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Takeaways from Four Continents Championships

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Shoma Uno performs a record-setting free skate. Sui Wenjing and Han Cong return to competition. Rika Kihira continues her climb. Madison Chock and Evan Bates win their first title at an ISU Championships. 

Now that the 2019 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, held in Anaheim, Calif. is in the books, here are some of the big takeaways:

Nathan Chen will need his A+ game to repeat as World champion. Japan’s Shoma Uno won his first Four Continents title and with the highest free score of the season, 197.36 points. (It’s also the highest free skate score ever, but various judging changes this season make it unfair to compare it to past seasons’ scores.)

Uno, who has struggled with multiple sprained ankles since the Japanese Championships in late December, landed three quads and two triple Axels in his “Moonlight Sonata” program in Anaheim. He could round into even better form for the 2019 World Figure Skating Championships in Saitama, Japan a month from now. Yuzuru Hanyu, troubled by an ankle ligament injury, was not in Anaheim. Japan’s two-time Olympic champion hasn’t competed since Rostelecom Cup in mid-November, but vows to compete in Saitama and try for a third world title.

Rika, Rika, Rika. Japan’s Rika Kihira confirmed her status as the odds-on favorite to win the ladies’ title at Worlds – not only because of her triple Axel and rapidly improving skating skills, but because of her strong mental game. The 16-year-old arrived in Anaheim with a new boot on her left foot, an old (and too soft) boot on her right foot, and mismatched blades: one was silver, one was gold. A fall on a triple Lutz in practice injured her left ring finger, causing considerable pain. Yet after popping her triple Axel into a single and placing fifth in the short program, she performed a clutch free skate to win the title. Kihira is undefeated in international competition this season, including wins at both of her Grand Prix events and the Grand Prix Final.

U.S. can earn two pairs’ spots for the 2020 World Championships. Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc performed two solid programs at Four Continents, and can increase their scores if they tweak a few elements to get higher levels. They have a good chance to crack the top 10 in Saitama, which would qualify the U.S. to enter two pairs the following season.

“Overall it’s going to take two really strong performances from us, to get those spots,” Cain said. “We can’t make any big mistakes. We want to hit the 200-point mark. I think if we just get our levels, we’ll be right there.”

Pair’s title in Saitama still looks wide open. China’s Sui Wenjing and Han Cong won Four Continents by just .06 points over Canadians Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro; the Canadians won the short program, but a costly error on a lift in their free skate cost them the title.

The Olympic silver medalists were impressive but did not look unbeatable: Sui, who missed the first half of the season with a right foot stress fracture, fell on triple jumps in both the short program and free skate. Strong performances by Russia’s Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov or France’s Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres could win the day. If James and Cipres do win, it will be the first time a French pair has won worlds since 1932. Of course, Sui and Han still have a month to improve.

No guarantees in ice dance. The shocking fourth-place finish of Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue in Anaheim showed their margin for error is thin. It is unlikely the U.S. champions will repeat the lift error that cost them more than four points, but even a smaller mistake – especially on step sequences in the rhythm dance – could cost them a world medal.

As their training partner, Jean-Luc Baker, explained in Anaheim: “The intricacy of the tango (rhythm dance) is significantly harder than what we had last year with the rhumba. The image the technical panel wants to see and what they are asking for, is so minuscule that one small thing like that angle of your skate can cost you three points.”

Three-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France have separated themselves from the rest. While Hubbell and Donohue are still the favorites for silver, one slip opens the door for teams including Chock and Bates; Canadians Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, and Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier; and Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin of Russia.

Tomoki Hiwatashi marked himself a favorite for the World junior podium. Hiwatashi, fourth at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships last month, skated his best programs ever in Anaheim to place eighth. His coach, Christy Krall, thinks he has made a breakthrough.

“Nationals really changed his persona,” she said. “He’s been very inspired. I think he understands that he has a great chance and the ability to be a very keen competitor, which he has always wanted to be.”

The 19-year-old won a world junior bronze in 2016 and in this, his final year of eligibility, could win another medal. The favorite for the event, held in Zagreb, Croatia Mar. 4-10, is Canada’s Stephen Gogolov, this season’s Junior Grand Prix Final champion.

Four Continents reporter’s notebook: Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5

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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Madison Chock, Evan Bates win dance title at Four Continents

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Madison Chock and Evan Bates took ice dance gold at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in Anaheim, Calif. on Sunday.

The team, a couple both on and off the ice, was sidelined for 10 months with an injury and only returned to competition in January.

“We just feel so happy and want to share that with all of you,” Chock said to the audience after the free dance, where they earned 126.25 points for a total overall score of 207.42 points.

