Rika Kihira terrific in Tokyo to claim first national title

Figure skater books a spot at the World Championships in Montreal with the ladies event victory, but big names miss out

Rika Kihira emerged victorious at the 2019 All Japan Figure Skating Championships at Yoyogi Gymnasium in Tokyo to book her spot at the World Championships.

The 17-year-old produced a dominant display to win with an overall score of 229.20 points.

With just three places available for Japanese females at the figure skating Worlds in March, the competition had an extra edge, and there were plenty of surprises as Wakaba Higuchi and another 17-year-old - Tomoe Kawabata - joined Kihira on the podium.

Kihira, who came second behind Kaori Sakamoto at last year's nationals, went one better this year. She landed seven triple-rotation jumps, including a triple Axel-triple toe combination that sent gasps of admiration through the crowd.

A near flawless free skate electrified the stadium and they were on their feet at the finish, awarding Kihira a standing ovation to go with her maiden national title.

A score of 155.20 in the free skate, added to her leading 73.98 points from Thursday night's short program, meant her final score was superior to second placed Higuchi's mark by over 20 points.

Four-time national champion Satoko Miyahara misses out on a Montreal Worlds spot, as does Kaori Sakamoto who finished 6th overall, despite placing third in the short program.

World Class: (L-R) Wakaba Higuchi (silver), Rika Kihira (gold) and Tomoe Kawabata (bronze) pose with their medals at the All Japan Figure Skating Championships at the Yoyogi National Gymnasium on December 21, 2019 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)
World Class: (L-R) Wakaba Higuchi (silver), Rika Kihira (gold) and Tomoe Kawabata (bronze) pose with their medals at the All Japan Figure Skating Championships at the Yoyogi National Gymnasium on December 21, 2019 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)World Class: (L-R) Wakaba Higuchi (silver), Rika Kihira (gold) and Tomoe Kawabata (bronze) pose with their medals at the All Japan Figure Skating Championships at the Yoyogi National Gymnasium on December 21, 2019 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)

Higuchi comeback

Wakaba Higuchi set the tone in the final group, delighting the crowd with a scintillating free skate to slide into the lead on 206.61 points with just four skaters remaining.

It was a score that would earn her a silver medal and a place on the World champs team.

The 18-year-old took silver at the 2018 Worlds but hadn't stood on a nationals podium in three years, she looked back to her best in Tokyo drawing an enormous reaction from the crowd on finishing her free skate.

We didn't see the triple Axel that Higuchi practiced in the warm-up, but she did land two fine combinations incuding a triple Lutz-triple toe and six triple jumps in total.

With another tilt at a World champs medal, can Higuchi raise her game once more and make another Worlds podium in Montreal next March?

It'll be fascinating to watch.

The surprise: Tomoe Kawabata

21st two years ago, 10th last year, 17-year-old Tomoe Kawabata made another huge leap onto the podium in Tokyo, stunning a more seasoned field.

Kawabata will now have a chance to prove herself on a world stage in March 2020.

Flying high: Tomoe Kawabata performs at the 88th All Japan Figure Skating Championships at the Yoyogi National Gymnasium on December 21, 2019 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)
Flying high: Tomoe Kawabata performs at the 88th All Japan Figure Skating Championships at the Yoyogi National Gymnasium on December 21, 2019 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)Flying high: Tomoe Kawabata performs at the 88th All Japan Figure Skating Championships at the Yoyogi National Gymnasium on December 21, 2019 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)

Disappointment for Honda, Miyahara and Sakamoto

The worst possible start for Marin Honda saw her fall on an opening triple Lutz attempt, but there were some positives as she landed three triples including a triple flip at the end of her routine.

But a total of 181.34 points left the 2016 world junior champion out of contention for a 2020 senior Worlds spot.

It was a free skate to forget for Satoko Miyahara too, an error-strewn routine left her off the podium and means she won't compete as part of the Japanese trio at the Worlds for the first time in six years.

Miyahara moved to Toronto to work with new jump coach Lee Barkell in September, changes that will need some time for adjustment.

With so much on the line the pressure told on even the most accomplished skaters, Kaori Sakamoto was third after an impressive short program on Thursday but a shaky moment on an early triple flip set off a chain of mistakes that cost her a podium place too.

2019 Japan Nationals Results (Ladies)

1. Rika Kihira 229.20

2. Wakaba Higuchi 206.61

3. Tomoe Kawabata 193.96

4 Satoko Miyahara 191.43

5 Yuhana Yokoi 190.92

6 Kaori Sakamoto 188.26

7 Rin Nitaya 184.26

8 Marin Honda 181.34

9 Yuka Nagai 173.88

10 Shiika Yoshioka 171.44

11 Mako Yamashita 170.75

12 Saki Miyake 169.51

Top three skaters qualify for World Championships in Montreal in March 2020.

Hanyu favourite for men's victory

The favourite for the men's title on Sunday is double Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, who leads following his victory over Shoma Uno in the short programme.

You can watch the full clips of Hanyu winning those Olympic gold medals, and much more, on Olympic Channel.

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