Alina Zagitova, Rika Kihira
AP

Alina Zagitova faces unfamiliar test at Grand Prix Final — a younger rival

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Alina Zagitova made history merely by showing up this fall. No other Olympic women’s singles champion competed the following autumn in the Grand Prix era.

To the 16-year-old Russian’s credit, she rebounded from a fifth-place stumble at March’s season-ending world championships to sweep her three starts this season, posting the world’s highest score in her September debut.

She is the favorite at this week’s Grand Prix Final but, technically, does not have the highest ceiling. And that’s going to be the story for at least Zagitova’s near future.

“In the Grand Prix [season], she hasn’t been her absolute best; she’s leaving the door slightly open,” NBC Sports analyst Tara Lipinski said. “It’s the most vulnerable she’s been.”

GP FINAL PREVIEWS: Men | Women | Pairs | Ice DanceTV Schedule

Another 16-year-old, first-year senior Rika Kihira of Japan, had the highest score of the Grand Prix season (but hasn’t faced Zagitova). She has an inconsistent triple Axel, landing it clean and fully rotated two out of five tries between two Grand Prix starts.

Zagitova, who benefited last season from performing all of her jumps in the second half of programs for bonuses (a rule now limits this), does not have a triple Axel, and she should get familiar to facing skaters with more difficult jumps.

Not only has Kihira arrived, but also two 14-year-old Russians in the Grand Prix Final’s junior competition this week can land quadruple jumps.

NBC Sports analyst Johnny Weir said the senior event conjures the 2005 Grand Prix Final, when a 15-year-old Mao Asada landed a triple Axel and beat reigning world champion Irina Slutskaya, despite not being age-eligible for the Olympics two months later.

“Rika is probably the one athlete that I would say I’m most excited about seeing in this Final,” Lipinski said.

There are other contenders in the six-woman field at the second-biggest annual international competition. Satoko Miyahara had the highest combined score between two Grand Prix starts. Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, the 2015 World champion, had a resurgent fall, landing a triple Axel with a positive grade of execution for the first time in nearly three years.

If everyone skates to their ability, Kihira is the class of the challengers to Zagitova’s repeat bid in Vancouver. That’s not to say Zagitova has stopped progressing.

“There’s a confidence and a bit more maturity,” Weir said.

Especially in relation to the Japanese phenom. Zagitova outscored Kihira by 21 points in program components (artistic marks) combining each woman’s four Grand Prix skates this fall.

“Rika Kihira looks inexperienced in comparison to Zagitova, just when they take the ice,” Weir said. “Rika skates to her opening position, and Alina skates to her opening position, there’s a whole different level of confidence there.”

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 HERE 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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Rika Kihira lands two triple Axels, with Shoma Uno makes it Japan sweep at NHK

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Rika Kihira has arrived on the senior Grand Prix.

Kihira, 16, became the first woman to land two fully rotated triple Axels in one program on the top senior international level since Mao Asada at the 2010 Olympics and the youngest Japanese skater to win a Grand Prix since Kanako Murakami, also in 2010.

Kihira leaped from fifth after Friday’s short program to win NHK Trophy in Hiroshima on Saturday, beating winners of two of the first three Grand Prix events — Japanese Satoko Miyahara and Russian Elizaveta Tuktamysheva. It was her senior Grand Prix debut.

Kihira’s free-skate and total scores (154.72 and 224.31, boosted by an opening triple Axel-triple toe loop combination and standalone triple Axel) rank second in the world this season behind Olympic champion Alina Zagitova, whom she will likely face at December’s Grand Prix Final.

Kihira came into NHK as a wild card. Eighth at last season’s junior worlds, she won her senior international debut in September with two triple Axels in her free at a lower-level event. She fell on an under-rotated triple Axel in Friday’s short program, putting her six points behind Tuktamysheva and training partner Miyahara.

“Yesterday there were some concerns about my triple Axel, but in the morning practice I checked on my Axel, and this was reflected in my performance,” Kihira said, according to the International Skating Union. “After the short program I wasn’t sure if I could come back and be here today. The mistake motivated me today, but I didn’t imagine I could get such a high score.”

