For a second straight year, a first-year senior figure skater swept through the Grand Prix season. This time, it’s Japanese 16-year-old Rika Kihira, who beat Olympic champion Alina Zagitova at the Grand Prix Final on Saturday.
Kihira landed triple Axels in both programs in Vancouver, totaling 233.12 points to relegate Zagitova to silver by 6.59. Kihira was eighth at the world junior championships in March, 15 days after Zagitova became the second-youngest Olympic women’s singles gold medalist.
“Last season and the season before that, I had many failures,” Kihira said through a translator. “I promised myself that I would remember them and never repeat those mistakes again. … Before this season, the Grand Prix Final was not at all in my mind.”
Kihira and Zagitova each had one major mistake in Saturday’s free skate.
Kihira put two hands down on the ice landing her opening triple Axel, before hitting a triple Axel-double toe loop combination. Zagitova singled the back end of a planned triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination and was outscored by 2.01 points for the night, adding to a 4.58-point deficit from Thursday’s short program.
“The first senior season is easier than the second one, because when you go out the first time, there are no expectations,” Zagitova, who suffered the second loss of her two-year senior career, said through a translator. “Now, there are more expectations, and I have to learn to deal with my nerves.”
Later Saturday, Canadian figure skating official Ted Barton said that Zagitova was “close to withdrawing” just before the free skate after injuring her foot tripping over a TV cable (h/t @olyphil). A Russian figure skating official downplayed the injury, according to TASS.
Another Russian, Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, took bronze, stepping out of her triple Axel landing on Saturday.
Kihira, who came into the Final with the highest score of the Grand Prix season and was thus a medal favorite, joined Mao Asada and Fumie Suguri as Japanese women to win the event, the second-biggest annual international competition.
The Final takes the top six skaters per discipline from the fall Grand Prix Series and is a preview of sorts for March’s world championships.
Kihira ascended this season largely on the strength of her jumps, winning all four of her events while cleanly landing four of her eight triple Axel attempts. Kihira and Tuktamysheva were the only women to perform the difficult jump on the Grand Prix circuit.
“It was my goal for this season to get into the senior ranks,” Kihira said. “I’m really happy that all of my training has borne fruit, and, in any of the big competitions, I was able to perform and control my feelings.”
The U.S. put no women into the Grand Prix Final for a third straight year and last won a women’s title at the event in 2010 (Alissa Czisny), marking its longest droughts in both respects in the competition’s 24-year history.
Bradie Tennell, the top U.S. woman at the Olympics and March’s world championships (ninth and sixth), is also the top American this season as she looks to repeat as national champion next month. Tennell won two lower-level events this fall, including one in Croatia this week.
Grand Prix Final Women’s Results
Gold: Rika Kihira (JPN) — 233.12
Silver: Alina Zagitova (RUS) — 226.53
Bronze: Elizaveta Tuktamysheva (RUS) — 215.32
4. Kaori Sakamoto (JPN) — 211.68
5. Sofia Samodurova (RUS) — 204.33
6. Satoko Miyahara (JPN) — 201.31
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