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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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Behind the scenes at Grand Prix France: Day 3

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Jean-Christophe Berlot is on the ground in Grenoble to cover Internationaux de France, the sixth and final Grand Prix event in the series before the Grand Prix Final. This is his behind-the-scenes look at the competition on the second day of competition.

 

Hairy rotations

Discovering Jason Brown’s new look makes one wonder: was he asked to cut it off to increase his rotational speed and enhance his quad abilities, as any mechanical engineer would suggest? “Not at all!” Brian Orser, his coach, answered in a big laugh.

The reason is purely aesthetics. When you make as big a change as he made, you need to make a statement: in your program, in your image, in your look. Then… Snap! But it was tough for him, because it was really his thing.” So far the change was worthwhile!

Jason’s France

Brown’s outings in France have always been big successes for him. The first time he came, back in 2013, he became an overnight sensation in Paris after an exhilarating free skate to “Riverdance,” which was to conquer the United States at the subsequent Nationals. This time he won the short program, some 5.55 points ahead of Alexander Samarin, and 9.47 points ahead of third place Nathan Chen.

“I want to compete and I’m so determined on quads. But it’s nice to be rewarded for what you’re doing,” Brown commented afterwards. “I admire these guys for pushing the sport the way they do, but I won’t give up the artistic side, and I’ll keep pushing them on that side as well.” Brown’s French revolution is on its way!

What is love?

Team USA’s Jason Brown, who brilliantly won the short program Friday afternoon in Grenoble, kindly explained why he elected to skate to “Love is a Bitch” this season.

“The story of this program started when I was taking time off after my season was over, last year. My sister sent it to me, like: ‘I just listened to this!’ It was like a joke, in fact, because there was ‘love’ in the title, and the two pieces of music I had used last season had ‘love’ in their title as well [‘The Scent of Love’ and ‘Inner Love’]. It ignited a kind of a fire within me. I thought it was a different variation of love, and a different way of connecting to a different side of me. It was … I wouldn’t say a revenge, as I am not chasing anyone for revenge, but it was like I’m hungry for more. I’m not over yet! And this program pushes me a little different.”

Japanese corner

Japanese fans are known for their generosity toward the skaters. It seems you could even measure the density of Japanese people in a crowd by the number of flowers and plush toys they send to one of their skaters (or someone they love, like Nathan Chen or Deniss Vasiljevs, their two heavy favorites in Grenoble).

Quite visibly, the short side of the rink, where the kiss and cry has been set, is a Japanese corner. When Marin Honda, Rika Kihira and Mai Mihara skated, the short side of the rink with was like a blooming tulip field in the Netherlands in spring time! With several colored plush toys among them. Well done, ladies, only Yevgenia Medvedeva managed to avoid a Japanese sweep of the intermediate podium!

Is this censorship?

Everybody knows how strong Guillaume Cizeron is on the ice. Friday’s post-event press conference proved he was also strong behind a microphone. While he was holding it, making again a strong comment about their performance, the articulated the arm of the microphone collapsed on the table. Ask Mai Mihara, Alexandra Boikova and Dmitrii Kozlovskii, who also won their event and used the same microphone: they had to hold it to talk. Who wants the winners to fight with their microphone?

Skating pairs and pairs on skates

Russia’s Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitrii Kozlozkii had a different perspective over their first-place finish after the pairs’ short program Friday night.

“I feel myself not in my place, sitting with such great skaters at this table,” Kozlovskii offered at the post-event press conference, as his team was sitting between North Korea’s Tae Ok Ryom and Ju Sik Kim, to their right, and France’s Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès, to their left.

It’s completely our place, I think!” Boikova added right after her partner’s comment… And the duo kept arguing together for a few seconds before they recomposed. A pair has to be a pair – and your partner will always be a mystery anyway…

For your (blue) eyes only

Boikova and Kozlovskii gave an interesting rendering of their short program, set to “Dark Eyes.”

“This program was set by Natalia Bestemianova and Igor Bobrin,” Boikova explained [Bestemianova won the Olympic gold medal with Andrei Bukin in 1988 and Igor Bobrin is the 1981 European gold medalist].

“Tamara (Moskvina, who coaches the team in St. Petersburg) asked them to come working with us. They made our last two short programs,” Kozlovskii added. “And guess what? Both Dmitrii and I have blue eyes, not dark ones!” Boikova said in a smile.

Make him quiet!

Russia’s Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov won the second place in their rhythm dance Friday night, after the brilliant silver medal they won at Skate Canada. Katsalapov, who won an Olympic bronze medal with Elena Ilinykh back in 2014, had to significantly change his style of skating after he joined forces with Sinitsina, some four years ago. This season the duo seems to have found its balance.

“Everything, every business takes time,” Katsalapov explained. “Time is the main thing. All coaches I’ve had have wanted me to be calmer, just like I skated tonight. But the truth is … I can be like a street dog. The one who calms me is Vika [Sinitsina’s nickname]. She is passionate, yet peaceful. That saves me lots of energy, which I give to her. I trust her, and I’m relaxed when I feel her with the music.”

Find your partner’s inner energy, align yours with it, and you’ll reach the top of the world!

Last official practice

Is there anything more thrilling than arriving in the early morning and hearing some skating music coming out of the rink? The men started early Saturday morning, followed by ice dancers and ladies. The last group of the ladies event was particularly impressive, with Russia’s Yevgenia Medvedeva, Japan’s Mai Mihira and Rika Kihira, and Team USA’s Bradie Tennell on the same ice sheet.

