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How Japan built figure skating powerhouse

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by Akiko Tamura

The last time the figure skating world championships were held in Japan, in 2014, Japan claimed two gold medals and a silver medal. It was Mao Asada’s third world title and Yuzuru Hanyu’s first title, while Tatsuki Machida took men’s silver.

Both Asada and Machida retired from competition since, but it doesn’t mean that Japan is short of medal contenders at the 2019 World Championships held inside the Super Arena in Saitama next week, March 18-24.

In ladies’ skating, 16-year-old Rika Kihira made a huge splash in her senior debut this season. So far, she remains undefeated internationally. Kihira is considered the favorite in Saitama after she won the Grand Prix Final over the reigning Olympic champion, Alina Zagitova, in December. Her Japanese teammates Kaori Sakamoto and Satoko Miyahara also both qualified for the Grand Prix Final and have high hopes to step onto the world podium. Miyahara owns two medals from world championships, while Sakamoto is making her world championships debut.

On the men’s side, two-time Olympic champion Hanyu is expected to return to the competitive ice in Saitama to go for his third world title. He sustained a right ankle injury last November, but he has proven that nothing will prevent him from climbing back to the top.

As his coach Brian Orser told NBCSports.com/figure-skating, “He’ll be fine. His focus is Japan and Worlds.”

Hanyu’s biggest challenges will come from his countryman, Shoma Uno, who finished right behind Hanyu at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics to earn a silver medal, and American Nathan Chen who recently won his third U.S. national title in January.

Uno currently holds the highest men’s free skate score, which he earned en route to his victory at the 2019 Four Continents Championships last month.

In the past 12 years, Japan has collected 24 medals from the world championships – including eight golds – in singles’ skating. How did a tiny island nation in Asia with a limited number of year-round ice rinks build such a strong team?

That is the question asked over and over.

Yoshiko Kobayashi from the Japanese Skating Federation agreed to give her thoughts on this in a phone interview:

“First of all, I want to emphasize that this is not to take any credit away from individual coaches who consistently work hard training their skaters,” said Kobayashi, the director of JSF figure skating high performance. “Speaking from our perspective, I believe that the summer camps had played a major role.”

Kobayashi is referencing the novice-level camps held every summer in Nobeyama, a mountain resort in Nagano, Japan. The annual event is also called the “Youth Development Camp.”

It started in the summer of 1992, once Nagano, Japan was selected as the host of the 1998 Winter Olympics.

Midori Ito was the first woman to land a triple Axel in competition, and was considered the favorite to win gold at the 1992 Albertville Olympics. When she ended up with silver, JSF officials realized that they needed to build up a strong team, so that no one talented individual had to carry all the pressure.

The initial motive for the camp was to train skaters to prepare for the Nagano Olympics. Shizuka Arakawa was one of the young skaters who participated in the first year. Although Arakawa finished disappointing 16th at the Nagano Olympics, she became the first Olympic gold medalist in figure skating from Asia eight years later in Torino.

So what do they do at this Novice camp? How do they select the kids?

“It’s a four-year novice program, but not all skaters get to come back for four years,” Kobayashi said. “They need to be selected by their local federations each year, so the competition starts at very early age.”

According to Kobayashi, although the camp is only four days long, the process of getting there is just as important.

“Every young skater wants to join the summer camp.  The camp itself became a big goal for them.”

When these young skaters between the ages of 9 and 12 arrive in Nobeyama, they are evaluated not only for the skating abilities but in every aspect – dancing off ice, basic physical abilities, and even their daily life “attitudes.”

“Attitudes are very important,” Kobayashi explained. “Many young talents are lost because they simply loose discipline and stop practicing.”

The camps also expose young skaters to world-class performers.

“We invited past champions like Stephane Lambiel, Jeffery Buttle and Ben Agosto to work with our skaters on ice,” Kobayashi said. “We also hired professional tango dancers and ballet dancers to show them high quality performances. We feel that these experiences at early age are very important.”

All of Japan’s top skaters, both past and present, participated in these camps.

