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

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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.

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April Ross, Alix Klineman back atop Olympic beach volleyball qualifying

April Ross, Alix Klineman
FIVB World Tour
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Two-time Olympic medalist April Ross and new partner Alix Klineman moved back on top of the U.S. Olympic beach volleyball qualifying standings by winning an event in Itapema, Brazil this week.

Ross, who split from Kerri Walsh Jennings in 2017, and Klineman beat Canadians Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes 25-23, 18-21, 15-10 in Sunday’s final for their third title in 11 FIVB World Tour tournaments together.

“Every victory is important, but this counts for more,” Klineman said, according to the FIVB. “We want to send a message and we want to be consistently the best.

Ross and Klineman supplanted Walsh Jennings and her new partner, Brooke Sweat, for the lead in the early U.S. Olympic qualifying rankings with still more than a year of events ahead.

1. Ross/Klineman – 3,240 (5 events played)
2. Walsh Jennings/Sweat – 3,100 (7 events)
3. Day/Flint – 2,180 (5 events)
4. Hughes/Ross — 2,000 (4 events)
5. Larsen/Stockman — 1,840 (5 events)
6. Sponcil/Claes — 1,600 (3 events)

Each team’s 12 best results from Sept. 1, 2018, to June 14, 2020, go into the Olympic qualifying rankings. That means Ross and Klineman are comfortably in front, having played two fewer events than Walsh Jennings and Sweat, who lost in the quarterfinals in Itapema.

The top two U.S. pairs come June 15, 2020, provided they’re ranked high enough internationally, will qualify for Tokyo. Most of the qualifying events, including the ones with the most points available, are still to come this summer.

Ross, 36, picked up Klineman, 29, after Walsh Jennings didn’t join her in signing a domestic AVP contract in 2017. The 6-foot-5 Klineman primarily played indoor the previous decade, including at Stanford from 2007-10 after being the Gatorade National Player of the Year coming out of high school.

MORE: Brazil volleyball star faints during courtside interview

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Katie Ledecky extends 5-year win streak

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Katie Ledecky extended a five-year domestic win streak by taking the 200m freestyle at the Tyr Pro Swim Series at Bloomington on Saturday.

In her last full meet before July’s world championships, Ledecky clocked 1:55.80 to beat training partner Simone Manuel by 1.44 seconds for her second win in as many days. Ledecky is also entered in Sunday’s 800m free on the last day of the meet.

Ledecky, who also cruised to a 400m free victory on Friday, ranks third in the world in the 200m free this year, behind Australian Ariarne Titmus and Swede Sarah Sjöström (the Olympic silver medalist who is not expected to race the 200m free at worlds).

Ledecky, a five-time Olympic champion, hasn’t lost a 200m, 400m, 800m or 1500m free final at a domestic meet since Allison Schmitt beat her in a 200m free on Jan. 18, 2014 when Ledecky was 16 years old.

BLOOMINGTON: Full Results

But Ledecky lost the two biggest 200m frees of this Olympic cycle so far, at the 2017 World Championships and the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships. Italian veteran Federica Pellegrini handed Ledecky her first individual final defeat at a major international meet at 2017 Worlds.

Ledecky dropped to third in the 200m free at Pan Pacs in Tokyo last year, beaten by younger swimmers Taylor Ruck of Canada and Rikako Ikee of Japan.

Ruck, who like Ledecky trains at Stanford, is in Bloomington, but she chose not to swim the 200m free on Saturday. She instead swam the 200m backstroke about 45 minutes after the 200m free and was upset by 17-year-old Regan Smith. Smith won in 2:06.47, moving to No. 3 in the world this year.

In other events Saturday, Ella Eastin captured the 400m individual medley in 4:37.18, taking 1.25 seconds off her personal best and moving to fifth in the world this year. Eastin is not on the world championships team after an untimely bout with mono before qualifying meets last summer.

Blake Pieroni won the men’s 200m free in 1:47.25. No American ranks in the top 20 in the world this year. World silver medalist Townley Haas did not enter Bloomington.

MORE: Olympic breaststroke champion faces ban for missed drug tests

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