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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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Takeaways from the abbreviated 2019-20 season in ski and snowboard sports

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Most ski sports don’t hold world championships in even-numbered years, but the coronavirus pandemic brought World Cup campaigns to an early conclusion two years ahead of the Beijing Olympics.

With the seasons over, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team is collecting goggles to provide to health-care workers.

Here’s what we learned in various sports:

ALPINE: Mikaela Shiffrin has company 

The U.S. ski star was on pace to win her fourth straight World Cup season trophy before her father’s sudden passing in early February. She planned to return in March with an outside chance at keeping her title, but the remaining races of the season were canceled. Italy’s Federica Brignone took the trophy, with Shiffrin second.

While Shiffrin held a substantial lead in the World Cup before her hiatus, she wasn’t as unbeatable as she was in the 2018-19 season, when she won a staggering 17 times. That’s an impossible bar to clear, but Shiffrin’s rivals made up enough ground to make future World Cup season titles and the career win record seem less certain than they seemed a year ago.

In Shiffrin’s final slalom race, a discipline in which she has rarely lost in recent years, she placed third behind Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova and Sweden’s Anna Swenn Larsson. Ten days before that, she was second to Vlhova, whose progress impressed Shiffrin. That marked that first time since 2014 that she lost two straight slaloms in the same season. (She was second in the 2016-17 season finale and second again in the 2017-18 season opener, then won 12 of the next 13 slaloms.)

Shiffrin’s ability to get on the podium in any race, no matter the discipline, will make her the World Cup favorite for years to come. But the big prize won’t be as easy as she has made it seem in recent years, and at 66 career victories, she’ll need time to catch Lindsey Vonn‘s women’s record of 82 wins and Ingemar Stenmark‘s overall record of 86.

CROSS-COUNTRY: Diggins, Bjornsen stay in world’s elite 

Jessie Diggins will forever be remembered for winning the 2018 Olympic team sprint with Kikkan Randall as NBC’s Chad Salmela screamed “HERE COMES DIGGINS,” but she also has a strong World Cup resume that she continues to build.

Diggins finished sixth in the season standings for the second straight year, a drop from her second-place finish in 2018 but still comfortably in the top 10. She was joined there by Sadie Maubet Bjornsen, who eighth-place season put her in the top 10 for the second time.

Bjornsen led the three-stage season opener in Ruka, Finland, after taking third in the sprint and finished fourth overall, one place ahead of Diggins, who took third in the pursuit. Diggins added four more podium finishes before the end of the season.

NORDIC COMBINED: Norway takes control 

Jarl Magnus Riiber won his second straight World Cup title at age 22, with fellow Norwegian Joergen Graabak taking a career-high second. Two more Norwegians were in the top six Jens Luraas Oftebro (fourth) and Espen Bjoernstad (sixth). 

In women’s Nordic combined, which is on track to become an Olympic event, U.S. athlete Tara Geraghty-Moats was a close second to Russia’s Stefaniya Nadymova.

READ: Geraghty-Moats has eyes on 2026

SKI JUMPING: U.S. women shut out 

A decade after leading the charge to get women’s ski jumping in the Olympics and eight years after teenager Sarah Hendrickson won the World Cup, the U.S. women went a whole season without an athlete picking up World Cup points. Hendrickson postponed her retirement but competed only on the Continental Cup this season.

U.S. women also won two of the first three ski jumping world championships Lindsey Van in 2009 and Hendrickson in 2013.

In men’s jumping, Austria’s Stefan Kraft edged out Germany’s Karl Geiger to reclaim the World Cup title he last held in 2017. Geiger’s previous career best was 10th in 2019. Japan’s Ryoyu Kobayashi, last year’s champion, took third.

FREESTYLE SKIING: Blunck keeps flying

U.S. halfpipe skier Aaron Blunck followed up his second straight world championship in 2019 with his first World Cup season title. Blunck won both events in the U.S. — December’s competition at Copper Mountain and February’s event at Mammoth Mountain. 

Colby Stevenson (slopestyle) and Alexander Hall (big air) were second in their events. Hall won twice, landing a switch left double 1800 to win in the Atlanta Braves’ SunTrust Park. Stevenson also won at the X Games in Aspen.

In women’s competition, 18-year-old Marin Hamill was second in slopestyle, and Jaelin Kauf finished in the top three for the third straight year.

French skier Perrine Laffont had a dominant season in women’s moguls, winning all six regular moguls events and two of four dual moguls, to take her second straight World Cup title.

SNOWBOARDING: Corning wins in Atlanta and in World Cup

Atlanta’s SunTrust Park hosted a World Cup big air competition, with Chris Corning and Japan’s Reira Iwabuchi winning. Corning also won in Cardrona, New Zealand, and took his second big air season title to go along with slopestyle titles in 2016, 2018 and 2019.

Dusty Henricksen was third in World Cup slopestyle on the strength of a win at Mammoth Mountain, followed by fellow U.S. teen Justus Henkes.

U.S. women’s snowboarders Jamie Anderson and Julia Marino won the only World Cup slopestyle events each one entered. Anderson also won the X Games slopestyle.

Olympic and world halfpipe champion Chloe Kim sat out the season after breaking an ankle in March 2019 and enrolling at Princeton.

BIATHLON: Never count out Dunklee 

Susan Dunklee hasn’t had great success on the World Cup circuit since taking a world championship silver medal in 2017, when she finished a career-best 10th in the World Cup, but she once again took world championship silver in the sprint at Antholz.

Norway’s Johannes Thingnes Boe won the men’s World Cup title despite missing two weeks after the birth of his first child, edging Frenchman Martin Fourcade by two points to spoil the seven-time World Cup champion’s final season.

Boe won his second straight World Cup title, as did Italy’s Dorothea Weirer in the women’s competition.

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Simon Ammann ramps up for one more run at Olympic ski jumping

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Simon Ammann, the Swiss ski jumper who gained fame for his resemblance to Harry Potter in 2002 and went to win all four Olympic ski jumps on North American soil this century, has walked back talk of retirement and now says he wants to continue through the 2022 Olympics.

Ammann won the normal hill and large hill in Salt Lake City in 2002. European ski jumpers don’t necessarily get attention from U.S. talk shows, but the 20-year-old Ammann had two things that set him apart. First, his wins were tremendous upsets. Second, he looked like Harry Potter.

He wound up appearing on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” which makes him a wild-card connection in the Kevin Bacon game the peripatetic actor was the other guest on the show that night, and Ammann happily posed with Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick after the show.

Eight years later, Ammann duplicated the feat in Vancouver. This time, he left behind the Harry Potter glasses behind, though he made an enthusiastic walk through the mixed zone wearing comically oversized sunglasses that made him look like the Buggles’ Trevor Horn in the “Video Killed the Radio Star” video, the first music video on MTV.

In 2010, his victories weren’t quite as unexpected. He won the World Cup season title that year, sandwiched between two second-place finishes.

In 2002, on the other hand, he took off from the Olympic hill at Park City having never won a World Cup event. His two wins in the Olympics were his first two in any international competition in the FIS database.

Ammann has also had success in major competition in Asia. He took gold and silver in the 2007 world championships in Sapporo, Japan, the first two of his four career world championship medals. He also won a World Cup event in Sapporo in 2010.

In recent years, though, Ammann hasn’t been competitive on the World Cup circuit. He has been on the podium only once since 2015. Since taking his last major-event medal in 2011, his best result in the world championships was seventh place in 2013.

But he’s already shown he can, like Harry Potter, conjure a surprising performance.

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