Japanese newcomer seeks first ISU World Figure Skating Championships title at home
Japan’s Rika Kihira is focused on skating clean programs at the World Championships of Figure Skating rather than dreaming of a home gold.
The 16-year-old, who has enjoyed a stellar debut senior season so far with victories at the Grand Prix Final and Four Continents, is a firm contender for another title in Saitama.
Should Kihira or her compatriots, Satoko Miyahara and Kaori Sakamoto, triumph this week it would be the first time a Japanese woman has claimed the world title since Mao Asada, at the same venue, back in 2014.
But the youngest member of the Japanese contingent is more focused on eliminating mistakes than her final results.
“If I perform perfectly in the short and free, the victory will come,” Kihira told a press conference following her first official practice on Monday.
“I want to make sure I don’t make any mistakes in the short program, and I really want to land a successful triple Axel in the free program.”
Reigning Japanese national champion Sakamoto and Miyahara, last year’s Worlds bronze medallist, echoed the sentiment.
Sakamoto said: “Of course, I am aiming for the top of the podium, but first of all, I should be doing what I’m supposed to do and the results will follow.”
“I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to be on the podium,” added Miyahara. “But for now, I am only thinking about how I will perform what I’ve been practising. So I’m not really concerned about the ranking and results.”
“My first Worlds is going to be held at this big rink in Saitama and I’m feeling a bit nervous." - Rika Kihira
Kihira, who spent time in Colorado working with choreographer Tom Dickson ahead of Worlds, acknowledged that nerves could be a factor as she competes a first World Championship in front of an appreciative home crowd.
“My first Worlds is going to be held at this big rink in Saitama and I’m feeling a bit nervous,” she said.
“But I’d like to just be myself and not make mistakes.”
On the men's side, double Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan comes to Saitama with the distinction of being one of the favourites to take the global title but also facing many questions about his current level.
That’s because the world hasn’t seen the Japanese superstar since he injured his right ankle at November’s Rostelecom Cup. That injury caused him to sit out his second Grand Prix assignment, the Grand Prix Final and the Japanese nationals.
And while Olympic silver medallist Uno did take part in the evening session, his team-mate was again absent.
But Hanyu later arrived at Haneda Airport, his first sighting ahead of the Worlds.
He is due to practice on the ice in Japan on Tuesday at 11am local time on the main rink, and 6:15 pm on the practice rink.
The reigning World champion Nathan Chen of the United States told reporters after his practice session Monday morning in Saitama that illness had prevented him from spending time with long-time coach Rafael Arutunian prior to coming to Japan.
“That was the idea but then I got sick and I didn’t want to affect all other skaters, like Mariah (Bell) is competing, Michael’s competing,” he said. “I didn’t want to affect them so I stayed in New Haven.”
“I was pretty sick a week ago,” said Chen. “I still have a little bit of a residual cough but it doesn’t affect me on the ice so it’s fine.”
He looked more than fine during his first practice in Japan, ticking off several clean triple Axels and quadruple jumps.
Despite his impressive practice, the defending U.S., World and Grand Prix Final champion shrugged off a question about his readiness to add a second World title this week.
“I can’t control the results no matter what I do,” he said. “All I can control is how I skate, how I prepare. I’m just going to prepare as much as I can with as much effort as I can on the ice.
“During competition, hopefully, that’s enough.”
Double Olympic silver medallist and two-time World champion Evgenia Medvedeva looked confident during her practice session in the main rink.
The 19-year-old uprooted her life in Russia to train with famed coaches Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson in Toronto. She was a late - and somewhat surprising - addition to the Russian team after a disappointing first half of the season.
She finished second in her season opener at the Autumn Classic, where she explained the difference in her new coaching set up.
“Working with Brian, I think [it’s a] mental difference,” Medvedeva told the Olympic Channel. “Every practice is going so, so fast. You have just to focus. I just don’t have time to look around. I don’t have time to talk to anybody – only work.”
Disappointments followed, including a disastrous short program at the Russian Championships, where she finished fourteenth. She clawed her way up to seventh overall after a fourth place finish in the free.
But Medvedeva was later named to the Russian team for the Worlds in early March, after she won the Russian Cup ahead of Elizaveta Tuktamysheva.
During her first practice in Saitama, Medvedeva looked strong. She showed a clean run-through of her short program, recently changed to 'Tosca,' with a triple Lutz, triple toe, a double Axel and triple loop.