Shizuka Arakawa

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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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