Ice Network

Rising stars of Asia: Uno ready to put on a show

Japanese silver medalist working to add second quad to repertoire
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Having won the title at the Junior Grand Prix Final and world junior championships, Shoma Uno is ready to take his skating to the next level. -Getty Images

This offseason, icenetwork is profiling some of the up-and-coming skaters from the Asian continent. First up is reigning world junior champion Shoma Uno.

For most countries, losing the likes of Nobunari Oda, Daisuke Takahashi and Tatsuki Machida in the span of a year would be catastrophic to its level of competitiveness. But Japan is not most countries.

The island nation seemingly has an assembly line that churns out exceptional men's skaters, the latest of which is Shoma Uno. The 17-year-old from Nagoya, who has already received a lot of attention for his smashing performances in junior competitions last season, as well as at the Four Continents Championships, is primed to be the next great Japanese star.

Uno first caught the eye of Japanese fans and media in November 2009, a few days before his 12th birthday. As the national novice A champion, he qualified to compete in the national junior championships. Despite being a primary school student who barely reached the other skaters' chests, Uno unexpectedly won the bronze medal. "What a prodigy!" Japanese media exclaimed. Uno's coach, Machiko Yamada, knew a prodigy when she saw one: She was Midori Ito's coach throughout her career and oversaw Mao Asada's career in the skater's early years.

In fact, it was Asada who "recruited' Uno to become a figure skater. One day when he was 5 years old, Uno was playing around in a public skating rink in Nagoya when Asada approached him and said, "You are so adorable. Why not come and skate?" And he did.

Since the day he won the national junior bronze medal, Uno has carried the hopes of the Japanese skating community and fans. They expected him to follow the path of Takahashi, Oda, Takahiko Kozuka and Yuzuru Hanyu, all of whom claimed the world junior title. However, his next four seasons were rather disappointing: He did not qualify for the Junior Grand Prix (JGP) Final, make the world junior podium or even claim the national junior title.

The reason? He couldn't do a triple axel.

"I can't even remember when the first time was that I started to practice triple axel," Uno said in an interview this February. "I think it was 5 or 6 years ago. I kept practicing and practicing for years, and kept thinking, 'I must nail it, I must nail it,' but still, I couldn't get it. It really took me too much time."

Things started to change in the summer of 2014, when he started to practice the quadruple toe loop.

"It is because I spent so much time on triple axel that I was able to understand the techniques and learn the quad faster," he recalled. "And I was feeling much happier when I was practicing quad toe, because, unlike doing the triple axel, I wasn't in a hurry; I was playing with it for fun.

"Gradually, I started to land the quad toe consistently, and then I felt very relieved because I knew I didn't have to do a triple axel (to be competitive) now."

As the pressure eased, Uno started to have more fun in practice.

"Finally, I got my triple axel," Uno said. "I started to land it consistently in training the day before I went to my second JGP event in Croatia."

Armed with two new consistent weapons -- to go with his smooth skating and natural musicality, which reminds many of his idol, Takahashi -- Uno dominated the junior circuit. In mid-December, he won the JGP Final in Barcelona with a total score of 238.27, beating his closest rival by more than 25 points.

He carried the momentum into Japanese nationals, when he faced the world's deepest field in men's figure skating, including the reigning Olympic champion (Hanyu), three gold medalists from the 2014 Grand Prix Series (Machida, Takahito Mura and Daisuke Murakami) and former world silver medalist Kozuka. Uno won a silver medal with two almost flawless programs. People started to see him not only as a junior contender but as a real threat at the senior level.

He then made his debut at a senior ISU championship, competing at Four Continents in Seoul, South Korea. After a second-place finish in the short, he struggled in the free, stepping out of his quad toe and falling on the last part of his double axel-half loop-triple flip, and wound up only fifth.

"I cried right after my free skate. I think this is my first time crying for a competition ever since my first year in novice," Uno admitted. "But on the other hand, I am happy with my growth. It is a luxury to cry over your personal best (256.45). I wouldn't have imagined this one year ago."

After Four Continents, Uno focused on the most important competition of his season, the world junior championships in March. With a more polished performance -- one that reflected his experience at the senior level -- Uno finally claimed the title he wanted for so long.

"This is my last junior competition. I felt glad I was able to land the other jumps (he missed his opening quad attempt in the free skate) and made it," Uno said.

His junior career over, Uno is readying himself to take the next step. From his experience in Seoul, he recognizes that better competition awaits him.

"Just look at the score of my free skate (at Four Continents): My 167 points is not bad at all, but the top men's scores made mine look so low," Uno said. "Of course, I have much room to grow."

At the same time, he is excited for the new challenge.

"Compared to junior events, there is a much larger audience for senior events, and that really motivates me," Uno said.

The experience of skating in the last free skate group at Japanese nationals, he believes, will help him deal with the stresses he will soon face.

"That experience taught me how to handle the pressure from the audience, and during the six-minute warmup, better," Uno said. "Thanks to that, I am able to focus on my own skating now, while still being surrounded by the top skaters in the world."

Looking to next season, Uno said he aims to "improve my jumps, as well as learn to keep myself in a good, healthy condition. I still have a lot to do on my jumps, especially on the quads."

Uno's goal is to add a second kind of quad by next season.

"I am just playing with it for fun," Uno said. "When I feel I am in a good condition physically, feeling, 'Maybe I can land it today," I will give it a try.

"Initially, I was practicing quad flip. But I was afraid if I practiced the quad too much, I would not be able to do the triple flip anymore, which happened to me when I learned quad toe -- I forgot how to jump a solo triple toe. So I gave up that idea and decided to practice quad salchow instead."

His peers, like Nam Nguyen from Canada and Boyang Jin from China, are also raising the bar, landing different types of quads in training and competition.

"I won't intentionally follow what they are doing or search for their programs online, but maybe people around me are paying a lot of attention (to them)," Uno said.

Uno says he is too focused on his first season as a senior to worry about his chances for the next Olympics.

"The idea of the PyeongChang Olympics is close to zero in my mind," Uno said. "I really need to concentrate only on my first senior season, to face any upcoming challenge, so I really cannot think about anything else right now."