Mao Asada

Getty Images

How Japan built figure skating powerhouse

Leave a comment

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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Ice Age: Should a country’s senior nationals include figure skaters frozen out of senior – or even junior – world championships?

AP
Leave a comment

Over three days in late January, Alysa Liu turned into a sensation whose fame briefly reached beyond her sport.

Liu went from becoming, at age 13, the youngest senior national champion in U.S. figure skating history to appearances on TODAY and the Late Show with Jimmy Fallon, charming both viewers and the hosts.

And then, because of her age, Liu disappeared from not only the wider stage provided by those shows but also from figure skating’s stage until next season.

The situation is similar for the three young women, Anna Shcherbakova, Alexandra Trusova and Alena Kostornaia, then 14, 14 and 15, respectively, who swept the senior podium at the Russian Championships in December.

And for Stephen Gogolev, 14, senior silver medalist at the Canadian national championships in January.

At least the three Russians and Gogolev made the minimum age cutoff for this week’s World Junior Championships in Zagreb, Croatia, although Kostornaia withdrew for unspecified medical reasons. Liu is too young even for junior worlds.

But none of those five are old enough to compete in the senior world championships later this month in Japan.

That means the premier figure skating event of this season will be missing five of the best and most compelling skaters – at least as determined by national championship results – from three of the world’s traditionally powerful skating countries.

That’s enough to leave even dedicated figure skating fans scratching their heads. And it cannot help gain fans in the United States, where interest in the sport is flagging, among the people who might stumble upon NBC’s coverage of senior worlds and wonder what happened to that Liu kid.

That raises the issue of whether national federations should have the same age eligibility rules as those the International Skating Union applies to international events. Since 2001, an athlete must be 15 by the July 1 before a season begins to compete as a senior in international championships and 13 by that date for junior events.

That question has taken on new significance because of the current iteration of the sport’s judging and scoring system (IJS), first used at Worlds (with different parameters) in 2005.

The system now has made it possible for advanced 13- and 14-year-olds, whose often pre-pubescent morphology makes it easier to do the most difficult jumps, to get enough technical points to overcome their lack of mature skating skills and presentation.

In the past, phenoms like Tara Lipinski and Michelle Kwan could go from winning senior national titles and medals to compete as seniors internationally before their 15th birthday. Whether that was a good or bad idea is open to a debate that the sport’s current realities has revived.

“I fully understand the concern about the confusion that the various age limit rules may create, and I fully agree that it would be much wiser to have the same rules nationally and internationally,” Fabio Bianchetti of Italy, chair of the ISU’s single & pair skating committee, said in an email. “I find (it) nonsense to allow 11-year-old girls to compete in senior events and national championships.

“Unfortunately, the ISU cannot interfere in national regulations, but I definitely would support the idea of discussing the matter with the various federations concerned and try to convince them of the importance of having their champions to represent them in senior ISU Championships.”

That discussion likely won’t get far, given the feelings of national federations like Russia, Canada and the United States.

“While the ISU has rules based on age, U.S. Figure Skating does not – and will not – impede the advancement of an athlete in domestic competitions based on age,” USFS president Anne Cammett said in an email.

“U.S. Figure Skating’s position on performance continues to be based on proficiency and achievement as opposed to age categories… We will continue to follow what the organization believes is in the best interests of our skaters in their pursuit of excellence.”

Through a spokesperson, Skate Canada chief executive Debra Armstrong said her federation is satisfied with the system that allows athletes to compete in senior national events before they are eligible for such events internationally.

Alexander Lakernik of Russia, the ISU’s top figure skating official, said via email, “It is not so evident that federations who allow their young skaters to compete in seniors are wrong.”

Lakernik, like Bianchetti, noted the ISU has no authority to interfere in the rules of national federations.

Lakernik contested the idea that very young skaters could not win in seniors under IJS until recently, noting that Adelina Sotnikova had won the Russian Championship at age 12 and gone on five seasons later to become 2014 Olympic champion. But when Sotnikova won her country’s 2009 senior nationals, Russian women’s singles skating was struggling toward at its lowest ebb since the early 1980s.

Another eminent Russian, venerable coach Alexei Mishin, said in a text message he “completely agreed” with the idea national federations should use the same age rules as the international federation.

As part of its selection process for the World Junior Championships, the Japanese Skating Federation allows the top six finishers from its junior nationals to compete in the senior event about a month later. In an email, the JSF said its records show no junior ever has won its senior national title.

