Kihira Rika hits triple Axel, tops short program at Japanese nationals

The teenager was competing for the first time in 10 months as Japanese Grand Prix champ Sakamoto Kaori skated into second place.

By Nick McCarvel

A triple Axel after 10 months out of competition? Sure. And a cartwheel, too? Why not.

Two-time and reigning Four Continents champion Kihira Rika was the top of the field on Friday (25 December) at the Japanese national figure skating championships, hitting her patented triple Axel in the short program and adding a cartwheel for flair as she scored a 79.34 to comfortably finish the day in first place.

NHK Trophy champion Sakamoto Kaori was second with a 71.86, while Mihara Mai, the 2017 Four Continents champ, scored a 69.55 for third place.

"I was really nervous because it's been quite a long time since the last time [I competed] and I had a lot to think about and focus on," Kihira, the defending Japanese champion, told reporters. "But I'm happy about my performance."

Triple Axel and cartwheel included, there was plenty to keep an eye on in a packed ladies' field, with 2016 world junior champion Honda Marin withdrawing from the event prior to it starting, citing dizziness. Miyahara Satoko, fourth at PyeongChang 2018, was sixth due to a jumping error, while four-time Japanese medallist Higuchi Wakaba was 13th.

Seventeen-year-old Yamashita Mako is in fourth place, just two points behind Mihara.

Kihira: 'I'd like to try it'

A confident Kihira is in the mood for trying new things after months and months of training in Switzerland with coach Stephane Lambiel. The cartwheel - courtesy of choreographer Benoit Richaud - is new, and she told reporters after the short program that she'd like to attempt a quadruple Salchow in the free skate "if it feels right" during practice between segments.

"In the off-season, I was working hard on my quad Salchow and did a lot of training for it," said Kihira, 18. "So I will do my best during the practice tomorrow and the day after so that I can show the result of my training."

Kihira, with an eight-point cushion, has the room to try. She was spectacular in the short program, clad in a bright red, gem-patterned top, opening with her patented triple Axel and then connecting on a triple flip-triple toe loop combination and triple Lutz to finish.

She skated with an intensity but also ease, matching her music, "The Fire Within," and topping the program off with the one-handed cartwheel, which she said is harder than it appears.

"I was always good at doing a one-handed cartwheel on the ground and have a fairly good balance and strong arm," Kihira explained. "But on the ice, it's slippery. So I was having a hard time at the beginning and fell so many times. It was even dangerous. But now I fall less and am getting better at it, thanks to my training on balance and all the sports I did since pre-school."

Sakamoto fights through nerves

While Sakamoto turned her triple-triple combo into a triple-double, clearly disappointed, she revealed to reporters that nerves nearly beset her pre-short program.

"Leading up to today, I was more nervous than usual and worrying if I would perform well," she said. “Even when I was practicing, I was so nervous I couldn't stop my tears.”

An Olympian in 2018 and the Japanese national champ in 2018-19, Sakamoto struggled through much of last season, including a sixth-place finish at this event. She now fixes her eyes on the free skate.

“I got higher points than I expected," she said. "Now it really depends on how well I will perform in free. So I will forget about my mistakes and do my best the day after tomorrow.”

Mihara, who last medalled at Japanese nationals during the 2016-17 season, said she also suffered from nerves, but was able to "enjoy the performance," which has put her in position to land on the national podium once again.


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