Alex Krasnozhon

Tomoki Hiwatashi
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Hiwatashi rallies, wins gold at World Junior Figure Skating Championships

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Tomoki Hiwatashi rallied from second place after the short program to win gold at the World Junior Figure Skating Championships in Zagreb, Croatia on Friday. In 2016, he was the world junior bronze medalist.

Hiwatashi, who placed fourth at January’s U.S. Championships, earned 148.82 points in the free skate for a total overall score of 230.32 points. He edged Russia’s Roman Savosin by 1.04 points. Daniel Grassl of Italy finished with the bronze medal.

MORE on Hiwatashi: Beyond the big three, are there any other U.S. figure skating stars?

The United States had two other skaters in the men’s field, Camden Pulkinen and Alex Krasnozhon, who finished eighth and 11th, respectively. Full results are here.

The last U.S. man to win the world junior title was Vincent Zhou in 2017.

The World Junior Championships conclude Saturday with the free dance and the ladies’ free skate. The event is streaming on the ISU’s YouTube channel.

Ting Cui and Hanna Harrell sit in third and fifth, respectively, in the ladies’ field. Russia’s Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova lead the field. The last U.S. woman to win a medal at the world junior championships was Gracie Gold (silver) in 2012.

MORE: Hanna Harrell talks taking on Russians at world junior championships

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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Four Continents Reporter’s Notebook Day 1: Can U.S. Figure Skating’s junior world team help improve results?

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The next time you complain about working overtime, think of Timoki Hiwatashi and Ting Cui.

The young skaters distinguished themselves at the 2019 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit, Mich., placing fourth and fifth, respectively, in the senior men’s and ladies’ divisions. Cui finished up her event the night of Jan. 25; Hiwatashi, on the afternoon of Jan. 27.

Both are age-eligible for the 2019 World Junior Figure Skating Championships in Zagreb, Croatia Mar. 4-10, and both were invited to U.S. Figure Skating’s first-ever World Junior Team Camp, held Sunday and Monday in Strongsville, Ohio. To no one’s surprise, they were selected for the U.S. World Junior Team.

From there, Cui and Hiwatashi journeyed to Anaheim, Calif. for the 2019 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships. Three major competitions and a monitoring camp, all in the space of six weeks.

MORE: Bradie Tennell, Vincent Zhou lead Four Continents after short programs

“I flew straight here, so it’s kind of been a crazy week after nationals,” Cui, 16, said.

The 19-year-old Hiwatashi, who wasn’t expecting his fourth-place finish and subsequent Four Continents’ assignment, is glad to be here but admitted the schedule was tough.

“Originally I was planning to go back (home) to Chicago, take a rest, I wasn’t expecting fourth,” Hiwatashi said, adding, “I guess I may be a little fatigued, but I try not to think about anything. I try to do the best recovery I can, the best warm-up I can, to come here and not get injured.”

Neither Cui nor Hiwatashi looked fatigued during their short programs at the Honda Center on Thursday. Cui skated clean, earning 66.73 points and seventh place for a Rachmaninov short that included a triple lutz-triple toe loop combination; Hiwatashi touched down his free leg on the landing of his triple Axel, but shone in the rest of his jazzy “Cry Me a River” program, earning 76.95 points for ninth place.

“I was just trying to be focused and do what I do in practice,” Cui said. “When I landed (the triple-triple) I was happy to be able to complete it. It wasn’t my best one but I was happy I did it.”

Tom Zakrajsek, who coaches Cui in Colorado Springs, Colo., doesn’t think his skater is overdoing things.

“She practices so intensely, I told her to just think of it as how you practice every day,” Zakrajsek said. “She likes to have an intense workload, so nationals with the Junior Worlds Camp and then (Four Continents) is just like three weeks of hard training. If anything, it’s made her do less than she normally does in training.”

Cui, Harrell hope to end Junior Worlds’ medal drought

The camp, which included singles’ skaters only, simulated competition of both the short programs and free skates, with skaters receiving protocols complete with element levels, grades of execution and program component scores. Zakrajsek was uncertain if the process helped Cui.

“Well…I’d guess yes,” he said. “I think competing here in Anaheim is really helpful for Ting. We do what we are told we have to do (by U.S. Figure Skating) and the camp is not negotiable.”

No U.S. lady has earned a medal at Junior Worlds since Gracie Gold took silver in 2012. In the six seasons since then, Russian and Japanese ladies have claimed all of the medals. The last U.S. lady to win the event was Rachael Flatt in 2008. Cui, the top U.S. finisher last season, placed seventh.

At the Junior Grand Prix Final in December, Russians Alena Kostornaia, Alexandra Trusova and Alena Kanysheva claimed the top three spots. No U.S. lady qualified.

