Ice Network

Miyahara outshines Asada to remain champion

Higuchi impresses to take silver medal; Asada rallies for bronze
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Satoko Miyahara defended her crown, winning the Japanese title with a 139.59-point free skate to finish with 212.83 points overall. -Getty Images

People love to call her the "tiny queen," but there is nothing tiny about the title that Satoko Miyahara just claimed. At the 2016 Japanese Figure Skating Championships in Sapporo, Japan, the skater from Kyoto continued her strong momentum this season, once again delivering two visually clean performances and was officially crowned the "queen of all Japan" for the second year in a row.

Japanese junior champion Wakaba Higuchi finished second in this competitive senior field with her difficult and huge jumps. Three-time world champion and six-time Japanese champion Mao Asada skated strong in the free after a disappointing short, coming away a bronze medal.

During Saturday's short program, Miyahara stepped on the ice with a goal in mind for the segment: "to reach 70 points at nationals." She achieved the feat, as the landings of all her jumps were solid usual despite an edge call on the triple flip, while her spins and step sequence all received Level 4. Skating to a piece of Flamenco music, "Firedance," Miyahara's performance was also on fire and excited the crowd. As a result, the defending champion was rewarded the highest scores among the field for the technical mark and the secondary marks, coming away with 73.24 points for the segment.

Rika Hongo, the silver medalist at this event last year, lowered her technical difficulty by replacing a triple lutz with a triple toe. She delivered a clean program and received 68.39 points, landing in second place for the segment.

The bronze medalist from last year, Wakaba Higuchi, was third in the segment with 67.48 points, closely followed by Kanako Murakami who landed in fourth with 66.02 points.

Mao Asada stepped out on her trademark triple axel, and then put a hand down on her triple flip, which received an under-rotation call. Her the double loop in her combination was downgraded. Although she managed to gain back some ground in the second half of the program, she sat in fifth place with 62.03 points.Yuna Shiraiwa placed sixth with 61.92 points.

In Sunday' free skate, Satoko Miyahara was the first one in the final group to skate. Under the pressure of defending her title, Miyahara admitted that she "felt more nervous than usual," which impacted the beginning of her routine. She got a bit off axis on the opening triple lutz-double toe-double loop combination, which she landed shakily and the double loop was downgraded.

"I was pretty tight at the beginning, and I felt a bit anxious after the mistake," Miyahara recalled.

She was able to rebound immediately, and skated the rest of the program solidly, receiving positive Grade of Execution (GOEs) on all other jumps, and getting Level 4's on all spins and steps.

As for the presentation, Miyahara commented after the short program that for the free skate she would like to "invite the audience to the world I create, and make them enjoy with my skating." Judging by the audience, who were watching quietly and attentively during her "Un Sospiro" program but then burst into standing ovation when the last note ended, she acheived her goal successfully.

When the score was announced (139.59 points for the free and 212.83 points in total) almost everyone knew that she was going to win the gold medal.

When asked about her thoughts on the victory, the newly crowned champion shared her secret.

"When I do my run-throughs during daily practice, I always try to skate as clean as possible," Miyahara said. "I think the way I train helped my consistency and the good results I have achieved this year have come with it. This win helped improve my confidence."

The world silver medalist remains humble, however.

"I still have something to do with my program, and I cannot be at ease," she said. "There is the Four Continents [Championships] and worlds waiting for me. In order to compete against the best skaters in the world, I need to train hard to solve the problems I have, and I want to bring more confidence and improve my presentation."

Higuchi skated right after Miyahara. She opened her performance to The Mask of Zorro with a huge triple lutz-triple toe combination, which set the tone for the program. She continued to clear one element after one with attack and kept the momentum until the end. Although her program component score was behind the top senior skaters, she posted a technical score of 68.02 points, which was second highest only behind Miyahara. She earned 127.87 points for the free for a total of 195.35 points. To almost everyone's surprise, the girl who will soon celebrate her 15th birthday won silver medal in a very competitive field.

"I was able to pull out a performance that is better than my training, so I am very happy about that," Higuchi said. 

The teenager showed her surprise and joy following the competition.

"I feel so honored and happy to be able to share the podium with the two skaters that I admire and look up to very much," she said.

Despite disappointing results during the Junior Grand Prix Series in part because of a back injury, the performances Higuchi gave in over the weekend proved that she is still a strong contender for the upcoming junior world championships.

"This is my first time reaching 190 points, and it gives me strong confidence," Higuchi said. "However, obviously my presentation is not yet there, and I want to improve it toward the junior worlds."

After Rika Hongo fell on her triple lutz and had some weak landings, which resulted in a lower finish than Higuchi with a total of 193.28 points, the chance opened for the Asada to make to reach the podium.

However, the beginning of her Madame Butterfly program was troubling. Asada went for the triple axel that she is known for, but the rotation clearly came short and she fell hard on the landing. A few seconds later, she stepped out on a triple flip, which was supposed to be a combination.

"I knew I had made two huge mistakes, but I went for the jumps without hesitation and I thought that was the right thing to do, so I continued to do so," Asada said.

Things then moved back on track. She landed the rest of her jumps solidly and executed the spins and footwork beautifully. More importantly, the skating and artistry executed in the second half of her routine proved what a three-time world champion is made of. Although she received deductions for the fall and under-rotation calls, the 131.72 points she posted were the second highest in the segment, and the 193.75 total score was good enough to move up from fifth after the short to third overall.

"This was my best free skate so far this season. I still have many problems, but I think I've grown after this Japanese nationals," Asada said.

As the veteran of the field, Asada shared her thoughts on the development of ladies' field.

"I was just away for one year, and then when I came back this year, I saw many skaters who I've never seen or competed with before," Asada said. "The sport is evolving -- not only technically. I was also impressed that so many good skaters appeared, one by one."

Two hours after the ladies competition finished, the Japanese Skating Federation announced the skaters who will represent Japan to go the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships in Boston and the 2016 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in Taipei. Miyahara and Asada will be joined by Hongo in the world championships because of Higuchi's age. All three skaters will also compete at Four Continents.

Japan's men's world team consists of Yuzuru Hanyu and Shoma Uno, who will look to return the country to three spots at the event. Besides Uno, bronze medalist Takahito Mura and Keiji Tanaka will take the ice at Four Continents.