“I remember seeing Mao Asada at the Youth Development Summer Camp,” recalled Osamu Kato, who was the official trainer for JSF at the time. “Her exceptional physical abilities were so apparent. She had spring like nobody else — even on the floor.”

“When they come to this camp, they meet other skaters from other parts of Japan and realize what level they are at,” Kobayashi said. “They feel motivated to get better and want to come back next year. The competition creates strong skaters.”

That is only the beginning. The summer camp programs continue for junior- and senior-level skaters as well.

“In Junior Grand Prix, if our skater finishes lower than fourth, he/she doesn’t get the second junior Grand Prix assignment that season,” Kobayashi said. “The spot is given to someone else.”

It may sound a little cruel to have young kids facing so much pressure at early age, but this is what it takes to train world’s top athletes.

“When Rika [Kihira] came to the camp for the first year, she did not particularly stand out compare to other talented girls like [2016 world junior champion] Marin Honda and [2018 Worlds silver medalist] Wakaba Higuchi,” Kobayashi recalled. “But when Rika came back for the second year, she was so much better. She was physically stronger and her movements were more polished.”

MORE: Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker evaluate progress this season, what Montreal means to them

As a reminder, you can watch 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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Jordan Thompson, U.S. volleyball’s new weapon, took unique route to NCAA history

Jordan Thompson
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It was about this time last year that Jordan Thompson first appeared on the radar of U.S. women’s volleyball coach Karch Kiraly. Since, Thompson emerged as the youngest starter, and arguably a star, for the national team.

She goes into what could be her final weekend of college volleyball as one of the most dominant athletes in any sport. And one of the most unique stories in NCAA history.

Thompson plays not for a Big Ten or Pac-12 powerhouse, but for Cincinnati, a school that, before she arrived, never made it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

The unranked Bearcats upset second-ranked Pittsburgh in the second round last Saturday. They play Penn State, winner of six of the last 12 NCAA titles, in the Sweet 16 on Friday.

In 33 games this season, Thompson has registered a Division I-leading 768 kills, which is 143 more than the next most prolific attacker. That margin of 143 is the same number that separates No. 2 from No. 31.

Last season, she had 827 kills, which was 240 more than anybody else and a single-season record (by 112 kills) since NCAA match formats shifted from 30-point to 25-point sets in 2008.

She is a contender, if not a favorite, to be AVCA National Player of the Year. All of the previous winners dating to 1985 came from schools that reached at least one Final Four.

On Oct. 4, a UCF player’s face caught the wrong end of a Thompson attack. Cincinnati teammates watching from the bench dropped to the floor in astonishment.

Thompson tallied 50 kills in one match alone on Nov. 3, becoming the first D-I player to do so in 20 years.

That happened on Senior Day. Before that match, Thompson received a plaqued No. 23 jersey and flowers.

She posed for a photo standing with her husband, former Cincinnati offensive lineman Blake Yager, her mother, Mary, whose bribes helped Thompson develop into an attacker, and her father, 1990s Harlem Globetrotter Tyrone Doleman (and brother of Pro Football Hall of Famer Chris Doleman).

Mary has been most instrumental, raising Thompson as a single mom in Minnesota. Thompson, who is 6 feet, 4 inches now, was always tall for her age.

She played youth basketball against older girls and grew frustrated by the physical contact. Kneepads weren’t comfort enough. She decided to give volleyball a try in middle school.

“She was very timid,” Mary said of her daughter, who has since gotten 10 tattoos, including one of a hummingbird. “She would tell me she didn’t want to hurt anyone on the other side of the net. I told her I would give her a dollar for every time she would whack it. And I would give her $10 if she would actually hit someone on the other end of the court.”

It took a while, but Thompson was motivated by her love of horses. The payouts from her mom went toward a saddle and a bridal. A box with horse equipment remains in the family garage back home.

“She was trying to build up her supplies to be able to one day say to me, look, I’ve got a saddle, I’ve got all of my tack, I’ve got stuff to clean the hooves, can we get a horse now?” Mary said. 

After just two years of club volleyball, Thompson received her first Division-I scholarship offer. It came from Syracuse. Thompson was a high school sophomore.

