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Alina Zagitova first after World Championship short program; drama in pairs’ short

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Gold medal favorite Rika Kihira of Japan dug herself into a hole with a popped triple Axel attempt at the World Figure Skating Championships in Saitama, Japan on Wednesday.

The Four Continents champion scored 70.90 points, good enough for seventh place headed into Friday’s free skate. She rallied to land her triple flip, triple toe combination and her triple Lutz.

Instead, it’s Olympic champion Alina Zagitova currently atop the leader board with 82.08 points. She opened her “Phantom of the Opera” program with a triple Lutz, triple loop combination and had a clean double Axel and triple flip. Despite being the reigning Olympic gold medalist, Zagitova has never won a world title on the senior level. She was fifth at last year’s World Championships.

The last time the two 16-year-olds met, at the Grand Prix Final in December, Kihira came away with the victory.

Japanese national champion Kaori Sakamoto sits in second with 76.86 points. She skated a clean program, opening with a triple flip, triple toe. She executed a double Axel and a triple loop to finish out the program.

“Today was my season’s best skate, so I feel that I was victorious over myself,” she told the International Skating Union.

Kazakhstan’s Elizabet Tursynbaeva is in third with 75.96 points, and expected to attempt a quadruple Salchow in the free skate. She trains with Zagitova in Moscow. No clean quad has been landed in senior ladies’ competition.

Two-time world champion Yevgenia Medvedeva from Russia, the Olympic silver medalist, sits in fourth after a redemptive short program which scored 74.23.

“You owned that baby, you owned it,” new coach this season Tracy Wilson told Medvedeva as she exited the ice. Medvedeva’s coaching change, plus her up and down season, put her in doubt to even skate at the World Championships.

The Americans, Mariah Bell and Bradie Tennell, finished in sixth and 10th, respectively, after the short program. Bell has been 12th at the past two World Championships, and in her debut in 2018, Tennell finished sixth.

“Everything I have done this season has prepared me for this moment,” Bell said through U.S. Figure Skating. “I thought ‘I’ve done this so many times, it’s just one more time.’ I knew I could do it so I’m happy I got through it.”

Wednesday, Tennell was called for under-rotating the toe of her triple Lutz, triple toe combination.

One of the Americans’ biggest challenges will be to secure a third spot for next year’s world championships. To do so, their combined finishes need to add up to less than 13; for example, if Bell holds onto sixth and Tennell finished seventh.

Full results are here.

Overnight Wednesday, some high drama in the pairs’ short program. In the six-minute warmup, Vanessa James collided with Matteo Guarise, though both skaters appeared to be OK. Nicole Della Monica and Guarise finished the short program in eighth (67.29 points) and relatively unscathed, however gold medal favorites James and Morgan Cipres finished a shocking seventh. Cipres doubled a planned triple toe and James fell on the throw triple flip. They scored 68.67 points.

“We’ve had some hard situations but we always push through them,” James told Olympic Channel.

Guarise called it a “shock” and “distracting” in a post-skate interview.

Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov sit in first place with 81.21 points after a short program with no major mistakes. Olympic silver medalists Sui Wenjing and Han Cong from China skated cleanly as well, finishing in second place with 79.24 points. The second Chinese pair in the field, Peng Cheng and Yang Jin, are currently third with 75.51 points.

The lone American pair, Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc, scored 66.93 for ninth place ahead of the free skate. Cain fell on their side-by-side triple loops. Their top priority is to finish the championships within the top 10 to ensure two U.S. quota spots at the 2020 World Championships.

“We’ve trained really consistently coming into this competition and this was just a fluke mistake where I was too far forward,” Cain said. “I was happy with how I recovered, but as an athlete I was upset with myself and want to do better tomorrow.

MORE: Schedule/How to watch | Ladies’ preview | Pairs’ preview

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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World Championships ladies’ preview: Japanese, Russian skaters face off for top prize

Alina Zagitova, Rika Kihira
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In all of her international competitions this season, phenom Rika Kihira of Japan has gone undefeated. Her only loss was at Japan’s national championships, won by Kaori Sakamoto. Four-time Japanese national champion Satoko Miyahara claimed the bronze.

