Ice Network

Miyahara returns to form with Skate America win

Sakamoto, Tennell surprise with silver, bronze; Wagner withdraws
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Satoko Miyahara returned to the top of a Grand Prix podium for the first time in two years, and she did so in thrilling fashion. Skating last in the event, the three-time Japanese champion landed seven clean triples during her 'Madame Butterfly' free skate, for which she earned a score of 143.31, and with 214.03 total points, she overtook teammate Kaori Sakamoto for the gold. -Getty Images

At a Skate America that featured everything from multiple withdrawals to bone-crushing falls and dead insects on the ice, it's no shock that the ladies event was filled with surprises.

Satoko Miyahara returned to the top of a Grand Prix podium for the first time in two years, winning Sunday's free skate at the Lake Placid Olympic Center and taking the title home to Japan with 214.03 points. Her countrywoman, the fast-improving and hard-charging Kaori Sakamoto, captured silver.

And then there's the new girl in town, Bradie Tennell. The 2015 U.S. junior champion, competing in her first-ever Grand Prix, skated two clean programs to earn the highest international score by a U.S. woman (204.10) since Ashley Wagner registered 215.39 points at the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships. Her fresh presence was welcome, since Wagner, struggling with pain from a topical skin infection on her ankle, withdrew during the free skate, and Karen Chen, working through confidence and jump issues after multiple changes in her programs, placed eighth.

But it was Miyahara's day to shine. Skating her free to selections from Puccini's Madame Butterfly, the diminutive skater showed off her trademark ethereal elegance while landing seven triple jumps (four in combination). Miyahara, who won a world silver medal in 2015, also gained straight Level 4's for her superb spins and steps. Her 143.31 points were just a shade off her personal best, while her 214.03-point total beat Sakamoto's by 3.44 points.

"I am very happy and satisfied with my performance today, and happy to get my best scores," she said. "After all of my injuries, it is a big step to Japanese nationals."

In January 2017, Miyahara suffered a stress fracture in her pelvis, caused by low bone density. She restarted her on-ice training several times, but additional injuries in July and September halted her in her tracks. She was only able to resume full jumping in October.

Doctors have ordered the 19-year-old to gain about eight pounds, and to sleep more and work less. But Miyahara, who is fighting for one of the two ladies spots on the Japanese Olympic team, doesn't sound like she wants to slow down.

"I think I need to work harder and get my performance two or three steps better," she said. "I would like to work on my jumps." Pausing for a moment, she added, with a laugh, "And my spins and steps."

There could not be two more different skaters than Miyahara and Sakamoto, a 17-year-old who won bronze at the 2017 World Junior Championships and is in her first season on the Grand Prix circuit. Where the lyrical Miyahara caresses the ice, Sakamoto attacks her choreography and jumps with appealing confidence and power.

Like Miyahara, Sakamoto landed seven triple jumps in her free skate to the quirky Amélie soundtrack; also like her countrywoman, she gained Level 4's for her spins and steps. Her program component scores, however, were several points lower, although she did set a new personal best with 141.19 points in the free skate. She won the silver medal with 210.59 points.

"After Russia (Rostelecom Cup), I practiced so hard for a few weeks, and this really helped my skating," Sakamoto said through an interpreter. "[This medal] makes me confident in my career and in the future. ... I have so much room to improve my performance, so I can do my best at nationals."

Tennell's talent sparked talk of big things long ago, but stress fractures to lower back vertebrae in May 2015 and June 2016 limited her training the past two seasons. Fine showings this summer, including a win at the Philadelphia Summer International, helped prompt U.S. Figure Skating to grant her the host pick at Skate America.

On Sunday, the 19-year-old shone in her free, set to the Cinderella soundtrack (with a dash of Prokofiev) and choreographed by Benoit Richaud. In a clean performance, she landed seven triple jumps (four in combination) while gaining Level 4's for her spins. Her 137.09 points were a new personal best, as was her short program score (67.01).

"I felt really prepared, so I kind of just went out there and did what I was training to do," Tennell said. "I think there are some areas I can improve on."

The developments at Skate America leave the three U.S. ladies spots for PyeongChang as open as ever, and with her score here, Tennell is definitely in the mix. Does she think about it?

"I do, but I like to take things one thing at a time," she said. "I'll leave that for the future."

Denise Myers, who coaches Tennell in the Chicago area, praised her pupil's discipline and work ethic.

"We have been very cautious this year -- we have trained and listened to her body -- and she has overcome those injuries," Myers said. "This is what happens when she is healthy. ... Anything is possible for her. She hasn't reached her peak."

Chen took some positive steps in her free skate to "Jalousie Tango" -- the program she used to win the U.S. title last season -- landing four clean triples and showing great spins and steps. But the technical panel judged two of her jumps to be under-rotated and also saddled her triple flip with an edge call warning. It all added up to lost points, and she placed sixth in the free skate and eighth overall.

"There's that little bit of doubt creeping in, but I am going to really work on that and I have it under control, so I am definitely hoping for the best," Chen said.

The U.S. champion returned to "Jalousie Tango," as well as her short program to On Golden Pond, shortly before Skate America. She stands by her choices.

"Both of these programs, I really have a connection to," she said. "I look back at worlds and nationals last year, and I realize I had that spark and that connection with the music that I felt was a little bit lacking, and I felt that going back to these programs could reignite that spark."

Tennell and Chen are scheduled to compete at Golden Spin of Zagreb in Croatia next week. While Chen and her coach, Tammy Gambill, are anxious to get her programs out one more time before the U.S. championships, Myers sounded less sure that Tennell would make the trip.

"We will take it day by day and see what it brings," she said.