Mai Mihara

AP

Four Continents Reporter’s Notebook Day 3: Analyzing the ladies’ standings flip-flop

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That hoary old saying – “You can’t win a competition with a good short program, but you can lose it with a bad one” – proved only half-true on Friday night at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in Anaheim, Calif.

None of the four leaders after the short wound up on the podium. Rika Kihara, fifth in the short after popping her triple Axel, leapfrogged over Eunsoo Lim, Mariah Bell, Kaori Sakamoto and Bradie Tennell to win her first Four Continents title. Elizabet Tursynbaeva climbed from sixth place to win silver. Mai Mihara, eighth after the short, claimed bronze.

Then there’s the way the results flipped.

For Kihara, it included a lot of improvisation: she arrived in Anaheim wearing a new boot on her left foot, and an old boot on her right foot.

“I felt my old boots were too soft so I tried a lot of things,” the Japanese skater said through an interpreter.  “I tried changing both boots, and then I decided to just change the left boot. Three days after I did this I was quite comfortable.”

The popped Axel cost her at least eight points in the short on Thursday, just as it did earlier this season at Grand Prix France. So in Friday’s free skate, she improvised again: After hitting a stellar opening triple Axel, she changed a planned second triple Axel to a double Axel-triple toe combination.

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

“During the short, I was not comfortable with my triple Axel on this rink,” Kihara said, echoing the concerns several skaters here voiced about the NHL-size surface. “I decided in the warm-up whether I would do one or two (triple Axels). I had not enough practice at the main rink, and I decided to play it safe in the program and did only one triple Axel.”

Kihara’s 153.14 point free skate, which gave her the win with 221.99 total points, wasn’t surprising; she has scored higher than that this season. Tursynbaeva’s 139.37 point free skate in Anaheim, though, far eclipsed her efforts in her two Grand Prix events.

The Kazakh skater chose Friday night to try her first-ever quadruple Salchow in competition. No lady has ever landed a quad in an international senior event.

Tursynbaeva landed the quad in practices here and in the six-minute warm-up, but fell on a fully-rotated attempt in her program. Despite a long-standing hip injury, she didn’t let it rattle her, going on to land seven triples including a triple Salchow-triple toe loop combination.

“I started working on quad Salchow a long time ago, and then I stopped because of the (hip) injury,” she said. “Now I was feeling physically ready and my coach [Eteri Tutberidze] helped me to start working on the jump. A few weeks ago I was able to land it and try to put the jump in the program. I think that’s a great start. It was my coaches’ idea. They believe that I can do it.”

Mihara arrived in Anaheim with something to prove. A fourth-place finish at the Japanese Figure Skating Championships in late December left her off of her country’s world team.

A sleepless night after her eighth-place short helped snap her out of a funk created by her subpar short, and she was relaxed and confident during her near-perfect free skate, which was second only to Kihara’s. She ended with 207.12 points, edging out Sakamoto – who defeated her at the Japanese Championships, thus winning a place at worlds – by less than half a point.

“I switched to a positive mindset after the practice (on Friday),” Mihara said. “Last season, there were a lot of cases when I made mistakes in short, but I got better in free. This is my weakness. That made me nervous. I should improve my weakness.”

And then there’s the flip side of the equation.

Four under rotation calls cost Tennell big in her free skate, as did popping her opening triple Lutz-triple loop combination into a triple-single. The U.S. silver medalist was clearly irked by her performance in the mixed zone.

“It seems I only mess up my Lutz-loop during competition,” Tennell said. “I’m really frustrated about that. I have no words, because it’s so frustrating. So just go back home, work things out, work harder to train for worlds.”

Tennell removed the triple Lutz-triple loop combination from her short earlier this season, replacing it with Lutz-toe. She has kept it as the opening jump element of her free skate.

When asked whether the combination should be removed, Tennell replied, “I would love to keep it in there for Worlds, because I know I can do it. I do it every day.”

As to the under-rotation calls, Tennell admitted she “felt shaky” during the program.

“I have to agree with the judges calls, go home, work harder and train smarter,” she said.

The moment Bell stepped off of the ice after her free skate, which included a rare fall on a triple loop and reducing a planned triple Lutz to a double, her coach Rafael Arutunian expressed dissatisfaction.

