Mai Mihara, whose career could have ended in a hospital, rises to the top of figure skating

Mai Mihara
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Mai Mihara did not make Japan’s figure skating team for either of the last two Olympics. Her lone world championships appearance was six seasons ago. At one point, she went 20 months between competitions. She began this year without a top-level victory since 2017.

She will end it undefeated internationally in 2022, winning four titles and staking a claim as the world’s best.

No wonder the single word she repeated in interviews after bagging her biggest crown yet, the Grand Prix Final two weeks ago: Surprised.

“My own feeling was that I just remembered how I could not make it to the podium until now,” Mihara, 23, said through a translator. “I quite suffered in my own situation.”

She could have used those words to describe a number of challenges. This week, she competes at her national championships, bidding to make the three-woman team for March’s world championships. Mihara was in second place after Thursday’s short program. The free skate is Saturday.

Mihara, inspired by watching a 15-year-old Mao Asada win the 2005 Grand Prix Final, won a national junior silver medal at age 13. By age 16, she started having severe joint problems going into the 2015 Junior Grand Prix Final, to that point the biggest international competition of her life. She nearly withdrew, competed anyway and finished sixth in the six-woman field.

Afterward, she was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis, which causes joint swelling and stiffness, and was hospitalized for a reported two weeks. The pain was so severe, she had such trouble walking that she moved around the hospital in a wheelchair. Competing again was uncertain. But those who know Mihara speak of her absolute joy for skating.

“She’s that one that stands near the tunnel to go onto the ice and cheers everybody on, watches every performance, learns as much as she can from other skaters,” NBC Sports analyst Johnny Weir, who has toured with Mihara in non-competitive shows, said on a recent broadcast.

While in the hospital, Mihara followed the Japanese Championships on TV and was motivated to return if able. The pain didn’t completely subside, but she was well enough to get back on the ice for the following season, her first on the senior international level.

Mihara went from being unable to jump at the start of her preseason training to winning her senior debut, earning a bronze medal in her first Grand Prix Series start and placing third at the Japanese Championships.

The highlight was winning the February 2017 Four Continents Championships, a competition including top skaters from North America and Asia, held at the 2018 Olympic venue in South Korea. Then she rallied from 15th place after the short program at the world championships to place fourth in the free skate and fifth overall.

The next years brought a series of heartbreaking results. She placed fifth, fourth, fifth and fourth at her next four Japanese Championships, missing the two- or three-woman teams for the 2018 and 2022 Olympics and for the world championships in 2018, 2019, 2021 and 2022.

Among all that, she didn’t compete at all from April 2019 until November 2020, which Japanese media reported at the time was for unspecified health reasons. More recent reports said that it was due to her arthritis. Mihara wrote a letter to show gratitude for her supporters.

“In the year off I didn’t really know what was going on. They were very private about it,” said Canadian David Wilson, who has choreographed Mihara’s programs for several seasons. “She’s had her struggles with her health and had it a little bit harder than most. Yet she just keeps persevering and comes back. It’s really inspiring.”

The most recent comeback began during the COVID-19 pandemic. She placed fourth or fifth at five consecutive top-level competitions in 2020 and 2021 before busting through by winning this past January’s Four Continents (which most Olympians skipped).

In the nearly 10 months between that and Mihara’s first competition this season, Russian skaters were banned due to the war in Ukraine, the top two Americans retired and Japan’s No. 2 woman, Wakaba Higuchi, suffered a stress fracture in her right shin that ruled her out for 2022-23.

Mihara stepped in, winning two November Grand Prix starts, calling the first one possibly the biggest achievement of her life. Then came this month’s Final, the most exclusive competition pitting the world’s top six women.

“I didn’t have that much confidence coming in,” Mihara said through a translator. “My coach Ms. [Sonoko] Nakano said that you are actually the one who came in with [two Grand Prix wins], but you’re actually quite lucky up to this point.”

All six struggled in the free skate, with four falling, but Mihara persevered with the top score on the day to move up from second after a personal-best short program.

“I was so nervous, but I tried to do my best,” Mihara told the arena in English, holding a microphone moments after the event ended in Turin, Italy. “It’s so unbelievable. I can’t speak.”

She became the oldest woman to win a full-fledged Grand Prix since American Ashley Wagner in 2016 and had the most career Grand Prix starts before winning one (nine) since Wagner in 2012.

Wilson, who usually does not travel to watch his skaters compete, followed the Grand Prix Final from home in Canada. His competitive career, albeit on a much lower level than Mihara’s, was cut short by a debilitating knee problem as a teen.