Tuktamysheva, the only other senior woman performing the triple Axel, turned out of her landing in Saturday’s free skate. Miyahara had two under-rotated jumps and an edge call, but passed the Russian for silver by .45. Mariah Bell was the top American in fifth.

Kihira still has maturing to do, evidenced by ceding four points to the elegant Miyahara in artistic marks.

“[Kihira] is working very hard on the artistry, because I want her to become a very beautiful lady skater with triple Axel and quad,” the Japanese stars’ coach, Mie Hamadasaid last month. “This year I am not planning to have quads in her programs, but I want beautiful edges, beautiful flow.”

NHK TROPHY: Results | TV/Stream Schedule

Shoma Uno won the men’s event for a Japanese singles sweep. The Olympic and world silver medalist attempted six quads between two programs, with a fall and missed combination in the short program and some messy landings in the free.

He totaled 276.45 points and remains ranked third in the world this season behind Yuzuru Hanyu and Nathan Chen, whom he will likely face at the Grand Prix Final.

Russian Sergei Voronov took silver, 22.17 points back, followed by Matteo Rizzo, the first Italian man to earn a Grand Prix singles medal. U.S. Olympian Vincent Zhou was fourth, then revealed on social media that he was off skates the week before with a dislocated shoulder.

Earlier Saturday, Russians Natalya Zabiyako and Alexander Enbert and Chinese Peng Cheng and Jin Yang qualified for the Grand Prix Final by going one-two in pairs. U.S. Olympians Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim improved from fourth after Friday’s short to take bronze, their first Grand Prix medal in three years.

Zabiyako and Enbert, who were seventh at the Olympics, won back-to-back Grand Prix events and rank second in the world this season behind French Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres, who were not in the NHK field. None of the Olympic medalists are competing on the Grand Prix series.

Russians Tiffany Zahorski and Jonathan Guerreiro topped the rhythm dance with 75.49 points. U.S. couples Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker and Rachel Parsons and Michael Parsons are in second and third, respectively, going into Sunday’s free dance.

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 HERE 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: Bradie Tennell working to hammer home jumps

Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, Shoma Uno lead NHK Trophy

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Russian Elizaveta Tuktamysheva landed her second triple Axel in as many Grand Prix short programs, while Shoma Uno fell, but both skaters lead after the first day at NHK Trophy.

Tuktamysheva, who had struggled since winning the 2015 World title, leads Japanese Satoko Miyahara by .09 of a point going into Saturday’s free skate in Hiroshima. Both are looking to clinch spots in December’s exclusive, six-skater Grand Prix Final after winning Grand Prix series titles earlier this season.

Tuktamysheva, after going nearly three years between landing clean triple Axels in competition, has now done it in both of her Grand Prix starts this fall. Her short-program score Friday — 76.17 — ranks second in the world this season behind Olympic champion Alina Zagitova.

The elegant Miyahara, a two-time world medalist, beat Tuktamysheva on the components (artistic) score. Another Japanese skater, Mai Mihara, is in third. The top American is Mariah Bell in seventh.

NHK TROPHY: Results | TV/Stream Schedule

Uno, the Olympic and world silver medalist and overwhelming favorite at NHK, leads Russian Sergey Voronov by 1.12 despite falling on a quadruple toe loop and not having a jumping combination. Uno tallied 92.49 points.

U.S. Olympian Vincent Zhou was fifth with two under-rotated jumps, three weeks after being dinged for seven under rotations between two Skate America programs.

Earlier in pairs, Russians Natalya Zabiyako and Alexander Enbert skated a clean, 73.48-point short to take a 2.82 lead over Chinese Peng Cheng and Jin Yang.

Only French Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres, who are not at NHK, have scored higher in the short this season.

Americans Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim and Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea were fourth and fifth after trouble with their side-by-side triple Salchows.

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 HERE 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!

MORE: Bradie Tennell working to hammer home jumps