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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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How to watch the U.S. Synchronized Skating Championships on NBC Sports Gold

Jay Adeff/U.S. Figure Skating
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More than 1,600 synchronized figure skaters from 95 teams will compete in the 2019 U.S. Synchronized Skating Championships held Feb. 27 to March 2 in Plymouth, Michigan. NBC Sports Gold’s “Figure Skating Pass” will live stream the junior, senior, and collegiate events.

It is the final qualifying event before U.S. Figure Skating selects teams to send to the world championships.

More from U.S. Figure Skating:

“Synchronized skating has deep roots in the Michigan community. The sport was founded by the late Dr. Richard Porter and his Hockettes in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1956. Dr. Porter was inducted into the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 2018 and will be honored in a special ceremony on Friday night following the junior free skate. At this year’s event, 13 teams from eight clubs will represent the state of Michigan in Plymouth, including the historic Hockettes, 2018 U.S. senior pewter medalists Crystallettes and Adrian College.”

Synchronized Skating Championships schedule (all times Eastern)

Thursday

6:45 p.m.: Junior short program (GOLD LINK)

Friday

5:20 p.m.: Senior short program (GOLD LINK)

6:10 p.m.: Junior free skate (GOLD LINK)

Saturday

2 p.m.: Collegiate free skate (GOLD LINK)

7:15 p.m.: Senior free skate (GOLD LINK)

Other events will stream on U.S. Figure Skating’s Fan Zone, including:

  • Thursday, 2:35-4:40 p.m.: Novice free skate
  • Thursday, 4:55-6:20 p.m.: Masters free skate
  • Friday, 3:10-5:05 p.m.: Intermediate free skate
  • Saturday, 12:10-1:55 p.m.: Juvenile free skate
  • Saturday, 5-7 p.m.: Adult free skate

MORE: Armed with new attitude, Michal Brezina is having his best season yet

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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Brittany Bowe wins overall bronze at the World Sprint Championships

US Speedskating
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HEERENVEEN, Netherlands – Two-time Olympian Brittany Bowe celebrated her 31st birthday on Sunday by winning a bronze overall medal at the 2019 World Sprint Championships.

All athletes at the event skate two 500m races and two 1000m races. The times for those distances are converted to points using the samalog system, and the skater with the lowest total from all four races wins the championship.

In Saturday’s races, Bowe won gold in the first 1000m with a time of 1:14.60. She holds the track record in the 1000m at the Thialf Ice Arena (1:13.24) where earlier in the day she finished fifth in her first 500m event (37.89).

Bowe’s second day of races got her two silver medals; 500m (37.67) and 1000m (1:14.64). Her total time for all events (150.18) earned her a bronze medal for the overall event.

For the ladies, Japanese skaters Nao Kodaira and Miho Takagi took the overall first and second spots with a combined time of 149.665 and 150.050 respectively. Kodaira is the current world record holder in the 1000m (1:12.09).

Full results are here.

Kimi Goetz made her debut appearance at the sprint championships, after switching from short track skating last fall. Her first 500m landed her in 15th (38.49) and in her first 1000m, she finished in 19th (1:17.14). During the second day of racing, Kimi finished 16th in her 500m (38.81) and 16th in her 1000m (1:16.85) to come in 17th overall (154.295).

“I think that each time I go to the starting line, I’m improving my race execution and track patterns,” Goetz said through US Speedskating. “I still have a ton to learn but getting four more races at this level is a great opportunity for me. I have two more competitions left for the season [World Cup Finals mass start and the Calgary Finale], so I’m trying to take advantage of every race opportunity I have.”

This was also the first sprint championships for Brianna Bocox. Bocox’s first 500m time was 39.47 and she finished her 1000m with a time of 1:18.37. In her second 500m, she crossed the line at 39.67 and the 1000m at 1:19.24. Her combined time of 157.945 earned her 22nd overall.

“It was an extremely amazing opportunity to compete at my first World Sprint Championships in Thialf,” Bocox said. “The crowd and venue is one-of-a-kind!

Two-time Olympian Joey Mantia raced the first day of the championship event but decided not to compete the second day due to an ongoing back problem.

“I’ve had some issues with my back this season, on and off, starting in September,” Mantia said. “After getting on the ice for warm-up today, I wasn’t confident that I could race today and not make it worse. So I decided to rest and hopefully be ready for the world cup final in a couple of weeks.”

Russia’s Pavel Kulizhnikov won the overall men’s title (137.390), followed by Japan’s Tatsuya Shinhama (137.805) and Dutch skater Kjeld Nuis (1:37.86).

Both Mantia and Bowe won World Single Distance Championships titles two weeks ago in Inzell, Germany. Mantia is the world champion for the Mass Start and Bowe is the 1000m world champion.

Long track skaters will race in the World Cup Finals at the Utah Olympic Oval, Mar. 9-10. Bowe has won 12 world cup medals and Mantia has won a silver world cup medal this season.

MORE: Joey Mantia wins Mass Start at World Single Distance Championships

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