If there was any doubt that newcomer Rika Kihira was the real deal, there isn’t anymore.
The Japanese figure skating phenom brought the house down on day one at the ISU Grand Prix Final with a record-setting score in the ladies’ short program, an 82.51.
Kihira broke a record that had been set three weeks earlier by 2018 Olympic champion Alina Zagitova of Russia. She sits in second here in Vancouver with a 77.93 after the short program. Her teammate Elizaveta Tuktamysheva is third at 70.65.
On the men's side, the top four are separated by less than four points.
Reigning World champion Nathan Chen of the United States leads despite missing out on a required combination jumping pass. He scored a 92.99.
Japan’s Shoma Uno, the 2018 Olympic silver medalist, is close behind at 91.67, while Czech Republic’s Michal Brezina and Junhwan Cha of South Korea are third and fourth with 89.21 and 89.07 respectively..
A new record
Kihira sailed to the top of the leader board in the ladies event.
She performed the difficult triple axel jump to open her program and followed it up with a triple flip, triple toe combination, and a triple lutz.
“I was very surprised with the score I got today." The 16-year-old told Olympic Channel. "But I was practicing for the axel, so I was very happy that I was finally able to do that in front of everyone."
"I never imagined I could achieve such a high score of 82" - Rika Kihira after her record-breaking performance.
The Japanese teen became the talk of the figure skating world after a stunning performance on home ice at the NHK Trophy earlier this season.
With that performance came attention - and a lot of it - from media and fans around the world.
“All the attention, I’m not really bothered by it, and my motion toward getting my best hasn’t changed,” she said. “But I know that media and people are cheering for me, and I’m very happy to know that everyone is cheering for me.”
The woman who previously owned the highest short program score was Zagitova, who is less than five points back from the newcomer, setting up an exciting battle during Saturday's free program.
"Today, I felt a little tense. That’s the reason that I wasn’t able to show the maximum," she said. "But I’m glad I was able to pull myself together."
Adding, "It all comes from the head. All these thoughts that are on your mind, but you just have to go out and do it."
A Tale of Two Quads
Nathan Chen and Shoma Uno were the only two men in the field to attempt two quadruple jumps in the short program competition.
However, both men faltered on one of their attempts.
For Chen, the error came late in his upbeat program, set to Caravan by Duke Ellington.
He turned out of his attempted quadruple toe loop and was left unable to perform the triple jump he planned to count as his combination pass.
“The free is the most important now,” he said afterward. “What I did in the past stays in the past, I can’t change what I did.” - Nathan Chen after the short program.
But despite the error, Chen’s score was a season best. He was lifted by an impressive quad flip and triple axel, as well as high program component scores. Chen, known for his incredible jumping ability, said he had been focused on making the most of every element.
“I tried to focus on my spins. Get my levels. All the little points that I can grab, to try to take advantage of those,” he told Olympic Channel.
Uno suffered a similar fate, turning out of his quadruple flip attempt, the jump that gave him issues in training yesterday.
He went on to successfully complete a quadruple toe to double toe and triple axel. And although the Olympic silver medallist is just 1.32 behind Chen, Uno was far from pleased with his performance.
“I really couldn’t do anything that I tried to train for in Japan,” Uno said. “Today at the practice in the morning or in the six minute warmup, I wasn’t able to do any of my jumps properly."
Returns to the Final
For both Tuktamysheva and Brezina, their third place finishes in the short program come after long absences from the Grand Prix Final.
Tuktamysheva won the final during the 2014-15 season, before claiming the European and World titles to conclude the season. She hasn't competed at this event since she took the title.
"I didn’t skate Grand Prix Final for four years, so it’s a little bit new for me," she said. "I just wanted to concentrate on my skating, not think about where I am now."
Where she is now, of course, is in medal contention and in the middle of a resurgent season that has seen the return of the triple axel that had so often taken her to the top of the podium.
"I just feel that I have power, and I want to show the world who I am," Tuktamysheva said.
For Brezina, it's been seven long years since he has made an appearance at the Grand Prix Final. He was sixth at the event in 2011.
“It’s been quite a while,” he said. “I’m happy that I’m here, and I think with the performance I showed today… I think I proved that it wasn’t a mistake that I made it.”
The 28-year-old was nearly mistake free in his long program, scoring 89.21 to sit in third, just 0.14 ahead of fourth placed Junhwan Cha ahead of Friday's free program for the men.
The only major error in Brezina's short program came during his jumping combination where a planned triple jump out of his quadruple Salchow became a double.
He credited his resurgent season to coach Rafael Arutunian, who is also Chen’s coach.
“I think it’s been the work that I did with Rafael and the actual move I made 3 years ago, almost three, when I moved to Raf,” Brezina told Olympic Channel. “I think it started pushing me again, because before everything always lasted about 2 years.”
“I think this time it’s a little bit different mainly because of the way he approaches practice. There’s never one day that he will practice the same thing. He always comes up with different ways to make your day miserable.”
“But it works,” he added with a laugh.