All three will compete at the World Championships in Saitama, Japan from March 18-24 – home ice for the skaters in a country that loves skating like no other.

Their biggest challenges will come from the Russian ladies, though the best that country has to offer may be among the juniors. The strongest of Russia’s three ladies this year seems to be newly-crowned European champion Sofia Samodurova, who will be joined at worlds by two former training partners, Olympic gold and silver medalists Alina Zagitova and Yevgenia Medvedeva.

They will likely make up the top six in the field if they skate well. Here is a closer look:

Rika Kihira, Japan

Credentials: Grand Prix Final winner, Four Continents gold medalist

Kihira won both of her Grand Prix assignments in the fall to qualify and win at the Grand Prix Final in December, her first head-to-head with reigning Olympic gold medalist Zagitova. Worlds is a second chance to see how the 16-year-olds stack up against each other.

She has the highest short program score of the season as well as the second-highest free skate score this year.

Worth noting: Kihira will likely attempt triple Axels in both her short program and her free skate, as she’s done throughout the season.

Kaori Sakamoto, Japan

Credentials: Fourth at Four Continents, fourth at the Grand Prix Final, sixth place finish in PyeongChang, Japanese national champion

Sakamoto won Four Continents in 2018 before competing in PyeongChang and finishing sixth. The momentum continued through the fall, where she picked up a silver and bronze on the Grand Prix circuit. She clinched a spot in the Final and finished fourth before claiming her first Japanese national title. Most recently, she finished fourth at Four Continents in February.

Satoko Miyahara, Japan

Credentials: Two-time world medalist (silver, 2015; bronze, 2018), four-time Four Continents medalist, two-time Grand Prix Final silver medalist, fourth in PyeongChang

Miyahara has recorded some of the highest scores of the season. The four-time Japanese national champion is known for her delicate, artistic skating and sometimes being penalized for under-rotated jumps. Skating at home should only help in both of those realms.

Sofia Samodurova, Russia

Credentials: 2019 European champion, two-time Grand Prix series medalist (silver, bronze)

This is Samodurova’s first season as a senior skater, and she’s certainly stepped out with a bang. She qualified for the Grand Prix Final in December, finishing fifth, and then surpassed Alina Zagitova for the European crown in January.

Worth noting: With inconsistencies in both of her teammates’ results, Samodurova could be the highest-finishing Russian lady at Worlds.

Alina Zagitova, Russia

Credentials: Olympic gold medalist (2018), Olympic silver medalist (team event) European silver medalist (2019), Grand Prix Final champion (2017)

Zagitova won gold in PyeongChang when she was just 15 years old – one of her only recent clean free skates. This season, despite winning both of her Grand Prix assignments, it hasn’t been the same. She won a senior B early in the season, earned silver at the Grand Prix Final, but finished fifth at Russian nationals and went bust in the free skate at Europeans – yet still was able to manage a silver medal there. She figures to be in the mix as she hasn’t competed since, and should be well-rested.

Worth noting: Zagitova is beloved in Japan, which might ease her nerves. The country bestowed a dog on the Olympic champion, Masaru, who is equally popular. Masaru means “victory” in Japanese.

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🎈🐕 Масару сегодня 1 годик 🎀!!! С Днём Рождения, моя любимая 🐕! Моя радость, поддержка и вдохновение!!! Будь здоровой и послушной 🐶🎁🎉 🎈🐕今日、マサルが1歳の誕生日をむかえました🎀 私の愛犬、誕生日おめでとう!🐕あなたがいてくれて私は本当に幸せで、あなたは私の支えであり、私を鼓舞してくれる存在です!これからも素直で元気に過ごしてくれることを祈っています🐶🎁🎉 🎈🐕 Masaru is celebrating her 1st year today !!! Happy Birthday, my lovely dog! 🐕 You are my happiness, support and inspiration! Wish you to be healthy and obedient 🐶🎁🎉 #масару #акитаину #акита #собака #люблю #япония #masaru #マサル #秋田犬 #日本 # 愛してる #akitas # japan #puppy #mylove