In a phone interview, Wilson recalled that stretch in 2019 and 2020 when he didn’t know if Mihara would skate again. Then her coach called to ask if he would resume working with her.

“It was an honor,” he said.

Wilson also relayed a more recent memory. Mihara spent two weeks at his Toronto club, which includes many younger skaters, and “all the kids fell in love with her,” he said.

“She’s the same girl she was when she was 15,” Wilson said of Mihara’s passion. “What she has now over her past and over the others, by comparison, is a maturity about her that is coming across now in a different way.”

NBC Sports research contributed to this report.

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Scotty James wins fifth X Games snowboard halfpipe title

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Scotty James doesn’t have Olympic gold, but he remains king of the X Games halfpipe.

James, the Australian snowboarder who took bronze and silver at the last two Olympics, earned his fifth Aspen gold, repeating as champ of the biggest annual contest under falling snow in the Colorado Rockies. Only the retired Shaun White has more X Games men’s snowboard halfpipe titles with eight.

Nobody on Friday night attempted a triple cork, which was first done in competition by Japan’s Ayumu Hirano last season en route to the Olympic title. Hirano placed sixth Friday.

“It was a tough night, pretty interesting conditions,” James said. “Had to adjust the game plan. The show goes on.”

In a format introduced three years ago, athletes were ranked on overall impression over the course of a three-run jam session for the entire field rather than scoring individual runs.

Earlier, Olympic gold medalist Zoi Sadowski-Synnott of New Zealand repeated as women’s snowboard slopestyle champion, passing Olympic bronze medalist Tess Coady of Australia on the final run of the competition. Sadowski-Synnott, the only snowboarder or skier to win Olympic, world and X Games slopestyle titles, capped her finale with back-to-back 900s.

The competition lacked 2014 and 2018 Olympic champion Jamie Anderson, who announced her pregnancy last month.

Canada’s Megan Oldham landed the first triple cork in women’s ski big air competition history to beat Olympic silver medalist Tess Ledeux of France, according to commentators. Oldham, a 21-year-old ex-gymnast, was fourth at the Olympics.

Eileen Gu, the Olympic champion from China, did not compete but is entered in halfpipe and slopestyle later this weekend.

ON HER TURF: U.S. freeskier Maggie Voisin on grief, loss, finding motivation

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Isabeau Levito wins U.S. figure skating title at age 15, followed by comeback stories

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Isabeau Levito won her first U.S. figure skating title at age 15, cementing her status as the new leading American woman to open the new Olympic cycle.

Levito, the world junior champion, tallied 223.33 points between two strong programs in San Jose, California. She distanced two-time U.S. champion Bradie Tennell, who went 19 months between competitions due to foot and ankle injuries in 2021 and 2022 and scored 213.12.

Tennell was just two hundredths behind Levito after Thursday’s short but had multiple jumping errors in the free skate.

Levito followed her as last to go in the free and nailed the most pressure-packed performance of her young career, including the hardest jump combination done of the entire field. She didn’t receive a single negative mark from a judge for her 19 technical elements in her two programs.

Moments later, she was in tears backstage.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

“I was just so proud of myself for staying so calm and staying so focused, doing exactly what I aimed to do,” Levito, who hasn’t finished off the podium in more than 20 events dating to November 2016, said on NBC. “I’m ready to start bouncing off the walls.”

Amber Glenn, 23, placed third and will likely become the oldest U.S. women’s singles skater to make her world championships debut in at least 45 years. Glenn botched her 11th attempt to join the list of U.S. women to land a clean triple Axel (tally according to Skatingscores.com) but still moved up from fourth after the short program, passing Starr Andrews.

Last year, Glenn entered nationals as the fourth-ranked U.S. woman and a hopeful for the three-woman Olympic team. She placed 14th in the short program, competing unknowingly with COVID-19, then tested positive and withdrew before the free skate.

In 2021, Glenn was the U.S. silver medalist, yet passed over for a spot on the two-woman world team in favor of the more experienced Karen Chen, who finished 35 hundredths behind Glenn at those nationals.

Levito, Tennell and Glenn are expected to make up the team for March’s world championships, decided by a committee.

Gracie Gold, a two-time U.S. champion who was fifth after the short program, popped a pair of planned triple Lutzes and dropped to eighth.

None of the three 2022 U.S. Olympians competed. Alysa Liu and Mariah Bell retired. Chen is a student at Cornell and might not return.

Nationals continue Saturday with the free dance and pairs’ free skate, live on NBC Sports and Peacock.

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