“There was not enough speed,” Arutunian said about her entrance to the Lutz. “You understand, you have to go (into it) from steps.”

Bell told reporters she planned to rest for a few days, then return to her Southern California rink to train hard with Arutunian for the upcoming world championships.

“There were silly mistakes today. My mind kind of got away from me,” Bell said. “I was surprised by the fall on the (triple) loop and then I kind of had a hard time re-focusing after that. You live and learn and Worlds will be better.”

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.

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Event preview, how to watch Four Continents Figure Skating Championships

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The figure skating season continues for Bradie Tennell, Mariah Bell, Jason Brown, Vincent Zhou, and the formidable group of U.S. ice dancers at the Four Continents Championships this weekend in Anaheim, Calif.

The competition returns to the United States for the first time in seven years; Colorado Springs hosted in 2006, 2007, and 2012.

NBC Sports Gold’s “Figure Skating Pass” will live stream every program from Anaheim from competition. The action begins Thursday with the ladies’ short program.

NBCSN and NBC will also have live coverage of senior competition throughout the weekend.

Four Continents includes skaters from essentially everywhere but Europe, and is the final major tune-up event prior to March’s world championships.

Let’s take a closer look at each discipline in Anaheim:

ENTRIES: Ladies | Men | Pairs | Dance

Ladies

It’s entirely possible that Japan sweeps the ladies’ podium in Anaheim. Rika Kihira (the triple Axel-ing Grand Prix Final champion), Mai Mihara (gold and silver medalist the past two years at Four Continents), and Kaori Sakamoto (last year’s Four Continents champion and 2018 Olympian) will skate at Four Continents.

The American skaters include Bradie Tennell and Mariah Bell who finished with silver and bronze medals at nationals last month, respectively, plus Ting Cui, who finished fourth. Alysa Liu won nationals but is not age-eligible to compete at senior level international events, such as Four Continents or the world championships.

Men

Japan’s Shoma Uno boasts the most impressive resume in the men’s field. The Olympic and two-time Worlds silver medalist is joined by countrymen Keiji Tanaka and Kazuki Tomono in Japan. Uno will likely have to be clean to win, however.

China’s Boyang Jin, who has struggled internationally this season but finished fourth in PyeongChang, is also in the field.

Other notable men include South Korea’s Junhwah Cha who won bronze medals at both of his Grand Prix assignments this fall — plus a bronze in the Final — and Grand Prix Final qualifier Keegan Messing from Canada.

They’ll face a strong American contingent made up of Jason Brown, Vincent Zhou, and Tomoki Hiwatashi: the second, third and fourth place finishers from the national championships in January. The three-time U.S. champion, Nathan Chenwon’t compete in Anaheim but is expected at the upcoming world championships.

Pairs

The highly anticipated international season debut for Sui Wenjing and Han Cong highlights the pairs field. The PyeongChang silver medalists and 2017 world champions missed the fall Grand Prix Series as Sui recovered from a stress fracture in her foot.

Sui and Han’s teammates Peng Cheng and Jin Yang will also be in the hunt for the podium, as well as Canada’s Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro.

An American team could sneak onto the podium as well. Newly-crowned national champions Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc lead the charge, alongside national silver medalists Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier and fourth-place finishers Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea.

Kayne and O’Shea won the event last year, and were joined on the podium by Cain and LeDuc who earned silver.

Ice dance

Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue have won everything they’ve entered this season: Skate America, Skate Canada, the Grand Prix Final, and the U.S. Championships. They could lead a U.S. dance podium sweep alongside their Montreal-based training mates Madison Chock and Evan Bates and Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, who finished second and third at nationals.

Canada’s Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, however, look to split up the Americans. They only competed once this season, winning the B-level Autumn Classic, and instead toured in shows throughout the fall. They won Four Continents in 2015.

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Four Continents Figure Skating Championships broadcast schedule (all times Eastern): 

Thursday

3:30 p.m.: Ladies’ short program (GOLD STREAM LINK), also on NBCSN beginning at 5 p.m.

9:15 p.m.: Men’s short program (GOLD STREAM LINK), also on NBCSN beginning at 11:30 p.m.