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Yevgenia Medvedeva, Russia

Credentials: Two-time world champion (2016, 2017), Two-time Olympic silver medalist (team, individual), two-time Grand Prix Final champion

It would be wrong to discount Medvedeva, the two-time world champion who was undefeated in competition for nearly a two-year stretch. She moved to Toronto during the offseason to train under Brian Orser and had a disappointing showing at most of her competitions. Yet she was spot-on when it counted, at the Russian competition widely considered to be the world championship selection meet, beating out 2015 world champion Yelizaveta Tuktamysheva for the third spot behind Zagitova and Samodurova.

Worth noting: Medvedeva is competing with a different short program than earlier this season. She had been using Natalie Cole’s “Orange Colored Sky,” but swapped it for “Tosca” by Giacomo Puccini. She’s also immensely popular in Japan.

The U.S. ladies:

Bradie Tennell and Mariah Bell will represent the U.S. in Saitama, where one of their biggest challenges will be to secure a third spot for next year’s world championships. To do so, their combined finishes need to add up to less than 13; for example, if Tennell finished sixth and Bell finished seventh.

Tennell has been building momentum all season. She won her senior B season opener, followed by a fourth place and a bronze medal on the Grand Prix circuit, and a victory at another senior B competition. Then, she claimed silver at nationals in January and placed fifth at Four Continents in February. She told NBCSports.com/figure-skating she thinks she’s making artistic progress this season, too.

Bell, the two-time U.S. bronze medalist, has finished 12th at the world championships the past two years. She most recently finished sixth at Four Continents. She’s on the precipice of putting it all together, as she told NBCSports.com/figure-skating in January.

Alysa Liu, the 13-year-old who won U.S. nationals, is too young to compete at the World Championships or World Junior Championships, which took place two weeks ago.

Honorable mention: Kazakhstan’s Yelizabet Tursynbaeva, who trains alongside Zagitova in Moscow, will likely attempt a quadruple Salchow in the free skate. She was credited for a fully rotated attempt during her free skate at Four Continents in February, but fell. A clean quad has never been landed at a senior ladies’ international competition.

Canada’s Gabrielle Daleman won a gold medal in the team event at the PyeongChang Olympics, but has struggled on and off the ice this season. The 2017 World bronze medalist was sixth to open her season at a senior B competition, withdrew from the Grand Prix to focus on mental health, and then led after the short program at Canadian nationals but finished fifth overall. Due to a slip on the ice early in the season, she has suffered from concussion symptoms, on top of depression and anxiety, according to an interview her mother gave Canadian media. She has also opened up about having ADHD, a learning disability, and an eating disorder.

South Korea’s Lim Eun-soo, who trains with Bell under Rafael Arutunian in California, is another skater to watch. So is Belgium’s Loena Hendrickx.

MORE: Nathan Chen, student and skater, tries to have two parts in harmony again at world 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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How Japan built figure skating powerhouse

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by Akiko Tamura

The last time the figure skating world championships were held in Japan, in 2014, Japan claimed two gold medals and a silver medal. It was Mao Asada’s third world title and Yuzuru Hanyu’s first title, while Tatsuki Machida took men’s silver.

Both Asada and Machida retired from competition since, but it doesn’t mean that Japan is short of medal contenders at the 2019 World Championships held inside the Super Arena in Saitama next week, March 18-24.

In ladies’ skating, 16-year-old Rika Kihira made a huge splash in her senior debut this season. So far, she remains undefeated internationally. Kihira is considered the favorite in Saitama after she won the Grand Prix Final over the reigning Olympic champion, Alina Zagitova, in December. Her Japanese teammates Kaori Sakamoto and Satoko Miyahara also both qualified for the Grand Prix Final and have high hopes to step onto the world podium. Miyahara owns two medals from world championships, while Sakamoto is making her world championships debut.

On the men’s side, two-time Olympic champion Hanyu is expected to return to the competitive ice in Saitama to go for his third world title. He sustained a right ankle injury last November, but he has proven that nothing will prevent him from climbing back to the top.