Japan’s Mao Asada, an eventual three-time world senior champion and 2010 Olympic silver medalist, won the 2005 national silver medal at 14. Asada could not compete at senior worlds that year or the Olympics in 2006, when she would have been a gold medal contender.

“Some people have the opinion that you want the best at competition,” said Canadian coach Brian Orser. “Others think if they are going to compete as seniors, they probably should be that age at nationals. I have no opinion either way.”

In sports like gymnastics and Alpine skiing, the U.S. federations use the same age rules for senior events as its international federation. In gymnastics, it is 16 in the calendar year of a competition for women and 18 for men. In skiing, it is 16 during the calendar year, so Mikaela Shiffrin, now the sport’s leading woman at 23, was able to do her first World Cup race two days before her 16th birthday.

Track and field follows different national and international rules.

USA Track & Field has no minimum age for men in senior (or “open”) track and field championships and a minimum of 14 for women. At this year’s world championships, minimums vary by event, with the endurance events requiring an older minimum, and all athletes must have been born before 2004.

In addition to facing questions about harmonizing national and international age minimums, figure skating officials have been talking about raising the international minimums. Although a so-called “urgent” proposal to raise it to 17 for seniors did not make it to floor discussion at last summer’s biennial ISU Congress, the issue is expected to come up again in 2020.

Laura Lipetsky, who coaches Liu, has repeatedly said she and her skater are not frustrated by having her held back internationally by her birth date because they were aware of the rules in place.

But Lipetsky unsurprisingly is opposed to the age restrictions.

“Minimum age requirements shouldn’t be a factor in sending a qualified skater to either nationals or worlds. A skater should be judged strictly on her talents,” Lipetsky said in a text message.

“Many have made the argument that a minimum age should be established in order to make sure that we have mature skaters on a world stage. Unfortunately, in ice skating a person’s age does not establish their maturity level. Many girls mature at different ages.

“A 12-year-old skater can have mastered all the triple jumps for a high technical score but lack the maturity to score high in the artistry marks. In this scenario, she will probably not score high overall marks. You can take another skater who is 12 but mature for her age, (who) has all of the triple jumps and the maturity level to score high in artistry. A skater’s maturity level should not judged by an age, but by their performance.”

Coincidentally, while Liu won’t be competing at junior or senior worlds this month, she will have another turn in the spotlight for a non-sports audience this Friday, when VH1 airs its annual Trailblazer Honors.

Liu is being recognized as an “Everyday Trailblazer” in this year’s awards, which are centered on breakthroughs in female empowerment. Other honorees include House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, filmmaker Ava DuVernay, #MeToo founder Tarana Burke and “The Handmaid’s Tale” author Margaret Burke.

Pretty heady company for a 13-year-old, even if you could bet she would rather be with kids around her own age when they skate the short program Friday at junior worlds.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating

MORE: Jason Brown didn’t think he’d make PyeongChang without a quad, sees season as stepping stone

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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

European Championships analysis: Female Russian skaters stars rise fast, but burn out too soon

AP
Leave a comment

Jean-Christophe Berlot is on the ground in Minsk, Belarus to cover the European Championships. This is his analysis of the pace and progression of women’s skating around the world.

Eteri Tutberidze, the renowned Russian coach, declined all interviews in Minsk, Belarus, the setting for the 2019 European Championships. The organization of the practice and main rinks made it possible for coaches to have no interaction at all with journalists during the week. Tutberidze could not be seen in the mixed zones, and she could flee the practice rink through underground paths that were not open to the press.

“I don’t know what I could say,” she politely answered when an interview request was made.

The same was true for Alina Zagitova, her star pupil. Zagitova, the Olympic champion, lost her 2018 European crown to Russian Sofia Samodurova.

Tutberidze was nonetheless quite a disputed behind-the-scenes topic in Minsk.

“The problem is that Eteri is very much criticized in Russia at the moment,” a noted Russian journalist explained. “People think that she pushes her pupils at a very young age and after a year or two they are done for the sport.”

True – Russian skating has been characterized by a never-seen turnover of its female wunderkinds in the recent years: Yulia Lipnitskaya was an instant star in 2014 and disappeared; Adelina Sotnikova won her Olympic gold and turned to other endeavors.

Yevgenia Medvedeva could have had the same fortune, had she not decided to move to Canada. The perspective of seeing Zagitova disappear can’t be discarded. And many more lesser known skaters left the radar as well.

