Rika Kihira

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Rika Kihira denies Yevgenia Medvedeva first win in two years

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Japan’s Rika Kihira landed triple Axels in both programs to open her international figure skating season with a victory over Olympic silver medalist Yevgenia Medvedeva at the Autumn Classic in Oakville, Ontario.

Kihira, a 17-year-old who went undefeated last fall before taking fourth at the world championships, totaled 224.16 points after landing two triple Axels in her free skate (one called under rotated). Medvedeva, without the high-scoring triple Axel, finished 6.63 points behind while beating Kihira in artistic scores in both programs.

Medvedeva, the 2016 and 2017 World champion, last won an international event in November 2017. Training partner Alina Zagitova surpassed her for the Olympic title, and last year Medvedeva took third at worlds after moving from Russia to Toronto to train under Brian Orser.

“I’m feeling almost that comfortable, that confident [sic] in myself that I was two years ago, three years ago, four years ago,” Medvedeva told media after the short program.

American Karen Chen took fourth at the Autumn Classic in her first international competition since the Olympics. Chen, the 2017 U.S. champion, missed all of last season with a stress fracture in her foot.

Earlier Friday, two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu opened his season by falling on a quadruple Salchow but recovered to top the men’s short program at the Autumn Classic.

Hanyu, beaten by Nathan Chen for last season’s world title, tallied 98.38 points to lead by 3.62 over Frenchman Kevin Aymoz. The field lacks any of the other top 10 men from worlds. Hanyu and Chen aren’t expected to go head-to-head until December’s Grand Prix Final.

The Autumn Classic finishes Saturday with the men’s free skate.

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MORE: 2019 Grand Prix figure skating assignments

Rika Kihira defeats Alina Zagitova at Grand Prix Final

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For a second straight year, a first-year senior figure skater swept through the Grand Prix season. This time, it’s Japanese 16-year-old Rika Kihira, who beat Olympic champion Alina Zagitova at the Grand Prix Final on Saturday.

Kihira landed triple Axels in both programs in Vancouver, totaling 233.12 points to relegate Zagitova to silver by 6.59. Kihira was eighth at the world junior championships in March, 15 days after Zagitova became the second-youngest Olympic women’s singles gold medalist.

“Last season and the season before that, I had many failures,” Kihira said through a translator. “I promised myself that I would remember them and never repeat those mistakes again. … Before this season, the Grand Prix Final was not at all in my mind.”

GP FINAL: Full Results | TV Schedule

Kihira and Zagitova each had one major mistake in Saturday’s free skate.

Kihira put two hands down on the ice landing her opening triple Axel, before hitting a triple Axel-double toe loop combination. Zagitova singled the back end of a planned triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination and was outscored by 2.01 points for the night, adding to a 4.58-point deficit from Thursday’s short program.

“The first senior season is easier than the second one, because when you go out the first time, there are no expectations,” Zagitova, who suffered the second loss of her two-year senior career, said through a translator. “Now, there are more expectations, and I have to learn to deal with my nerves.”

Later Saturday, Canadian figure skating official Ted Barton said that Zagitova was “close to withdrawing” just before the free skate after injuring her foot tripping over a TV cable (h/t @olyphil). A Russian figure skating official downplayed the injury, according to TASS.

Another Russian, Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, took bronze, stepping out of her triple Axel landing on Saturday.

Kihira, who came into the Final with the highest score of the Grand Prix season and was thus a medal favorite, joined Mao Asada and Fumie Suguri as Japanese women to win the event, the second-biggest annual international competition.

The Final takes the top six skaters per discipline from the fall Grand Prix Series and is a preview of sorts for March’s world championships.

Kihira ascended this season largely on the strength of her jumps, winning all four of her events while cleanly landing four of her eight triple Axel attempts. Kihira and Tuktamysheva were the only women to perform the difficult jump on the Grand Prix circuit.

“It was my goal for this season to get into the senior ranks,” Kihira said. “I’m really happy that all of my training has borne fruit, and, in any of the big competitions, I was able to perform and control my feelings.”

The U.S. put no women into the Grand Prix Final for a third straight year and last won a women’s title at the event in 2010 (Alissa Czisny), marking its longest droughts in both respects in the competition’s 24-year history.

Bradie Tennell, the top U.S. woman at the Olympics and March’s world championships (ninth and sixth), is also the top American this season as she looks to repeat as national champion next month. Tennell won two lower-level events this fall, including one in Croatia this week.

Grand Prix Final Women’s Results
Gold: Rika Kihira (JPN) — 233.12
Silver: Alina Zagitova (RUS) — 226.53
Bronze: Elizaveta Tuktamysheva (RUS) — 215.32
4. Kaori Sakamoto (JPN) — 211.68
5. Sofia Samodurova (RUS) — 204.33
6. Satoko Miyahara (JPN) — 201.31

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

Alina Zagitova, Rika Kihira
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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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