Results like this helped give birth to the camp, said Justin Dillon, U.S. Figure Skating’s Director, High Performance Development.

“The data over the last couple of years has shown our skaters are not as consistent as we would like them to be,” Dillon said, attributing some of the deficit to lack of direct head-to-head competition.

“We want to put these athletes together for a little bit of training, and also competition,” he added.

Differences in event types – some of the skaters competed on the Junior Grand Prix, while others had their best performances at senior events – make direct comparisons difficult.

“For example, the energy was different for Gabriella Izzo, who won juniors in Detroit, than it was for the ladies competing as seniors,” Dillon said. “I would like to see them do junior programs side-by-side…Apples to apples is a better way for U.S. Figure Skating to evaluate the athletes.”

Hanna Harrell, fourth at the 2019 U.S. Championships, will join Cui in Croatia. Alex Krasnozhon, who placed fifth in Detroit, and Camden Pulkinen, who was 12th, round out the U.S. junior men’s team.

Other skaters considered at the camp were: on the ladies’ side, Starr Andrews (eighth in Detroit); Emmy Ma (ninth) and Izzo, the 2019 U.S. junior ladies’ champion. Andrew Torgashev, seventh in Detroit, attended the camp, as did the top two junior men’s finishers, Ryan Dunk and Dinh Tran.

U.S. men have fared better on the junior circuit than U.S. ladies. In recent years, Nathan Chen and Hiwatashi have earned medals at Junior Worlds, and Vincent Zhou won the event in 2017.  But while Pulkinen, Hiwatashi and Torgashev all qualified for the Junior Grand Prix Final this season, none of them earned medals. (Torgashev withdrew from the event due to a fractured right big toe.)

According to Zakrajsek, while Pulkinen was disappointed by his programs in Detroit, his performances at the camp helped lift him to the team.

“At this camp, everyone stands around and watches you, including your competitors,” Zakrajsek said. “Eyes are on you the entire time, and Camden went out and did clean programs. He threw down a clean long program when he had to.”

The U.S. Championships and World Junior Team Camp are not the only criteria considered. The International Selection Committee also looks at performances on the Grand Prix circuit; placements at past World Junior Championships, and ISU Challenger Series’ performances.

“Camden did very well in Tier 2, 3 and 4 of the criteria, but in Tier 1, nationals, he didn’t,” Zakrajsek said. “At camp, we did some things a little different than we normally do, to help bring out his best.”

As for Cui, Zakrajsek thinks she’s capable of scoring an upset at the World Junior Championships.

“She has a maturity and a complete performance (quality) not all of the top girls have,” he said. “We know she can break 70 points in the short program, she did that at the Junior Grand Prix at Ostrava (in September; Cui placed seventh overall). She’s even stronger now. If she can break 70 in the short at Junior Worlds, she will be right in the medal hunt.”

MORE: How to watch Four Continents

Beyond the big three, are there any other U.S. figure skating stars?

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U.S. men’s skating is in good hands with Nathan Chen, Jason Brown and Vincent Zhou. Chen dominated Saturday’s short program at the 2019 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit, Michigan, earning a whopping 113.42 points. Brown and Zhou, just a few tenths of a point apart, sit more than 16 points ahead of the field.

Included in that field are a group of up-and-comers that have world and Olympic assignments in their sights – if they up their technical ante and mature their skating skills. This group isn’t yet competing with the likes of Chen, Brown and Zhou. They’re competing with each other.

“(The top three) have always been there, ever since I was juvenile,” Tomoki Hiwatashi, the 2016 U.S. junior champion who sat fourth after the short program in Detroit, said. “When I got first (place) in juvenile, Vincent got first in intermediate. Jason was already junior or senior, Nathan was novice first place.”

“They have always been ahead of me – more than a step or two, like 100 steps,” the 19-year-old added. “I’m just taking longer. I don’t think I should try too hard to catch up. Right now, I should let it go with the flow and catch up whenever I can.”

Hiwatashi, along with Alex Krasnozhon, Camden Pulkinen and Andrew Torgashev, have had the best U.S. results in international junior competition the last few seasons – except for Chen and Zhou, of course.

Tim Goebel, the 2002 Olympic bronze medalist and one of the first men to execute multiple quadruple jumps in his programs, thinks the quartet must continue to make their mark internationally before they can even think of challenging for medals at future U.S. Championships.

“For a lot of these guys on the threshold of making it, the senior ‘B’s (including Challenger Series events) are really important,” Goebel said. “Winning a medal at junior worlds this year would be great.”

“I think they all just need to figure out what are the quick wins and what are the big picture (elements)?” he added. “What can they improve between now and junior worlds, or a spring international? What is their two-year plan? You have to do the quads. You also have to do everything else, choreography, other jumps, spins. You have to be excellent at everything.”