The system has best demonstrated its nonsense at Russian nationals, one month ago, as the top three at the senior championship were not even allowed to compete on the senior level internationally. Skaters placed fourth, fifth, and sixth at Nationals were selected for these Europeans, namely Samodurova, Zagitova and Stanislava Konstantinova.

Tutberidze is far from being the sole responsible of what could be called the “Kleenex syndrome” of female skating – you take one, use it, and then throw it.

The turmoil is even amplified in Russia by the tons of hate messages that flood each day on social media. The phenomenon is far from being mastered, especially since most messages are written anonymously under a pseudonym. They destabilize the best skaters.

“I don’t want to read those criticisms, but they are actually there, as toxic as they are,” Maria Sotskova, a prominent skater until last year, explained. “Athletes shouldn’t read internet comments. They make you more nervous and make you lose some of your confidence.”

Medvedeva had to make strong decisions a few months ago: “I never expected that there would be so much negative on social media, so I’ve made a strong rule between social networks and me,” she told NBCSports at her French Grand Prix outing two months ago. “The connection with social media is running through my agent, and I’m not using it anymore.”

She has since made a reappearance on social platforms, but to a lesser extent than the past.

Zagitova had to come to a complete black-out as well.

“After Russian nationals, my parents took away my phone and gave me another one, with no access to the internet,” she said to media in Minsk. “Now I’m reading books and I’m studying for school. I don’t see or hear anything about what is being said. No social media. I only watch TV serials.”

More than any other country, Russia has created somewhat of a system – mostly unconsciously at the start, however: create the best jumpers and spinners of the world at a very young age, when children obey without condition, and make them win before puberty. Hence the proposal to raise the age limit that was presented to the last ISU Congress.

It was rejected.

Age may not be the key factor anyway, as every girl grows at her own pace. It also differs from one continent to the next.

“The Causasian and the Asian people are quite different,” Japanese coach Mie Hamada acknowledged a few years ago. “The Caucasian bodies do change much more dramatically than the Asians’. We do have body changes, but they are not as big.”

She cited one of her star students, Satoko Miyahara, as a good example: “Satoko’s body is changing, but she works very hard every day and she can reset and adjust day after day to the change. I don’t have any trouble there.”

The system is expanding fast. In Japan, new star Rika Kihira, who won every competition she entered at her first senior year (and is coached by Hamada), has three triple Axels planned in each of her outings.

Alysa Liu, the new U.S. national champion, is on par with Kihira – except she doesn’t have the age limit to compete in the senior ranks. This age limit is in itself a tough constraint on skaters and their coach; the shooting window in a skater’s life is quite short, as it ranges between that age limit and puberty. Having an Olympics take place at that precise moment helps.

How long will these young ladies keep landing their triple Axel remains to be seen.

“You have the choice,” offered Igor Samohin, coach and father of 2016 world junior champion Daniel Samohin. “Either you push them right away to do everything, but then they will have a short skating life. Or you opt for a long career and, as Brian Orser says, you go step by step. At the same time, can a coach, a parent, a federation accept to take the risk of taking time and going step by step, knowing there is an additional risk at puberty?”

Examples of wunderkinds embarking into a long-term career do exist: Michelle Kwan and Irina Slutskaya, in the late 1990s, both won at a tender age and did succeed in staying many years at the top. As did Mao Asada. In those days as well as throughout the whole skating saga, the younger skaters were there to learn and grow, not to shine all at once and disappear, with the risk of mental health problems, disordered eating and depressions that spread out recently.

Samodurova and Konstantinova, the most physically mature of the Russian squad in Minsk, stated firmly that they were there to last in the sport.

Some common answers in Minsk were clear-cut: “This is sport. The wheel has to turn, and it’s just turning faster.”

If this is the route, then what sense does the age limit to access the senior ranks make?

Yet how does skating as a whole benefit from the Kleenex syndrome? The 2015 and 2016 Worlds gold medalist, Javier Fernandez, was clear, it’s penalizing skating: “Why would you come to watch a competition, if after just a few years a skater you had enjoyed watching doesn’t even compete anymore?” he asked.

The Kleenex route nonetheless seems to be favored nowadays. The embroidered tissue becomes the exception, at least in the ladies’ field. For sure the show will be quite different from what we have known it in the past.

The challenge for the best coaches of the world is to find a way to develop the Kwans and the Katarina Witts of tomorrow. Knowing Tutberidze enough, we may be confident that she is striving to do so.

MORE: Behind the scenes on Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 at the European Championships

As a reminder, you can watch the European 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!