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Rising stars of Asia: Sky's the limit for 'lucky' Hongo

Japanese silver medalist hopes to ride momentum from 'Cinderella' season
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Rika Hongo proved herself in her first season on the senior circuit, winning the Rostelecom Cup and taking a bronze medal at the Four Continents Championships. -Getty Images

This offseason, icenetwork is profiling some of the up-and-coming skaters from the Asian continent. Next up is Rika Hongo, who enjoyed surprising success during her first season competing at the senior level.

Some call her lucky. Others say she is "Cinderella." Kurt Browning describes her as "quietly dangerous." However you describe Rika Hongo, it's clear that the Japanese competitor made her mark last season.

Winning the Rostelecom Cup, making it to the Grand Prix Final, taking home a bronze medal at the Four Continents Championships and finishing sixth at the world championships -- the 18-year-old did more than enough to earn a repuation as a rising star in just her first year competing on the senior circuit.

Born in Sendai, Japan, Hongo started skating at the age of 4, under the tutelage of her mother, Yuko. In her early years, Hongo showed off her talents in local Japanese competitions, attracting attention as a promising future star -- so much so that when fellow Sendai native Shizuka Arakawa was honored with a parade in her hometown after winning gold at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games, it was Hongo who was chosen to sit next to her idol in the parade car.

But a week after that parade, Hongo was forced to leave her hometown because her local rink -- the same rink that Arakawa and Yuzuru Hanyu trained at in their early years -- was forced to close due to financial trouble.

Hongo's coach, Hiroshi Nagakubo -- who also taught several elite skaters like Arakawa, Takeshi Honda and Akiko Suzuki -- decided to move to Nagoya for a more stable coaching environment. Despite being only 9 years old at the time, Hongo decided to follow her coach to a city hundreds of miles away from her family.

This experience might explain Hongo's deep trust for Nagakubo, who has been taking care of her skating and daily life since she was a young girl.

"Whenever I have some struggles, as long as I follow Mr. Nagakubo's advice, the problems will be solved." Hongo said in a recent interview.

In Nagoya, Hongo continued her development. She earned a bronze medal at the Japanese Junior Championships at the age of 16, and the following year she won the gold.

Despite the domestic success, her international competitive results did not seem very promising. She failed to qualify for the 2012 Junior Grand Prix (JGP) Final and did not make a strong impression at the 2013 World Junior Championships, where she placed ninth.

In fact, after finishing eighth at the 2014 World Junior Championships, Hongo initially planned to give the junior circuit another shot. Those plans changed when she was awarded an assignment in the 2014 Grand Prix Series, at Skate Canada. She talked it over with Nagakubo and decided to move up to the senior level.

"It was hard at the beginning. My coaching team knew very well that the way I was skating could not be competitive in senior level at all," Hongo said after the 2015 World Championships. "So, during the summer, we worked really hard, trying to improve my basic skating skills, transitions, interpretation, etc."

The hard work paid off. She started the season strong by winning the Asian Trophy in August, claiming her first title at the senior level, and followed it up with a bronze medal at the Finlandia Trophy.

She carried that momentum into the Grand Prix Series. At the time, she said that she hoped to "leave the judges a good impression with my performance."

She accomplished much more than that.

Hongo placed fifth at Skate Canada, a result with which she was satisfied. After Olympic champion Adelina Sotnikova withdrew from Rostelecom Cup, Hongo received her second Grand Prix assignment as an alternate. In Moscow, where nearly everyone else made mistakes, Hongo skated out of her skin and claimed the title in a shocking result.

Hongo's luck didn't stop there, however. Just one month later, when Gracie Gold withdrew from the Grand Prix Final due to injury, Hongo was called on to compete as the first alternate. Although she finished just sixth overall in the event, the Japanese junior champion made quite the impression around the senior circuit through her Grand Prix performances.

"People around me sometimes say, 'You have luck by your side,'" Hongo chuckled. "I didn't want to waste the opportunities, so I kept telling myself to turn these opportunities into results, and kept training hard."

The "lucky Cinderella" continued to give strong performances in competitions in the later portion of the season. She won silver at the Japanese championships and bronze at Four Continents, and placed sixth at worlds. In fact, Hongo was one of the most consistent skaters last season: Throughout all of her competitions in 2014-15, she did not receive a single deduction for a fall, and only a small number of negative Grades of Execution. Clearly, she has more than just luck on her side.

Nevertheless, these accomplishments are not enough for the Rostelecom Cup winner.

"I am happy for my performances, not having any big mistakes," Hongo said. "However, when I look at my protocols, there are so many things I could have done better, so I feel regret too. This has become my motivation toward next season."

Hongo wants to challenge herself artistically. She revealed that she is now working with Suzuki to improve her overall package.

"I want to become the kind of skater who can always make an impression with her presentation despite making mistakes on the jumps," Hongo said. "I am receiving a lot of advice from Akiko, from paying attention to the details of the steps, to how to make a connection with the audience, to how to appeal to the judges during the performance."

Suzuki also did the choreography for Hongo's new short program set to "Incantation" from Cirque du Soleil. Hongo debuted the new program earlier this month at Dreams on Ice, an ice show where top Japanese skaters performed. She received very positive feedback from the audience, including a standing ovation.

In the post-show interview, Hongo explained the musical choice.

"I have been skating to classical music so far, so I would like the challenge of something new like this genre of music," she said.

Hongo is also challenging herself technically. During her performance, she landed a triple lutz, a triple flip and a double axel. Although she didn't perform a combination during the show, it's a fair bet that Hongo will replace her triple toe-triple toe combination from last season with a more difficult one in her new program -- either a lutz-toe or flip-toe.

In fact, this is in line with her post-worlds interview, in which she stated, "I need to raise the difficulty both in the long and short program."

Although her new free skate to Riverdance has not been performed publicly yet, she gave some hints as to its layout during her free at worlds. Worlds was the only competition last season where she replaced the triple salchow in the second half with a triple lutz. The Sendai native is clearly demonstrating her ambition to get higher scores.

Also, in the post-show interview, Hongo revealed her goal for the upcoming season.

"I think the reason why I did well last season is that it was my first year in the senior circuit and I wasn't thinking too much about my placement and could stay focused," she said. "But in the new season, I would like to aim for a higher placement than the previous one. I want to keep my momentum going and continue to challenge."

She also made it clear that the most important thing is to focus on herself and not on any other competitor.

"If I think too much about what I should do in order to [be comparable to other] competitors, I'll find countless problems I have that others are doing better than me," Hongo said. "So I want to keep focusing on my own performance, keep training hard, so as to improve myself little by little through competitions and catch up with the top skaters step by step."