“If you had told us that we would win Four Continents when we pulled out of the Grand Prix four months ago, I think we would be very surprised,” Bates said post-performance through U.S. Figure Skating. “We’re so proud of our performances. We keep building.”

Two Canadian teams joined Chock and Bates on the podium. Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, performing a free dance choreographed by the late Denis Ten, tallied 203.93 total points for silver. Weaver and Poje won Four Continents in 2010 and 2015.

Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier finished with 202.45 points and the bronze medal. They were the runners-up behind Weaver and Poje at Canadian nationals in January, as well.

Full results: Ice dance

Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, the reigning U.S. champions, fell from first after the rhythm dance to fourth overall, largely due to lost levels on lifts and spins. The team, the first American Grand Prix Final champions ice dance champions since 2013, scored 119.71 in the free dance for a total of 201.66.

“We would rather it happens here than Worlds, so maybe it’s a good wake-up call to make sure that everything is good for Worlds,” Hubbell said of the technical call. “We will go home and work in the next five weeks to do absolutely our best in Japan.”

The third American team in the field, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, won this event last year. The team scored 115.45 points in the free skate (a new season’s best) for a total score of 189.87 points and a fifth place finish.

“It was a season’s best score-wise and performance-wise and we both felt like it was our strongest showing yet,” Hawayek said. “We’re still working on little details and levels and making sure that we’re at the program’s fullest potential by March in Worlds. We’re really happy for this stepping stone.”

Coverage of the Four Continents Championships wraps up Sunday on NBCSN beginning at midnight.

Four Continents reporter’s notebook: Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3

As a reminder, you can watch Four Continents and 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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Rika Kihira wins Four Continents; American dance teams poised for medals

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Grand Prix Final champion Rika Kihira from Japan took the ladies’ title at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in Anaheim, Calif. on Friday.

“I was hardly able to practice my triple Axel in this rink but I was determined, very focused, and kept my concentration,” Kihira said, according to the Associated Press. “I was able to leave yesterday’s mistake behind. During this season, I learned how to keep my concentration in my free skating no matter what happens in my short program.”

She scored 153.14 points in her free skate — which included one triple Axel — for a total overall score of 221.99 points. Countrywoman Mai Mihara has a gold, silver, and bronze medal from the past three editions of the Four Continents Championships after placing third this year.

Kazakhstan’s Elizabet Tursynbaeva earned the silver medal with 207.46 total points and notched an honorable mention with a quad Salchow attempt in her free skate. She plans on continuing to try the quad in future competitions, she said, including the world championships next month.

Bradie Tennell, who was first after the short program, fell to fifth after a few under-rotation calls in the free skate. She scored 128.16 in the free skate for a total overall score of 202.07.

“I love skating for a home crowd, the energy is so great,” Tennell said through U.S. Figure Skating. “I am grateful to all the fans for showing their support.”

Mariah Bell sat third after the short program on Thursday but dropped to sixth after a subpar free skate, which scored 123.92 points for 193.94 points overall. The third American woman in the field, 16-year-old Ting Cui, finished 11th.

“I was surprised by the fall on the [triple] loop and then I kind of had a hard time refocusing after that,” Bell said. “You live and learn, and Worlds will be better.”

Friday’s results: Pairs’ short program | Ice dance rhythm dance | Ladies’ free skate

U.S. national ice dance champions Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue hold a slim lead over U.S. silver medalists and their training partners, Madison Chock and Evan Bates. Hubbell and Donohue’s 81.95 points, tallied earlier Friday, is just 0.78 points ahead of Chock and Bates’ total.

“We’re very pleased,” Hubbell said. “I think we’ve been putting so much work this season, and we’ve improved so much, and it’s testament to that.”

“We’ve done a lot of work to prepare for three competitions in a short period of time, this being the third, and I feel like we’re building each time we compete,” Bates said. “This rhythm dance is the best of the year so far.”

Canadians Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje are in third with 80.56 points. They competed just once this fall and elected to skip the Grand Prix Series to tour in shows.

The third American team in the field, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, are fifth with 74.42 points.

The free dance is Sunday.

Four Continents reporter’s notebook: Day 1 | Day 2

Earlier Friday, Olympic silver medalists Sui Wenjing and Han Cong returned to international competition after taking the fall off. However, Sui and Han sit behind Canadians Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro, who hold a 0.47-point lead over the Chinese pair. Sui missed her side-by-side triple toe and fell, costing the team. China’s Cheng Peng and Jin Yang are in third with 69.48 points. The American teams in the field sit in fourth, fifth, and seventh place.

The pairs’ free skate is Saturday, along with the men’s free skate.

MORE: How to watch Four Continents

As a reminder, you can watch Four Continents and 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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!