to keep training to keep winning in boxing. So I’ve got to keep training my OCD thoughts and how to handle and manage it. … Boxing is giving me hope almost. Like OK, outside the ring and in my room and the bathroom, I feel like [OCD] controls me and feel trapped. But I have this environment in this space in the gym, in the boxing ring, where I can be myself. And not let it attack me in a way where I can still enjoy life and not be trapped.”

Should Fuchs make the final of her division in Lake Charles, she will advance to a January camp and tournament, after which the U.S. roster for Olympic qualifying will be named.

If selected, Fuchs would head to a North and South American Olympic qualifying event in early spring in Buenos Aires to clinch the spot she could not secure four years ago. If necessary, she could get a second chance at a global qualifier in May in Paris.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: IOC strips Olympic status from boxing body AIBA

Yulia Efimova has lawyer ready if Russia ban affects her

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Yulia Efimova, the Russian swimmer who earned two Rio Olympic silver medals after initially being excluded from the Games for serving a prior doping ban, is bracing for another legal fight after the latest sanctions against her nation.

On Monday, Russia was banned from the 2020 and 2022 Olympics and the next four years of world championships in Olympic sports due to more recent anti-doping violations. However, its athletes can still compete as neutrals, if meeting specific anti-doping criteria, similar to how they did at the PyeongChang Winter Games.

Efimova was initially barred from the Rio Olympics under an IOC mandate that any Russian who previously served a doping ban would be ineligible due to the country’s anti-doping violations at that time.

Efimova appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which ruled that IOC stipulation unenforceable. She went on to earn 100m and 200m breaststroke silver medals and develop a rivalry with American Lilly King, who said Efimova should not have been eligible.

It’s unclear from Monday’s ruling whether Efimova will be allowed to compete as a neutral, should Russia accept the sanctions or any appeal to CAS by the nation be denied.

“I will behave in a similar way,” to 2016, Efimova said, according to RT.com. “I have already hired a lawyer. There is a rule that a person can’t be punished twice for the same offense. If you violate a driving code or instigated a brawl you will not be punished twice for that. I hope it will work, but I cannot be sure of [a positive outcome].

“Right after my race at the Rio Games, I said that this doping controversy was not over, it was just the beginning, and we would have problems in the future. It was quite clear. And with every new year the situation is only getting worse and worse.”

Efimova, 27 and the two-time reigning world 200m breast champion, was banned 16 months between 2013 and 2015 after testing positive for a steroid. A FINA panel ruled that Efimova was not intentionally trying to cheat but was negligent in failing to read the label of a GNC store supplement.

“Yes, long ago I made a doping violation,” Efimova said this week, according to RT. “But there are a great number of U.S. and European athletes who have a similar situation regarding doping, and they are competing without any restrictions. If you want to introduce those regulations, they must be equally applied to all athletes, not only Russian competitors.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Dressel recalls summer tears in Golden Goggles speech