Japan has 13 world figure skating championships gold medals from singles skaters. Now, it has its first gold medal from a pairs’ team.
Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara dethroned Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, who last year became the first Americans to win a pairs’ world title since 1979.
Miura and Kihara totaled 222.16 points between Wednesday’s short program and Thursday’s free skate on home ice in Saitama, holding off the Americans by 4.68. Miura fell on their throw triple loop in the free, but their 6.08-point cushion from the short was enough as the Americans also had jumping errors.
“I know it wasn’t our best free skate, but I told [Miura] we should be proud of ourselves,” Kihara said, according to the International Skating Union. “I told her to look up at the audience, look at how many people are cheering for us. I didn’t know how the result would turn out, but I told her let’s be proud of ourselves and go home with pride. Hearing the crowd for the other pairs, I knew they all skated well, so all three of us [including coach Bruno Marcotte] just prayed waiting for our score. I’m not sure why we got a personal best score.”
Sara Conti and Niccolo Macii took bronze for Italy’s first world pairs’ medal, denying fourth-place Canadians Deanna Stellato-Dudek and Maxime Deschamps.
Stellato-Dudek, 39, was trying to become the oldest world medalist in decades, after winning the 2000 World junior silver medal in singles and ending a 15-year retirement in 2016.
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Miura, 21, and Kihara, 30, have trained in Ontario since teaming in 2019, just about the time that Kihara was ready to retire after two Olympics with other partners and a recent concussion. They ranked outside the top 20 pairs in the world that first season, but since set milestones for pairs in Japan, which has a rich figure skating history in singles events.
They placed 10th at the 2021 Worlds, then seventh at the February 2022 Olympics and took silver behind Knierim and Frazier at the March 2022 Worlds, which included none of the top teams from Russia (banned) and China (haven’t competed since the Olympics).
They went undefeated this season despite not returning to full training until mid-September after an offseason of skating shows and Miura’s shoulder injury.
Now, they join a list of world champions in one of Japan’s most popular sports that was previously all solo acts. It began with Midori Ito in 1989 and continued through 2006 Olympic champion Shizuka Arakawa, three-time world champion Mao Asada and two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu.
“With this result, it would be very much appreciated if new boys or girls would want to take on the challenge to start pairs,” Kihara said, according to the ISU. “I hope more pair skaters will increase, and in 10 or 20 years, people will look back to this day and say this day was the turning point for the Japanese pair discipline.”
Knierim, 31, and Frazier, 30, have said they will likely retire after this season, though they also thought they would stop after last season. They competed this week without Todd Sand, one of their primary coaches, who has been hospitalized after a March 2 heart attack.
“This whole week, this whole time, this program, it was all for our coach — and that’s what our hearts are,” Knierim said, according to the ISU. “[I felt] fulfillment because I gave it everything I could and, for me, that’s always enough when you know that you’ve exhausted all of yourself to make the best opportunity.
“I was very proud of us. We never dreamed that we would have two world medals, and for us this is an achievement, and the color is beautiful.”
If Knierim and Frazier retire, it’s clear that Emily Chan and Spencer Howe will become the leading U.S. pair. They finished fifth in their worlds debut.
Worlds continue Thursday night (U.S. time) with the rhythm dance, followed Friday morning with the women’s free skate, live on Peacock and USA Network.
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