“In the back of my head, I’m thinking, I’m never going to get another offer, so I better take this one,” she said.

Thompson was intent on Syracuse for a year before a coaching change led her to decommit. She wasn’t sure if many schools knew she had reopened her recruiting. A Minnesota club teammate had committed to Cincinnati and suggested Thompson take a visit.

The Bearcats went 3-29 the season before she committed.

“I said, Jordan, you can play D-I at Texas. You can go to Nebraska,” Mary said. “She was like, no, no, I want to play all four years. I actually want to get playing time, mom. She really struggled believing how good she could be.”

The biggest obstacle came junior year. In a preseason training session, Thompson collided with that Minnesota club teammate, Jade Tingelhoff, and tore the UCL in her dominant, right arm. She was in an armpit-to-wrist brace for two months post-Tommy John surgery, including three weeks with her arm locked in place.

She couldn’t brush her hair, had a hard time brushing her teeth and found it difficult showering and getting dressed.

She still went to every Bearcats game and traveled with the team. Cincinnati went from 22-10 her sophomore season to 13-19 that year without her on the court.

“It ended up being OK,” Tingelhoff said. “She came back that next season — I’m not kidding — 10 times as better than she was even the previous year.”

As a redshirt junior, Thompson and her 827 kills helped Cincinnati to a 26-8 record and its first NCAA Tournament win in seven years. She also caught the eye of Kiraly by the end of that 2018 season.

“She was one of the elite players in all of college volleyball,” he said. “Probably the only one who came from a conference other than the ones known for producing the most NCAA champions, like the Big Ten and the Pac-12.”

By last spring break, Thompson had become a favorite of U.S coaches at a camp to help select teams for summer international tournaments.

She had a one-on-one conversation with Kiraly, the only person to own Olympic indoor and beach gold medals. The legend told her she had potential to play at the Pan American Games. Later, he upped the praise to say she was ready for the top-level Nations League, a precursor to Olympic qualifying.

Thompson made her national team debut in May. By August, she came off the bench to help spur a comeback in a crucial Olympic qualifying match. The next day, she was in the starting lineup for the U.S.’ final Olympic qualifier, where the Americans clinched a Tokyo 2020 berth.

“I think a lot people don’t know she is still in college,” two-time U.S. Olympic outside hitter Jordan Larson said then. “She still has one more year left.”

Agents reached out, but Thompson had no intention of giving up her final year of NCAA eligibility. She wanted to make history at Cincinnati. That was secured with the Sweet 16 berth.

With the new year, she will trade the Cincinnati red and black for Team USA colors. She will keep in mind what the U.S. coaching staff told the team during Olympic qualifying and what she called a dream summer.

“My big goal in life was I just wanted to be in the USA gym,” said Thompson, who is working on her master’s in criminal justice. “To hear that we’re all working towards this goal of trying to make this roster, and we are being looked as potential players to make that roster, my jaw dropped. To know that it’s even a remote possibility is mind-blowing.”

VIDEO: Brazil volleyball star faints during courtside interview

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Tahiti chosen for Olympic surfing competition at 2024 Paris Games

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Paris 2024 Olympic organizers want the surfing competition to be held in Tahiti, an island in French Polynesia that is about 9,800 miles from Paris.

It would break the record for the farthest Olympic medal competition to be held outside the host. In 1956, equestrian events were moved out of Melbourne due to quarantine laws and held five months earlier in Stockholm, some 9,700 miles away.

The Paris 2024 executive board approved the site Thursday — specifically, the village of Teahupo’o — and will propose it to the IOC. It beat out other applicants Biarritz, Lacanau, Les Landes and La Torche, all part of mainland France.

“If, ever, we have two alternatives, and where one alternative gives the athletes of a particular sport more closeness to the heart of the Games and allows them to enjoy the magic and the spirit of the Games better, then in the interest of the athletes, we prefer this solution,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in June when asked about Tahiti’s interest in hosting surfing.

Surfing will debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games but is not on the permanent Olympic program. Surfing was among sports added to the Paris 2024 program in June and could be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games.

MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

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