Internationaux de France

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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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MORE: Yuzuru Hanyu withdraws from Grand Prix Final

North Korean pairs’ team takes next step after Olympic debut

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Apart from China, Asian countries still have to work their way up in pairs’ skating. North Korea progressed last season when Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik qualified outright for the Olympics in the fall. A missed entry deadline nearly derailed their plans, and their next major competition wasn’t until January’s Four Continents Championships.

Between competitions, much was written about the team and the six months they spent training in Montreal with renowned pairs coach Bruno Marcotte. They used Four Continents as an Olympic tune-up and won their country’s first ISU medal, a bronze.

In PyeongChang, they finished a creditable 13th place. A month later at worlds, 12th.

Ahead of Internationaux de France, they spent two weeks training with a local club in Villard de Lans.

“They absolutely don’t bear the image I would have expected from North Koreans,” Karine Arribert-Narce, a prominent ice dance coach in France, offered after the two weeks she spent with them. “They have developed a very strong artistic fiber. They were very interested in all the music pieces I had prepared for my own students. Each time they step on the ice, they start working right away and don’t speak one word. They radiate on the ice as they work.”

Ryom and Kim ultimately finished fourth in France. Their total score of 187.95 marked a personal best and puts them 12th in the world so far this season, though each of the Olympic medalists are not competing this fall, or retired.

Their team leader, Ri Chol-un, and coach, Kim Hyon-son, joined their NBCSports.com/figure-skating interview as interpreters from Korean to English. The team requested before the interview that it only dealt with his team’s skating.

Ri and Kim were prominent pair skaters in their own time in North Korea. “Back in 1992, our country organized international competitions,” Ri said. “I won medals in junior, but Ms. Kim was much better than I was. We never skated together. She participated in the first Asian Games in Sapporo. Then she went to university and graduated to become a coach.”

How satisfied are you about your performance in Grenoble?

Ri: Our athletes were not satisfied when they finished the competition in Grenoble. Their performance was not perfect, [Ryom did not launch her side-by-side double Axel], but they cried after their performance was over. These skaters love skating so much.

Did they enjoy skating in Grenoble?

Ri: Yes, they had pleasure skating there. Even though their performance in the free program was not so good, the audience cheered at them throughout.

How long do Ryom and Kim train every day?

Ri: They usually spend four hours a day on the ice, and two more hours off the ice. These days they skate two hours only, plus off-ice time. During competitions they have to control their body condition, so they reduce the amount of ice time.

Ju-sik, the way you accompany your partner as she comes back to the ice after a lift or a twist is smoother than most of your competitors. How do you work on this?

Kim: We work this way in practice, always. I hold her like if she were a flower bouquet. When I catch her or lift her, I feel responsible for her.

Ryom: I trust him a lot, too. That allows him to do that.

Kim: Our connection allows to do that. I have to be connected with her, always, even in practice. Coach’s requirement. All pairs have to be connected, right?

Are you married together?

Kim: No [smiling].

Another impressive feature of your skating is your unison, for example your side-by-side triple toe. How did you learn that?

Kim: First, we have to put our minds together. That’s the most important element. We practice many, many times.

Are there any specific technical elements you’re particularly working on?

Kim: After our first Grand Prix in Helsinki [they finished fifth], we worked on every single element and the overall performance in practice. We mostly focus on technical elements, especially the death spiral.

Your free program is set to a French song, “Je ne suis qu’une chanson” (or “I am only a song”), by Canadian singer Ginette Reno. How do you relate to it?

Kim: Our coach was very impressed by this song, and by the singer’s voice. There is a great passion and emotion in this song, and we can feel it. There is also a great passion and emotion in our skating. Our coach thought that it might be right for our personality.

What would you like to achieve in skating?

Ri: They would dream to be top skaters in the world. This year is the first year they participate in the Grand Prix Series. After the Olympic Games, the skaters and their coach hoped to skate in Grand Prix. Now, after two competitions, they have gained more experience with other skaters and coaches. This should allow them to improve and reach a new level toward that dream.

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: Yevgenia Medvedeva responds to social media criticism 

Jin Boyang explains this season’s setbacks

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GRENOBLE, France — China’s Jin Boyang, the 2016 and 2017 World bronze medalist, is considered part of the original “quad squad” that took figure skating by storm these last three years (Yuzuru Hanyu, Shoma Uno, Nathan Chen and Jin). Jin was the first to land a quad Lutz-triple toe combination.

He was also nearly the first Chinese male singles skater to earn an Olympic medal, placing fourth in PyeongChang.

His follow-up Grand Prix campaign was a nightmare. He was fifth in Helsinki earlier this month and ninth at Internationaux de France last week.

Jin didn’t have high expectations for the fall events, attributing poor results to media pressure and logistical problems.

It started in the summer, when the Chinese federation announced that Jin would relocate to Toronto to train in Brian Orser’s camp. That struck like a hammer to Jin’s head.

“I felt a lot of pressure … both from the media and from my friends,” he said through an interpreter in Grenoble. “I was overwhelmed by that pressure.

“But it’s not the right place for me to speak of it at this moment. I’d like to be known for what I’m doing in competition, not because of these stories.”

It soon became apparent that Jin would stay in China.

Jin’s travel to both of his Grand Prix events was delayed. For Helsinki, the name on his ticket was different than the name on his passport.

“The day I was due to leave for France, I still had not received my visa,” he said. “I first had to re-book my flight for the next day. Then I was expecting my visa that day, but at 5:30 p.m. it was still not there, and the French embassy was closing at 6 p.m. I had to fly the next morning at 2 a.m.”

He was on the ice Thursday, one day before competition started.

“My practice sessions went rather well in Grenoble, but I certainly lacked confidence on the competitive ice,” Jin said. “It’s not that it created a big mental problem for me, but missing a flight three times can destabilize you, for sure.”

One thing was most visible in Grenoble, however: Jin improved his artistry significantly.

“After the Games I could spend a lot of time with Lori Nichol, my choreographer, discussing what kind of movements I could present in competition,” he said. “She told me to be a happy skater, a happy Boyang. She gave me confidence.”

Jin also disclosed a slice of his own personal history that few were aware of: his ballet past, something he shares with Chen.

“I was a good dancer as a child. I trained in ballet, Latin dances, jazz, you name it,” he said. “When I started to skate competitively, I was short, and I had to forget about ballet to start learning jumps. I had to focus on jumps, and I think that’s when I forgot about ballet.

“Coming back to dance now, I feel that I am now closer to the ideal skater I wanted to be originally. I have hired a Flamenco teacher myself to teach me the movements. I am also reviewing a lot of shows and TV videos to help me improve my artistry.”

Writer Feng Xiao interpreted the Jin interview.

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: Yuzuru Hanyu withdraws from Grand Prix Final