As his coach Brian Orser told NBCSports.com/figure-skating, “He’ll be fine. His focus is Japan and Worlds.”

Hanyu’s biggest challenges will come from his countryman, Shoma Uno, who finished right behind Hanyu at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics to earn a silver medal, and American Nathan Chen who recently won his third U.S. national title in January.

Uno currently holds the highest men’s free skate score, which he earned en route to his victory at the 2019 Four Continents Championships last month.

In the past 12 years, Japan has collected 24 medals from the world championships – including eight golds – in singles’ skating. How did a tiny island nation in Asia with a limited number of year-round ice rinks build such a strong team?

That is the question asked over and over.

Yoshiko Kobayashi from the Japanese Skating Federation agreed to give her thoughts on this in a phone interview:

“First of all, I want to emphasize that this is not to take any credit away from individual coaches who consistently work hard training their skaters,” said Kobayashi, the director of JSF figure skating high performance. “Speaking from our perspective, I believe that the summer camps had played a major role.”

Kobayashi is referencing the novice-level camps held every summer in Nobeyama, a mountain resort in Nagano, Japan. The annual event is also called the “Youth Development Camp.”

It started in the summer of 1992, once Nagano, Japan was selected as the host of the 1998 Winter Olympics.

Midori Ito was the first woman to land a triple Axel in competition, and was considered the favorite to win gold at the 1992 Albertville Olympics. When she ended up with silver, JSF officials realized that they needed to build up a strong team, so that no one talented individual had to carry all the pressure.

The initial motive for the camp was to train skaters to prepare for the Nagano Olympics. Shizuka Arakawa was one of the young skaters who participated in the first year. Although Arakawa finished disappointing 16th at the Nagano Olympics, she became the first Olympic gold medalist in figure skating from Asia eight years later in Torino.

So what do they do at this Novice camp? How do they select the kids?

“It’s a four-year novice program, but not all skaters get to come back for four years,” Kobayashi said. “They need to be selected by their local federations each year, so the competition starts at very early age.”

According to Kobayashi, although the camp is only four days long, the process of getting there is just as important.

“Every young skater wants to join the summer camp.  The camp itself became a big goal for them.”

When these young skaters between the ages of 9 and 12 arrive in Nobeyama, they are evaluated not only for the skating abilities but in every aspect – dancing off ice, basic physical abilities, and even their daily life “attitudes.”

“Attitudes are very important,” Kobayashi explained. “Many young talents are lost because they simply loose discipline and stop practicing.”

The camps also expose young skaters to world-class performers.

“We invited past champions like Stephane Lambiel, Jeffery Buttle and Ben Agosto to work with our skaters on ice,” Kobayashi said. “We also hired professional tango dancers and ballet dancers to show them high quality performances. We feel that these experiences at early age are very important.”

All of Japan’s top skaters, both past and present, participated in these camps.

“I remember seeing Mao Asada at the Youth Development Summer Camp,” recalled Osamu Kato, who was the official trainer for JSF at the time. “Her exceptional physical abilities were so apparent. She had spring like nobody else — even on the floor.”

“When they come to this camp, they meet other skaters from other parts of Japan and realize what level they are at,” Kobayashi said. “They feel motivated to get better and want to come back next year. The competition creates strong skaters.”

That is only the beginning. The summer camp programs continue for junior- and senior-level skaters as well.

“In Junior Grand Prix, if our skater finishes lower than fourth, he/she doesn’t get the second junior Grand Prix assignment that season,” Kobayashi said. “The spot is given to someone else.”

It may sound a little cruel to have young kids facing so much pressure at early age, but this is what it takes to train world’s top athletes.

“When Rika [Kihira] came to the camp for the first year, she did not particularly stand out compare to other talented girls like [2016 world junior champion] Marin Honda and [2018 Worlds silver medalist] Wakaba Higuchi,” Kobayashi recalled. “But when Rika came back for the second year, she was so much better. She was physically stronger and her movements were more polished.”

MORE: Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker evaluate progress this season, what Montreal means to them

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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