On a night when everything was on the line, nerves, pressure, under-rotations and falls played a major role in the outcome of the ladies final at the 2019 All Japan Championships. Rika Kihira entered the competition as the odds-on favorite and came through to capture her first national title in three appearances at the competition.
The 17-year-old did not include a quad in her long program but landed two clean triple Axels, one in combination with a triple toe. The toe received an under-rotation call but other than that, Kihira sailed through the rest of her program without making another mistake, closing it out with a triple loop in the final minute of the routine.
With a score of 156.22 for the free and a combined total of 229.20, Kihira captured her first national title in a runaway victory. “After the Grand Prix Final I had many sleepless nights, worrying about many things,” the teenager admitted. “I made a mistake in the short program and my morning practice was not going well so I felt uncertain going into free. I am so happy I was finally able to win the Japanese title.”
When asked the difference between winning other international titles and this one, Kihira responded, “Here many friends and family came to support me. After the mistake in short, I received many letters to encourage me and they really helped. I was very grateful for the support I received at this competition. I was surprised that I managed to skate so well despite the unsure feelings I had.”
It has been a long road back to the top for Wakaba Higuchi, who last claimed a medal at these Championships in 2017 (silver). Sitting in fourth after the short, the 18-year-old rallied in the long program, executing five clean triples and earning Level 4s for one of her spins and the step sequence. Her only mistake – a step out of a triple flip, which also received an edge call.
With 138.51 for the free and a combined total of 206.61, Higuchi finished second to capture her third national silver medal. “I too made a mistake in short program, but I am glad I was able to recover and skate well in free,” Higuchi said. “I trained really hard in past two months and this hard work paid off. The past two years were very hard for me. I missed the podium at nationals and I could not go to the World Championships. I also had some injuries.
“This season I aimed to peak at nationals from the beginning and it worked. I know I still have more work to do, but I’m happy with how my training paid off.”
The surprise of the competition was the rising junior Tomoe Kawabata, who made a quantum leap from a 10th-place finish in 2018 to land on the third step of the podium one year later.
Sitting in seventh after the short, Kawabata also received an edge call on a triple flip and a double loop was deemed under-rotated, but went on to execute the remaining elements in her program without mistake. With 128.43 points for the segment and 193.96 in total, Kawabata captured the bronze medal.
“My goal here was to skate clean in both the short and the free, and also to score over 120 in free,” said the 17-year-old, who finished fifth at both her Junior Grand Prix assignments this season. “I was not thinking about the placement, so the result still feels unreal. I am very surprised to be in third place.”
However, this was not a successful competition for some of the top Japanese ladies. Satoko Miyahara finished sixth in the free skate after doubling a loop, stumbling out of a triple flip and receiving eight under-rotation calls in total. She earned 121.32 for the segment and finished fourth overall with 191.43. “I thought things were going upward, so this result is a little disappointing,” said Miyahara. “My practices were going so well – I just don’t understand why things went the way they did today. Mentally, I kept my attitude positive. There are many things I can still work on and I definitely can do better than this. My new environment will allow me to start from scratch. I want to improve both my expression and my jumps.”
Yuhana Yokoi skated into fifth with 190.92. Technical problems haunted Kaori Sakamoto in the free. She finished a distant sixth with 188.26 points overall. “This season I felt strange from the beginning,” she said with respect to missing her training mate Mai Mihara, who is recovering from an illness. “I was not pushing myself enough in practice. When I felt tired I just stopped and this is the result. I regret it now, but it’s too late.”
Sakamoto admitted the rise of the new generation had played a small role in her mental approach, but said, “I should have focused more on myself.”
Marin Honda fell on the first triple Lutz attempt, popped a planned triple flip into a single and finished eighth with 181.34.