MORE: Goebel inducted to Hall of Fame

For Hiwatashi, who trains in Colorado Springs under Christy Krall and Damon Allen, consistency is the challenge. He won bronze at the 2016 World Junior Figure Skating Championships and qualified for the Junior Grand Prix Final in December, but placed sixth after popping his triple Axel in the short program.

“When I was young I got every jump every time, easy,” he said. “When I came up to junior, it became harder for me to skate consistent. I feel like it’s mental. I’ve grown up, I’ve gotten more mature but I’ve also gotten more sensitive about what others say, how others look at me.”

The skater thinks he may have overthought things at the Junior Grand Prix Final. So in Detroit, he played it close to the vest, holing up in his hotel room and listening to anime music.

“Before the Junior Grand Prix Final, I was trying to get my mind ready and get everything in the right place,” Hiwatashi said. “I feel like that kind of made it worse for me. Now I’m just going in, skating and sleeping.”

Krasnozhon, who succeeded Hiwatoshi as U.S. junior champion and won the 2017 Junior Grand Prix Final, had a solid short in Detroit and sits fifth going into Sunday’s free skate. The 18-year-old, who trains in Plano, Texas under Aleksey Letov and Olga Ganicheva, is playing it conservative. He didn’t try his quad toe in the short and may not include it in his free skate.

“Right now the goal is placement, to make some kind of U.S. team, maybe Four Continents,” Krasnozhon said. “It’s not about landing more quads, it’s about doing the rest of the program clean, too. A quad may be worth only about 10 points and if you want to be competitive in the long program you need 80 or 90 technical points. So (you have to) focus on the big picture, do the triple Axels and all the triples well.”

Krasnozhon’s progress has been slowed by injuries. He won the short program at the 2018 World Junior Figure Skating Championships, but withdrew from the free skate after spraining three ligaments in his right ankle while attempting a quad Salchow. Soon after, he made a coaching change, moving to Letov and Ganicheva because, he said, they force him to be disciplined.

“I’m not the easiest athlete to work with,” he said. “I was with my other coaches (Darlene and Peter Cain) so long. It was hard, because I would take everything personally. Aleksey is able to keep me in a box, where I don’t get to say ‘no.’ He tells me what to do and where I’m headed.”

The skater landed quad toes and Salchows in practice in Detroit, and knows he will have to add them to both his short program and free skate eventually.

MORE: Jason Brown planning quad in Sunday’s free skate

“The biggest thing is, once you get one, you are set up for the others,” he said. “It’s a matter of getting the right quad. I was working on loop, then the Salchow got closer, and this year the toe happened. Finding that first quad and landing it clean and getting used to the rotations helps you with the others.”

Like Hiwatashi, Pulkinen and Torgashev train at Colorado Springs’ World Arena. Pulkinen, the 2018 U.S. champion who made his U.S. senior debut in Detroit, loves the intensely competitive environment.

“There is no day that’s easy, you’re always going to have someone who is going to lay it down,” the 18-year-old, who placed fifth at December’s Junior Grand Prix Final, said. “If you are not the one, then Vincent, Andrew, Timoki is going to lay it down. You never get a time to say, ‘I’ll take a breather at the boards.’”

Thus far, Pulkinen has been known more for his artistry and musical interpretation than for his quadruple jumps. He’s working with coaches Tom Zakrajsek and Tammy Gambill to add quads to his repertoire next season.

“I have a lot of goals,” he said. “I would love to go to Junior Worlds and medal, maybe win. I want a Grand Prix assignment (next season). I need better spins, improved choreography, so many things.”

At 17, Torgashev made his first mark in the junior ranks before the others. His impressive skating skills led him to the 2015 U.S. junior title, but in June 2015 he fractured his right ankle while practicing a quad toe loop.

Torgashev qualified for the Junior Grand Prix Final this season, but a fractured right toe forced him to withdraw. He spent eight weeks off of the ice, some of it in a walking boot, before resuming training around mid-November.

“I didn’t want to repeat mistakes of the past and let ego get in the way,” said Torgashev, who believes overtraining contributed to his 2015 ankle fracture.

“I’ve matured as a person, as a skater,” he added. “The best choice for my body and career was to sit that one out and let myself fully heal.”

Torgashev, who moved to Colorado Springs at the end of last season, has landed quad toes in competition. The challenge has been landing his triple Axel and quad in the same program.

“I’ve been working a lot on it, and Christy (Krall) has been working a lot with me to make sure I get the Axel and toe back-to-back,” he said. “I’ve put in a lot of work. I can do it, now it’s time to show people I can.”

MORE: Nathan Chen landing on his feet after turning life upside down

As a reminder, you can watch the U.S. 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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!