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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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Chloe Kim makes it five straight wins with Dew Tour title

Chloe Kim
Dew Tour
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Chloe Kim capped one of the greatest years in snowboarding history by repeating as Dew Tour champion in Breckenridge, Colo., on Sunday.

The 18-year-old PyeongChang gold medalist won a modified halfpipe contest with a 94.67-point first run on a course that combines slopestyle features with a halfpipe. She beat a field that included Olympic silver and bronze medalists Liu Jiayu and Arielle Gold.

Kim has won five straight contests — the X Games in January, the Olympics in February, the U.S. Open in March and, to open this season, victories the last two weekends. No other rider won the X Games, Olympics and U.S. Open in one year.

Kim decided to compete this season rather than enroll in college. She tweeted in March that she was accepted to Princeton.

She is expected to go for a fourth X Games Aspen title in five years next month, which would tie her for second all-time among women behind Kelly Clark, who has six halfpipe crowns.

The retired Gretchen Bleiler also won four X Games golds. Clark, a 35-year-old, five-time Olympian, said last month that she was undecided if she will compete again.

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Brittany Bowe grabs 20th World Cup win, ascends U.S. all-time list

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Olympic bronze medalist Brittany Bowe grabbed her third World Cup win this season and the 20th of her career, moving into solo fifth place on the U.S. all-time list on Sunday.

Bowe, whose PyeongChang medal came in the team pursuit, won a 1000m in Heerenveen, Netherlands, in 1:13.24, beating a field including Olympic silver and bronze medalists Nao Kodaira and Miho Takagi of Japan. She broke her own track record by .66 at the sport’s hallowed Thialf.

“That was one of the most perfect races I’ve skated this far, and I couldn’t be happier to do it here in Thialf,” Bowe said, according to the International Skating Union. “Every stroke was right, no missteps. This was definitely one of the best races in my career.”

Bowe earned a medal of every color in two days of racing in Heerenveen, adding to her 500m bronze and 1500m silver on Saturday. Bowe leads the season standings in the 1000m and is third in the 500m and 1500m.

There are two stops left this season — Hamar, Norway, in February and Salt Lake City in March, with the world championships in between.

“The real show is in February [at words],” Bowe said.

Bowe is returning from a July 2016 concussion that affected her for the entire 2016-17 season, including blood-pressure issues and fainting spells.

She returned in full for the 2017-18 Olympic season but did not make an individual podium between the World Cups and the Olympics, missing a 1000m medal in PyeongChang by .38 and in the 1500m by .28.

Before the concussion, Bowe in 2015 earned world titles and broke world records in the 1000m and 1500m.

On Sunday, the former Florida Atlantic basketball player passed three-time Olympic medalist Chris Witty for fifth on the U.S. World Cup wins list behind Bonnie Blair (69), Shani Davis (58), Dan Jansen (46) and Heather Bergsma (34), according to schaatsstatistieken.nl.

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