Friday 

2:45 p.m.: Pairs’ short program (GOLD STREAM LINK)

6 p.m.: Rhythm dance (GOLD STREAM LINK)

10 p.m.: Ladies’ free skate (GOLD STREAM LINK), also on NBCSN beginning at midnight

Saturday 

5 p.m.: Pairs’ free skate (GOLD STREAM LINK)

10 p.m.: Men’s free skate (GOLD STREAM LINK), also on NBCSN beginning at 11 p.m.

Sunday 

4 p.m.: Free dance (GOLD STREAM LINK), also on NBCSN beginning at midnight

New Japanese phenom Rika Kihira more than a new Miss Triple Axel

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After popping her triple Axel in the Internationaux de France short program, Rika Kihira, the new Japanese phenom, promised she would “double check” her trademark jump the next day, for her free skate.

The 16-year-old hit in morning practice, both by itself and in combination with a triple toe loop, a feat she was the first and still the only one in the world to accomplish. When she took the ice for competition in Grenoble for her free skate, she was determined to land it twice.

She did hit it to open the skate, but it was deemed underrotated, and she could only land a double Axel-triple toe combination instead of the planned triple-triple.

“I couldn’t condition my body well,” Kihira said apologetically, through an interpreter.

She nonetheless won the Grand Prix two weeks ago in the same, come-from-behind fashion she captured NHK Trophy on home ice two weeks earlier.

The triple Axel is far from Kihira’s only weapon. The triple flip-triple toe she landed in her short was also the mark of a great champion, as she landed it not only perfectly, but at full speed.

But still, Kihira was not satisfied with her performance.

“I did what I could, really. My muscles were not adjusting to the competition,” she said, unassumingly. “I’ll work to score a new personal best at the Final.”

Kihira goes into this week’s Grand Prix Final with the highest score of the six-skater field from the Grand Prix season. If anybody is to knock off Olympic champion Alina Zagitova, Kihira has the highest ceiling.

Mastering a triple Axel made Kihira an instant hit in Japan.

“Her reputation was more or less sleeping until three weeks ago, but her clear-cut victory [at NHK] in Hiroshima made her one of Japan’s hottest persons,” a Japanese agent said. “She gives a good face to what Japanese skating will be in the future.”

Kihira has not always been a skating sensation, however.

“When she came to me some five years ago, Rika couldn’t perform any triple jumps,” said her coach, Mie Hamada. “But she already had a high potential, however, and I saw it right away. Rika could run fast. She practiced gymnastics so she had developed a good upper body – in fact the only thing she couldn’t do was skating.

“The first thing I did was not to increase her rotational speed; it was to center her body correctly in the air as she was jumping. When she mastered it, I could start teaching her triples.

“If I compare Rika with Satoko Miyahara [Hamada’s other star pupil], Satoko doesn’t have strong jumping capabilities, so I taught her to rotate faster. Rika has a stronger jumping ability. She already has a quadruple jump [though not yet landed in competition]. Actually, the first day I saw her skate, five years ago, I was convinced that she could master a triple Axel.”

Miyahara, also in the Grand Prix Final, has been instrumental for Kihira.

“She not only is a hard worker,” Kihira said. “She helped me consider how to deal with competition. I always watched how she trained.”

When Kihira skates, she achieves a subtle balance between the incredible strength of her jumps and an equally impressive inner peace.

“Until last year, I couldn’t show my strength in competition,” said Kihira, an impressive third at last season’s Japanese senior championships and eighth at junior worlds. “I just built upon the experience I got. Each time I was losing my focus or making a mistake, I tried not to repeat my mistakes.”

Only two Japanese women have won the exclusive Grand Prix Final since its inception: Fumie Suguri (2003) and Asada (2005, 2008, 2012, 2013). Kihira could very well succeed them. Just like Asada, with that triple Axel.

“I don’t want to put too much forces into jumping,” Hamada said. “Just hit them at the right time and relax. This is true for jumps, but also for spins and every movement. Just make it natural. Also, I like to feel the edges. No noise. No sound. Even for as technical an element as a triple Axel, skate natural.”

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series 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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