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Miyahara captures third straight Japanese title

18-year-old wins gold by near 15-point margin; Higuchi takes silver medal
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Satoko Miyahara's performance at the 2017 Japanese Figure Skating Championships helped the 18-year-old claim her third straight national title. -Getty Images

Just as "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" continues to dominate box offices in Japan and around the world, Satoko Miyahara once again dominated the ladies field with her "Star Wars" long program at the 2017 Japanese Figure Skating Championships in Osaka. Dressed in her Princess Leia-inspired costume, the skater from Kyoto was crowned the queen of Japan for the third consecutive year.

Wakaba Higuchi, the 2016 silver medalist who placed second after the short program, repeated her runner-up performance with a strong showing throughout her difficult free program. Mai Mihara bounced back from fifth place after the short program to capture a bronze medal with a clean free skate, while three-time world champion and six-time Japanese champion Mao Asada finished 12th overall after two disappointing skates.

The dominance of Miyahara started with her short program. The two-time defending champion carried her strong momentum from the Grand Prix Final and skated a crystal clean program to earn her place atop the podium. Dancing to "Musetta's Waltz," Miyahara beautifully landed a double axel, a triple loop and a triple lutz-triple toe combination, received Level 4s on all her spins and footwork, and scored high Grades of Execution (GOE) on all the elements. As a result, she scored 76.49 points and entered the free skate in first place with a sizable lead over Rika Hongo, who scored 69.20 to place second.

Wakaba Higuchi landed in third place with 68.74 coming for her short program, and she was followed by Marin Honda (67.52) and Mai Mihara (65.91). Mao Asada registered 60.32 points and placed eighth after she popped a planned triple axel into a single, and under-rotated a triple flip.

The free skate competition showcased the depth of the highly competitive field. Young skaters like Yuna Shiraiwa and Rin Nitaya started to impress the audience with clean performances and solid jumps, with Nitaya posting an impressive technical score of 68.67 points, and Shiraiwa garnering 71.74 for technical score and 131.07 in total. She bounced from 17th place after the short program to land sixth overall with a combined total of 194.28. With this result, Shiraiwa earned a ticket to the junior worlds.

Kanako Murakami lowered her program difficulty and in return pulled off a near clean program to land in seventh place in the segment and eighth overall. 15-year-old Saya Suzuki posted 69.31 points in technical score, which demonstrated her incredible potential.

Mao Asada, the three-time world champion who had been struggling entering the event, endured familiar mishaps, which kept her out of medal contention. Despite the fact that her spins received highest level and her Level 4 step sequence received +3 GOEs across the board, the six-time national champion struggled to land her jumps. As a result, she scored only 114.10 points and finished 12th in both the segment and overall.

"I wanted to perform my best in this competition, and it felt regrettable not being able to do so," said Asada, who also indicated she has no plans to retire. "Nevertheless, compared to the Grand Prix event in France, I felt satisfied that I have recovered to a better level."

The final flight in the ladies' event turned out to be a highly competitive showdown for a spot on the world team. The two junior skaters in this group, reigning junior world champion Marin Honda and Japanese junior champion Kaori Sakamoto, both pulled off strong performances to land a spot on the team.

Nebelhorn Trophy winner Mai Mihara was the first among world team candidates to skate. In her "Cinderella" long program, the 17-year-old landed seven solid triples and received positive GOEs on all her elements. Her technical score of 71.62 points was the second highest of the night after Shiraiwa, as was her total segment score of 132.26. As a result, Mihara captured the bronze medal.

"I feel very happy with my performance," Mihara commented after the performance. "I wasn't thinking too much about the placement, but just wanted to skate the best I can. I am glad that I was able to do so."

Set to the music of "Star Wars" and "Jupiter," Satoko Miyahara's movement in her free skate was a bit tighter than usual, and she uncharacteristically stepped out on her triple lutz-triple toe combination. Nevertheless, she skated the program in strong fashion to score 138.38 points in the segment and 214.87 overall. It wasn't her best performance, but it was enough to bring her a third national title.

"I really wanted to perform better today," she said. "I haven't cleaned both programs in a competition so far this season. I really wanted to do it, but I still made some mistakes today, so I need to clean that up."

Wakaba Higuchi skated next to the music of "Scheherazade." Despite a fall on a triple, and an edge call on the triple flip, Higuchi -- who will celebrate her 16th birthday next week -- landed all her remaining jumps in strong fashion. Although the 130.75 points she posted was good for just fourth in free skate, her lead from the short program landed her second overall with 199.49 points.

"I was able to stay focused after the fall," Higuchi, who was pleased with her mental approach throughout the event, said after her performance. "From the competitions so far this season, I've learned to keep on performing whatever mistake I may make, and I am glad that I did not let my mistake impact the rest of my program today."

Due to the disappointing results from the Grand Prix events, Rika Hongo revived her "River Dance" program, which won her several international medals last season. However, in such a competitive field, a popped triple loop and an under-rotation call on a triple toe in the combo were enough to keep her away from the podium. The 194.28-point total was only enough to land her in fifth place.

At the post-event press conference, the three medalists shared their thoughts on the experience they gained at these championships.

"I've never imagined myself on the podium, so I felt very happy," said Mihara. "Last season, I did so poorly at the junior nationals, so I wasn't even qualified for the seniors. From that experience, my goal before the event was only to skate the best that I could in both programs. I did it, but I wasn't expecting a medal at all, so I am very happy right now."

Higuchi, who repeated as a silver medalists was pleased with herself as well.

"My goal this season is to perform my programs," she said. "Despite a fall on the jump, I kept performing the way I wanted from beginning to end. I really enjoyed the time on the ice, and I felt the time passed so fast. I think I can gain more confidence from this experience."

Miyahara, who now has three national trophies, talked about her performance level, which she says has positives and negatives.

"I think this national is the one I wanted to win the most," the queen of Japan admitted. "I really wanted to win, so maybe I was trying a bit too hard in the free skate. Unfortunately, among these three winning experiences, my performance this time is the worst. The short is good, but I am not satisfied with my free skate. If I look around, this event made me realize that I must improve in a lot of areas, and I must become even stronger."

Shortly after the victory ceremony, the Japanese Skating Federation announced the skaters who will represent Japan at the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships in Helsinki, Finland, and the 2017 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in Gangneung, South Korea, where the figure skating events of the 2018 Winter Olympics will be held.

Each of the medalists from the ladies' field will represent their country, as will 2017 Japanese champion Shoma Uno, silver medalist Keiji Tanaka, and Yuzuru Hanyu, who missed the Japanese championships after coming down with influenza.