“Today I was not able to visualize the triple Axel well,” a disappointed Kihira had stated Friday night, after she missed her trademark jump in the short program. “So tomorrow at practice I’ll focus more and double-check on my triple Axel,” she promised. The audience in attendance was not disappointed, as she nailed her triple Axel – alone and in combination with a triple toe, even in her run-through!

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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MORE: Nathan Chen rallies, wins GP France, sets possible Yuzuru Hanyu matchup

Javier Fernandez, skaters born in 2000s headline Cup of China; preview

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PyeongChang will mark the first Winter Games with athletes born in the 2000s. Four of the top figure skating prospects compete at Cup of China, the third of six Grand Prix series stops, live on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA on Friday and Saturday.

Spain’s Javier Fernandez, a two-time world champion, is not one of those fresh-faced phenoms. But he is the most accomplished singles skater in this week’s field.

His competition includes U.S. silver medalist Vincent Zhou, who was 6 years old when Fernandez made his world debut in 2007.

Three women at Cup of China were born in 2001 or 2002, including the last two world junior champions. They’ll face Canadian Gabrielle Daleman, the world bronze medalist. Daleman is a veteran in relation at age 19.

The Cup of China live broadcast schedule on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA (all times Eastern):

Friday
Short Dance — 3:30 a.m.
Women’s Short — 5 a.m.
Men’s Short — 7 a.m.
Pairs Short — 9 a.m.

Saturday
Men’s Free — 2:30 a.m.
Free Dance — 4:30 a.m.
Pairs Free — 6:30 a.m.
Women’s Free — 9 a.m.

NBC will air a recap show Sunday from 4:30-6 p.m. ET. All coverage will stream on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app. Olympic Channel coverage will also stream on Olympicchannel.com and the Olympic Channel app.

Men
Nobody has been as consistent in Grand Prix events than Javier Fernandez the last three seasons.

The Spaniard, seeking his nation’s first Winter Olympic medal since 1992, has won five straight titles dating to 2014. But he missed the podium at the two biggest events last season — placing fourth at the Grand Prix Final and at worlds, where he led after the short program seeking a three-peat.

China’s Jin Boyang, bronze medalist at the last two worlds, is Fernandez’s biggest competition this weekend. The 20-year-old is capable of attempting five quads in a program (first done successfully by Nathan Chen in January). Jin won his season opener, a lower-level event four weeks ago, despite falling three times between two programs.

Then there’s Vincent Zhou, the U.S. silver medalist making his Grand Prix debut at age 17. Zhou is favored to become the youngest U.S. Olympic male singles skater since 1964 on the strength of his jumps. Zhou can do four quads in one program, more than any U.S. man aside from Chen. Zhou was 2.59 points behind Jin at that lower-level event four weeks ago.

Also in the field: Russian champion Mikhail Kolyada, 2013 U.S. champion Max Aaron

Women
A good case to be made that this week’s winner joins Yevgenia Medvedeva and Kaetlyn Osmond as the Olympic medal favorites.

Medvedeva and Osmond, the world gold and silver medalists, won the first two Grand Prix events with ease.

This week’s field is led by surprise world bronze medalist Gabrielle Daleman of Canada and the last two world junior champions in Russian Alina Zagitova and Marin Honda of Japan. Plus Wakaba Higuchi, who is ranked third in the world this season. Zagitova, Honda and Higuchi were all born in 2001 or 2002.

Daleman, 19, has made six Grand Prix starts and never made the podium. She broke out last winter, taking second at the Four Continents Championships in February and third at worlds in March. However, she fell three times between two programs at her lower-level season debut earlier this month, placing sixth.

Zagitova, born three months after the 2002 Olympics, is ranked second in the world this season via her senior international debut victory at a low-level event in Italy. She can tighten a grip on one of Russia’s three Olympic spots this week given recent struggles from veterans Yelena Radionova and Anna Pogorilaya.

Honda entered this season in Zagitova’s company as must-watch senior debutantes, but she bombed in the short program at Skate Canada last week and finished fifth overall. The Japanese women have little room for error with just two Olympic spots available.

Which makes this week so interesting. Honda goes up against Higuchi, who took bronze at the Grand Prix opener two weeks ago, and Mai Mihara, who was fifth at worlds last year. An interested onlooker has to be Satoko Miyahara, the three-time reigning Japanese champion who makes her season debut next week.

Also in the field: 2015 World champion Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, Radionova, American Amber Glenn.

Pairs
Chinese pairs will benefit not only from home-ice advantage, but also that no other pairs from the top eight at worlds are in this field.

So Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, who went silver-silver-gold at the last three worlds, and Yu Xiaoyu and Zhang Hao, fourth at their worlds debut together last season, should go one-two this week.

If Sui and Han repeat either of their total scores from last season (injury-shortened), they will move to the top of this season’s pairs rankings.

U.S. bronze medalists Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc make their Grand Prix debut filling in for Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea. The U.S. can send one pair to the Olympics. Cain and LeDuc could really use a personal best to impress selectors. They don’t have the recent national or international success that Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier and Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim can boast.

Ice Dance
Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir aren’t in the field this week. That’s good news for the chances of France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, who are undefeated against the rest of the world the last 34 months.

Papadakis and Cizeron, world champions in 2015 and 2016, must deal with the incredible pressure of trying to keep up with Virtue and Moir. In their last six competitions, the Canadians posted six of the seven highest scores under an eight-year-old system.

Papadakis and Cizeron’s personal best from 2017 Worlds is now 3.82 points behind the most recent best by Virtue and Moir set in Canada last week.

Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates have measuring sticks, too. Those are the scores posted by Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue (189.43) and Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani (189.24) the last two weeks.

Those are almost certainly going to be the three U.S. dance couples in PyeongChang, but given the Canadian and French dominance, there may only be one medal available to them in February.

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