That hoary old saying – “You can’t win a competition with a good short program, but you can lose it with a bad one” – proved only half-true on Friday night at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in Anaheim, Calif.
None of the four leaders after the short wound up on the podium. Rika Kihara, fifth in the short after popping her triple Axel, leapfrogged over Eunsoo Lim, Mariah Bell, Kaori Sakamoto and Bradie Tennell to win her first Four Continents title. Elizabet Tursynbaeva climbed from sixth place to win silver. Mai Mihara, eighth after the short, claimed bronze.
For Kihara, it included a lot of improvisation: she arrived in Anaheim wearing a new boot on her left foot, and an old boot on her right foot.
“I felt my old boots were too soft so I tried a lot of things,” the Japanese skater said through an interpreter. “I tried changing both boots, and then I decided to just change the left boot. Three days after I did this I was quite comfortable.”
The popped Axel cost her at least eight points in the short on Thursday, just as it did earlier this season at Grand Prix France. So in Friday’s free skate, she improvised again: After hitting a stellar opening triple Axel, she changed a planned second triple Axel to a double Axel-triple toe combination.
“During the short, I was not comfortable with my triple Axel on this rink,” Kihara said, echoing the concerns several skaters here voiced about the NHL-size surface. “I decided in the warm-up whether I would do one or two (triple Axels). I had not enough practice at the main rink, and I decided to play it safe in the program and did only one triple Axel.”
Kihara’s 153.14 point free skate, which gave her the win with 221.99 total points, wasn’t surprising; she has scored higher than that this season. Tursynbaeva’s 139.37 point free skate in Anaheim, though, far eclipsed her efforts in her two Grand Prix events.
The Kazakh skater chose Friday night to try her first-ever quadruple Salchow in competition. No lady has ever landed a quad in an international senior event.
Tursynbaeva landed the quad in practices here and in the six-minute warm-up, but fell on a fully-rotated attempt in her program. Despite a long-standing hip injury, she didn’t let it rattle her, going on to land seven triples including a triple Salchow-triple toe loop combination.
“I started working on quad Salchow a long time ago, and then I stopped because of the (hip) injury,” she said. “Now I was feeling physically ready and my coach [Eteri Tutberidze] helped me to start working on the jump. A few weeks ago I was able to land it and try to put the jump in the program. I think that’s a great start. It was my coaches’ idea. They believe that I can do it.”
Mihara arrived in Anaheim with something to prove. A fourth-place finish at the Japanese Figure Skating Championships in late December left her off of her country’s world team.
A sleepless night after her eighth-place short helped snap her out of a funk created by her subpar short, and she was relaxed and confident during her near-perfect free skate, which was second only to Kihara’s. She ended with 207.12 points, edging out Sakamoto – who defeated her at the Japanese Championships, thus winning a place at worlds – by less than half a point.
“I switched to a positive mindset after the practice (on Friday),” Mihara said. “Last season, there were a lot of cases when I made mistakes in short, but I got better in free. This is my weakness. That made me nervous. I should improve my weakness.”
And then there’s the flip side of the equation.
Four under rotation calls cost Tennell big in her free skate, as did popping her opening triple Lutz-triple loop combination into a triple-single. The U.S. silver medalist was clearly irked by her performance in the mixed zone.
“It seems I only mess up my Lutz-loop during competition,” Tennell said. “I’m really frustrated about that. I have no words, because it’s so frustrating. So just go back home, work things out, work harder to train for worlds.”
Tennell removed the triple Lutz-triple loop combination from her short earlier this season, replacing it with Lutz-toe. She has kept it as the opening jump element of her free skate.
When asked whether the combination should be removed, Tennell replied, “I would love to keep it in there for Worlds, because I know I can do it. I do it every day.”
As to the under-rotation calls, Tennell admitted she “felt shaky” during the program.
“I have to agree with the judges calls, go home, work harder and train smarter,” she said.
The moment Bell stepped off of the ice after her free skate, which included a rare fall on a triple loop and reducing a planned triple Lutz to a double, her coach Rafael Arutunian expressed dissatisfaction.
“There was not enough speed,” Arutunian said about her entrance to the Lutz. “You understand, you have to go (into it) from steps.”
Bell told reporters she planned to rest for a few days, then return to her Southern California rink to train hard with Arutunian for the upcoming world championships.
“There were silly mistakes today. My mind kind of got away from me,” Bell said. “I was surprised by the fall on the (triple) loop and then I kind of had a hard time re-focusing after that. You live and learn and Worlds will be better.”
As a reminder, you can watch Four Continents and the world championships 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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