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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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Brooke Raboutou is first U.S. Olympic sport climbing qualifier

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Brooke Raboutou, 18, became the first American to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics in sport climbing by reaching Tuesday’s combined final at the world championships in Hachioji, Japan, USA Climbing confirmed.

She qualified ninth into that final.

Raboutou, the daughter of two world-class climbers who has competed since age 7, became the seventh American across all sports to qualify for the 2020 Olympics after three open-water swimmers, two modern pentathletes and a triathlete.

Olympic sport climbing will feature one set of medals per gender, the event combining three disciplines: lead, speed and bouldering.

From Tokyo 2020: Speed climbing pits two climbers against each other, both climbing a fixed route on a 15-meter wall at a 95-degree angle. Winning times are generally between five and eight seconds. In bouldering, climbers scale a number of fixed routes on a four-meter wall in a specified time without safety ropes. In lead climbing, athletes attempt to climb as high as possible on a wall measuring over 15 meters in height within a fixed time with safety ropes.

A nation can qualify up to two athletes per gender into Olympic sport climbing.

The sport debuted at the Youth Olympics in 2018 in Buenos Aires, but no Americans were entered.

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Danielle Williams cemented as world No. 1 hurdler in Birmingham

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The 100m hurdles has been one of the U.S.’ deepest events the last several years, but Jamaican Danielle Williams looks like the favorite at the world championships in early October.

Williams, who owns the world’s fastest time this year, easily beat world-record holder Kendra Harrison and Olympic champion Brianna McNeal at a Diamond League meet in Birmingham, Great Britain, on Sunday.

Williams crossed in 12.46 seconds despite hitting her knee on one hurdle, but still two tenths clear of Harrison, whose world record is 12.20. It marked Harrison’s first loss in nine meets this year and the first time a non-American has ever beaten her at a Diamond League stop.

It looked like Williams wouldn’t make it to worlds in Doha when she false started out of the Jamaican Championships. But the final was soon after strangely canceled, and Jamaican media reported last week that Williams, the 2015 World champion who failed to make the Rio Olympics, is eligible to be chosen next month by the federation.

The U.S. had at least the two fastest women in the world each of the previous six years. Then Williams re-emerged with a Jamaican record 12.32 on July 20.

The meet airs Monday on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA at 4 p.m. ET and NBCSN at 7 p.m. ET. The Diamond League moves to Paris on Saturday.

In other events Sunday, Olympic 400m champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo overtook Brit Dina Asher-Smith and Jamaican Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce in the 200m in 22.24. Miller-Uibo extended her unbeaten streak to two years across all distances.

It appears Miller-Uibo will not be racing the 200m at worlds, given it overlaps with the 400m. She ranks third in the world this year at the shorter distance, trailing Jamaican Olympic champion Elaine Thompson, who clocked 22.00 on June 23 but was not in Sunday’s field. Miller-Uibo has ranked No. 1 at 400m four straight years.

Yohan Blake won the 100m in 10.07 seconds, holding off Brit Adam Gemili, who had the same time with a 2 meter/second tailwind. Blake, the second-fastest man in history with a personal best of 9.69, hasn’t been the same since suffering a series of leg injuries starting in 2013.

Sunday’s field lacked the world championships favorites — Americans Christian Coleman and Justin Gatlin, who clocked 9.81 and 9.87 on June 30.

Surprise U.S. champion Teahna Daniels placed third in her Diamond League 100m debut, clocking 11.24 seconds. The field lacked world championships favorites Thompson and Fraser-Pryce, who each ran 10.73 at the Jamaican Championships on June 21.

American record holder Ajeé Wilson won an 800m that lacked all three Rio Olympic medalists, who are barred from racing the event due to the IAAF’s new testosterone cap in middle distances. Wilson’s time, 2:00.76, was far off her 2019 world-leading time of 1:57.72 among eligible women.

Olympic and world heptathlon champion Nafi Thiam broke the Belgian long jump record twice, winning with a 6.86-meter leap. That ranks ninth in the world this year. The field lacked the last two Olympic champions, Americans Tianna Bartoletta and Brittney Reese.

A meeting of the last two Olympic pole vault champs went to Rio gold medalist Katerina Stefanidi of Greece, who cleared 4.75 meters in swirling wind. London 2012 champ Jenn Suhr was third but remains No. 1 in the world this year with a 4.91-meter clearance from March 30.

Croatian Sandra Perkovic, the 2012 and 2016 Olympic discus champion, lost her third straight Diamond League meet to start the season as she returns from injury. Perkovic, who placed third behind winner Cuban Yaimé Pérez, had not lost in back-to-back meets since returning from a six-month doping ban in 2011, according to Tilastopaja.org.

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