In the 32 years since the redoubtable Midori Ito became Japan’s first world figure skating champion, her country has become one of the most decorated in the sport.
All the greatest success has been in singles, climaxed by Yuzuru Hanyu’s consecutive Olympic gold medals in 2014 and 2018.
That background is why the silver medalists were the story in the Skate America pairs’ event Saturday night in Las Vegas.
With their second personal best score in two days, skating with an exuberance and joy that delighted the crowd, Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara became the first Japanese team to win a medal on the Grand Prix circuit in 10 years, equaling the silver won by Narumi Takahashi and Mervin Tran at the NHK Trophy in 2011.
“We weren’t really hoping or aiming for a medal,” Miura said. “We just wanted to show what we were doing in training. We’re obviously surprised we came in second.”
Their medal was the highlight of a free skate that turned into the ice fallies, with an aggregate 10 falls among the eight teams, including one by the Japanese, who had been third in the short program. It came on a throw that left Miura with a bloody right knee after cutting it with her skate.
“We’re really happy, but it is regrettable we made a mistake,” she said.
Only the winners, Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov of Russia, and the fourth-place team, Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier of the U.S., managed to stay upright in the free skate.
It was the second Skate America title for Tarasova and Morozov, who also won in 2018. They had 222.50 points to 208.20 for Miura and Kihara.
Knierim and Frazier, discouraged by their fifth in Friday’s short program, fulfilled their goal to “make a statement” with a second place in the free. It left them 2.56 points shy of passing Russians Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitry Kozlkovskiy (205.53) for the bronze.
Miura, 19, and Kihara, 29, are the first Japanese pairs’ medalists at Skate America, in its 39th international edition this year after being made a mostly domestic event last season because of the pandemic. This is just their third season (sort of) in a partnership that began in June 2019.
They became a team on the suggestion of Bruno Marcotte, the Canadian who had coached Takahashi and Tran, the latter born and raised in Canada.
Miura and Kihara, both native Japanese, had each taken up pairs’ before then with other partners in a country that has had little interest in the discipline.
Now their performances give Japan hope of contending for a team event medal at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
“We do talk about the team event a little, but my main message to them is to always try to achieve a personal best score and performance, to focus on their own growth as a team, and the rest will come together,” Marcotte said.
That has happened in both of their events this season, as they became surprise winners of last month’s Challenger Series event in Canada, Autumn Classic International and surprise silver medalists at Skate America.
“If we had been told a month ago that this would happen, we never would have believed it,” Miura said.
Japan has sent pairs skaters to five Olympics, with the best finish a 14th in 1992. Kihara, a singles skater until age 20, competed in the 2014 and 2018 Olympics with his two partners before Miura, failing to qualify for the free skate either time. Miura had won a Japanese junior title with her previous partner.
Serendipity brought them together.
In June 2019, Marcotte was doing a seminar in Japan, where he learned Miura and her former partner were not getting along. Kihara was helping at the seminar, and he and Miura did a training session together.
“It was good, but nothing happened out of it,” Marcotte said.
Until a month later, that is, when Kihara decided to end his previous partnership and agreed to give the idea of skating with Miura a try.
“Two weeks later, Riku and Ryuichi were on the plane and moving to Canada,” Marcotte said.
Within a few months of training in suburban Toronto, they had won the Japanese title. Of course, they were the only pair entered.
Then the Covid pandemic hit, canceling their chance to compete at the 2020 World Championships in Montreal and meaning they could not return to Japan for more than a year because of Covid travel restrictions. There were no pairs at the 2021 Japanese nationals.
“So they stayed with me, and they worked so hard,” Marcotte said.
Their first competition of the next season was the 2021 World Championships, where their 10th place was seven places higher than any Japanese team had finished at worlds since Takahashi and Tran’s bronze medal in 2012. Miura and Kihara also had earned Japan a 2022 Olympic pairs’ spot.
“I knew how good they were, but I don’t think they actually believed it,” Marcotte said. “Their confidence (at 2021 worlds) was not where it should have been, which is normal because they had so little experience competing.
“Placing top 10, qualifying for the Olympics and then doing quite well at the World Team Trophy really gave them the confidence they needed.”
Kihara hopes it will give other Japanese kids the desire to try pairs.
“I would tell them, ‘I didn’t do pairs’ until I turned 20, and I have made it this far,’” he said. “’So if I can do it, others can follow.’”
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.
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