Daisuke Takahashi starts anew, eyeing unprecedented Olympic figure skating feat

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It’s rare that ice dance is the most anticipated event of a major figure skating competition. It’s even more extraordinary in Japan, which boasts some of the most popular singles skaters in recent history but never put a dance couple in the top 10 at an Olympics.

But at this week’s NHK Trophy, an annual Grand Prix stop streaming live on Peacock Premium, most eyes in Osaka will be on dancers competing together for the first time. Japan’s top singles skaters are sitting out, but a pioneer is partnering up.

“The debut of Daisuke Takahashi and Kana Muramoto is the story,” said Jack Gallagher, who has covered figure skating in Japan since 1997, both as a writer and on the Ice Time Podcast.

Muramoto, 27, and Takahashi, 34, combined to skate at the last four Olympics, separately, but became a couple on the ice last winter.

Takahashi, in his previous career, helped usher in the dominance of Japanese men’s singles skating. He was the first man from his nation to win an Olympic medal (bronze in 2010) and a world title (also in 2010).

So beloved, fans were brought to tears in December 2013 when it was announced in the arena that he was placed on the three-man Olympic team despite finishing fifth at nationals.

Takahashi retired after his third Olympics in Sochi, then unretired in 2018 to resume a singles career in domestic competition only. He watched the 2017 Japanese Nationals as a media member and was inspired “to fight and skate again in such tensed environment.”

Then, on Sept. 28, 2019, Takahashi stunned the skating world by announcing a switch from singles to ice dance, partnering with the 2018 Olympic ice dancer Muramoto.

“There will be many hurdles that we will come across,” was posted on Muramoto’s social media that day, “but with our shared passion to perform and skate, we believe we can overcome any challenges together as a team.”

Muramoto and Takahashi began training together in Florida in January, under the tutelage of renowned dance coach Marina Zoueva. Now, heading into their first competition, Zoueva believes they can not only qualify next year for the 2022 Olympics, but also qualify next month for the 2021 World Championships.

“I worked with three different Olympic champions,” in 2010, 2014 and 2018, Zoueva said, “and I can tell you that is the most talented skater I have with Daisuke. I swear.”

Zoueva is best known for guiding gold medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White and Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who were ice dancers for the entire senior careers. She also coached and choreographed for skaters who transitioned from singles to dance, but nobody has ever made Olympic teams in both disciplines as medal sports, according to Olympedia.org.

“This may be pretty unprecedented,” said NBC Sports analyst Tanith White, who was coached by Zoueva when she won a 2006 Olympic ice dance silver medal with Ben Agosto. “Having said that, I think that Daisuke, he is one of the most naturally gifted skaters I have ever seen.

“He is such a gifted artist. So when it comes to connecting emotion to movement and musicality, which is so critical in ice dance, I have no doubt he’ll be able to transfer those talents. The challenges will come with the partnering, of course, which takes normally years to really develop as something that’s second nature.”

Muramoto, who began as a singles skater (but never at the top senior international level), last competed at the March 2018 World Championships with the late Chris Reed.

Muramoto and Reed, born in Michigan to a Japanese mother and American father, won the national ice dance title in 2016, 2017 and 2018 and placed 15th in PyeongChang, matching Japan’s best-ever Olympic dance result. Zoueva helped coach them.

They ended their partnership before the 2018-19 season. Reed retired in 2019. In March 2020, he died of a sudden cardiac issue. He was 30.

Muramoto and Takahashi were unavailable for interviews leading up to NHK, but Zoueva recently recalled a phone conversation with Muramoto from 2019. After sitting out a whole season, Muramoto told Zoueva that she wanted to return, and that she already found her new partner.

“When she told me the name, I was in heaven because Daisuke is like a dream ice dance partner,” Zoueva said. “He’s so fast, so edgy, so light, like a bird on ice.”

Tanith White saw Muramoto and Takahashi take their first steps together for a performance in a January 2020 show in Japan, honoring Takahashi’s singles career and introducing the new couple.

He was a natural. White was reminded of 2016, when Takahashi took part in an off-ice show called “Love on the Floor,” created by “Dancing with the Stars” pro Cheryl Burke.

Takahashi, the fourth son of a hairdresser and an architect who opted not to follow his brothers into karate, was a featured dancer.

“He picked up the choreography in rehearsals and committed to it so quickly you would think he’d been training as a dancer for years,” White said. “He interacted with partners and was able to understand how to create a story through that chemistry.”

Now, Zoueva calls Takahashi by the nickname Zeus, “because when he’s on ice, he’s just flying around.”

Zoueva and Muramaoto and Takahashi split their time together between traditional in-person instruction at Zoueva’s rink in Estero, Fla., and by FaceTime. The skaters relocated to Japan in the spring while the rink was closed, then returned to Florida for the summer.

They spent most of the year working on their free dance — a ballet, “to make them look unique,” Zoueva said. “No one right now in the ice dance event looks like them and skates like them.”

They put together the shorter rhythm dance starting in September, choosing music from the 1994 film “The Mask.” On his website, Takahashi said he would do his best to express actor Jim Carrey‘s facial expressions from the comedy.

They’ve trained in Japan since early November and plan to stay there after NHK Trophy, leading up to December’s nationals, which will determine the one ice dance couple the federation sends to March’s worlds.

Muramoto and Takahashi have a chance to win the national title in their first year together. Last season, Japan boasted seven of the world’s top 28 male singles skaters and 10 of the top 50 in women’s singles. Its highest-ranked ice dance couple was 56th in the world.

Takahashi has told Zoueva that he didn’t think the transition would be this difficult. In particular, weight training is key to develop the strength to lift Muramoto, who is just one inch shorter, for up to 12 seconds at a time during their programs.

“He never worked off ice in his upper body because for singles it’s not necessary,” Zoueva said. “You have to be light, narrow [in singles]. In ice dance, lift is most difficult part, right? He started work off ice for upper body. His shoulders are now bigger. He has a narrow waist. The body looks gorgeous.”

NHK will offer a preview of nationals. The other two couples in the field finished first and second at last season’s Japan Championships.

Zoueva stressed, no matter the result, to give the partnership time.

“The quality will come after at least 14, 16 months,” she said. “If they will train how they did right now and improve how they improved like every day [this year], they seriously could fight for podium at Olympics. For now, what they are, it’s very hard to say.”

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