Preview: Olympic spots on the line as Japanese skaters take center ice at nationals

The All-Japan Figure Skating Championships are set for 23-26 December in Saitama, where Hanyu Yuzuru – among others – will look to punch his ticket to Beijing 2022. Kihira Rika has withdrawn due to a fractured ankle bone.

By Nick McCarvel
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Seven Olympic figure skating spots are up for grabs this coming weekend at the All-Japan Figure Skating Championships, set for Saitama.

Three men, three women and one ice dance team will be named by the Japan Skating Federation for the upcoming Olympic Games Beijing 2022.

The pairs team of Miura Riku and Kihara Ryuichi has already been confirmed for the Games following a breakout season that included two medals on the Grand Prix Series circuit.

Each of the three disciplines offers plenty of intrigue with Japan boasting one of the strongest domestic figure skating fields in the sport, particularly in both men’s and women’s singles.

Hanyu Yuzuru, the two-time and reigning Olympic champion, is set to make his season debut after an ankle injury set him out of both his Grand Prix assignments. He’ll join PyeongChang 2018 teammate and silver medallist Uno Shoma, as well as 2021 world silver medallist Kagiyama Yuma in a must-see men’s event.

The women’s singles offers as much intrigue, though home hope Kihira Rika has seen her Olympic dreams squashed due to a lingering ankle injury with the announcement on Wednesday (22 December) that she withdrew from the event.

Instead, 2018 Olympians Sakamoto Kaori and Miyahara Satoko are looking for a second Olympic berth, but as many as four other female skaters look for a chance to qualify for Beijing, too.

And in the ice dance all eyes will be on Vancouver 2010 bronze medallist in singles, Takahashi Daisuke. He looks to make history with another Olympic berth – but this time in ice dance – with partner Muramoto Kana.

_Read on for our full preview and schedule of the nationals event, set for 23-26 December at the Saitama Super Arena on the outskirts of Tokyo, the site of the 2019 world championships. _

Men: Hanyu, Uno, Kagiyama lead the pack

No doubt it is the trio of Hanyu, Uno and Kagiyama that will be favourited among the men, each of whom will be eyeing the Olympic podium should they grab a ticket for the coming Games.

The Olympic team will be announced following the men’s free skate, the final event of the weekend (26 December).

After withdrawing from his second of two Grand Prix assignments last month, Hanyu, now 27, said: “I have been trying to do everything I can to meet all the support and expectations. Depending on how I move the pain still surfaces, but it’s become less and less of an issue in everyday life. I have not reached the starting blocks just yet but I am definitely progressing. I will keep at it.”

Having spent much of the last 18 months training at home away from coach Brian Orser, Hanyu will look to tap into the same skating that brought him a fifth national title a year ago when he also had not competed yet in a season marred by Covid impacts.

Separately, Uno and Kagiyama both skated in two Grand Prix events this season. Uno placed second at Skate America and won NHK Trophy, while Kagiyama was the only man to sweep both of his Grand Prix events, winning at Gran Premio d’Italia and Internationaux de France. Both skaters were set for the Grand Prix Final, which was called off earlier this month.

Should each of the three – Hanyu, Uno and Kagiyama – skate to their full potential in Saitama, they are primed to be a superstar Olympic team for Japan.

Also to watch for, however, is 17-year-old Sato Shun, who won silver behind Kagiyama in Grenoble after finishing fourth at Skate America. Veterans Tanaka Keiji and Tomono Kazuki have had big successes on the international stage, as well, and 21-year-old Yamamoto Sota was a top-performing junior.

Women: Can Sakamoto and Miyahara qualify again?

While there is plenty of mystery surrounding Hanyu’s form, the question marks swirling around Kihira were put to rest with her withdrawal, which will put an end to her Olympic hopes having not competed this season. (As well as having not finished in the top three at worlds previously.)

The 2018 Grand Prix Final champion was seen by many as the top contender to potentially disrupt an ROC sweep of the women’s podium in Beijing, but Kihira had not competed since worlds in April, where she finished seventh. She was the reigning Japanese national champion, having won the event the last two years running.

In a statement via the JSF, Kihira revealed that she has been battling a stress fracture in her right-ankle bone. No timetable was announced for her recovery.

"I have decided to withdraw from the Japan national championships", said Kihira, who has been out since July. "I am going to focus on treatment now, and I hope I can be back on the ice fit and raring to go".

So it's now the 2018 Olympian Sakamoto, 21, who leads the pack, having had the strongest international season so far, finishing fourth at Skate America before winning at NHK Trophy – qualifying her for the Grand Prix Final.

Her 2018 teammate Miyahara has been lower in the rankings, finishing fifth and seventh, respectively, in her two Grand Prix stops, but still possesses some of the most enchanting skating in women’s singles today.

The race will be fierce for those three spots, as Higuchi Wakaba (bronze, France) and Kawabe Mana (silver, NHK Trophy), both won medals on the Grand Prix this season, while Mihara Mai finished fourth at both her assignments, showing off some impressive form.

Kawabe, the 2020 Japanese junior champion, was Kihira’s replacement at NHK, and both she and Higuchi include the points-grabbing triple Axel as part of their repertoire. Mihara, 22, was fifth at worlds in 2017 and has three Four Continents medals to her name, making her a seasoned skater on the international stage.

Also to watch for: Matsuike Rino, the reigning junior national champ.

Dance: Muramoto/ Takahashi look to have the edge

While the pairs event will not include Miura/Kihara as they’ve already qualified for the Winter Games, the dance event should be an intriguing one as Takahashi looks to make his return to the Olympics having announced his ice dance partnership with Muramoto in July of 2018.

The duo looked to have an uphill climb for the one Japanese ice dance spot in Beijing against Komatsubara Misato and Koleto Tim, the three-time and reigning Japanese national champions in the disciplines.

But when the teams went head-to-head at NHK Trophy last month, Muramoto/Takahashi showed clear improvements in both their programs and Takahashi’s skating skills, placing sixth to Komatsubara/Koleto’s seventh, and outscoring them by some seven points.

Schedule: Japanese figure skating nationals

All times listed are JST local in Saitama.

Thursday, 23 December
1500-1605 Ice dance rhythm dance
1620-2050 Women's short program

Friday, 24 December
1530-1600 Pairs short program
1620-2050 Men's short program

Saturday, 25 December
1500-1605 Ice dance free dance
1705-2105 Women's free program

Sunday, 26 December
1530-1600 Pairs free program
1700-2100 Men’s free program

To follow: Olympic team announcement

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