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Rika Kihira displays confidence, elegance en route to first senior national title


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Rika Kihira displays confidence, elegance en route to first senior national title

Rika Kihira captured her first senior national title at the Japan Championships on Saturday night with an enthralling performance in her free skate.The 17-year-old bounced back from her fourth-place finish at the Grand Prix Final earlier this month to top the podium with a total score of 229.20 in a decisive victory at Yoyogi National…

Rika Kihira captured her first senior national title at the Japan Championships on Saturday night with an enthralling performance in her free skate.

The 17-year-old bounced back from her fourth-place finish at the Grand Prix Final earlier this month to top the podium with a total score of 229.20 in a decisive victory at Yoyogi National Gymnasium.

Wakaba Higuchi moved up from fourth after the short program to take second place with 206.61, while junior Tomoe Kawabata came in third on 193.96.

Four-time national champion Satoko Miyahara (191.43) tumbled from second after the short program to wind up fourth, while Yuhana Yokoi (190.92) climbed up from ninth to come in fifth.

Kaori Sakamoto, last year’s winner, fell from third all the way to sixth with a tally of 188.26.

Kihira, who was the junior champion two years ago, skated to “International Angel of Peace” and exuded confidence with an elegant performance from beginning to end. She did not attempt a quad salchow, but cleanly landed both of her triple axels and six triples in all in the win.

The sole blemish on Kihira’s scoresheet was an under-rotation on the back end of her triple axel/triple toe loop combination jump. She received level fours on all of her spins and step sequence.

“The two skaters before me did not do well, so that shook me a bit,” Kihira noted. “I was not in good condition today, so I really concentrated on myself. It was progress for me. I only did what I had confidence in.”

Kihira, who was fourth at the world championships last season, is making plans for this season’s worlds already.

“I was nervous because I did not have a nap today,” Kihira declared. “I made a mistake in the short program, so at the worlds I want to skate cleanly. I will do a quad salchow and triple lutz there.”

Higuchi did not attempt a triple axel, but used her jumping prowess to excel in her performance to “Poeta.” The Tokyo native landed six triples to return to the podium at nationals for the first time in three years.

“I have had good training for the past couple of months, so that gave me confidence,” Higuchi stated. “I found a way to control my weight and train in order to skate cleanly at competitions and stretch my goals further.”

Higuchi addressed bypassing the triple axel.

“I planned to try a triple axel, but at the official practice this morning I could not land any of them, so I decided to skip it tonight,” Higuchi said.

Kawabata, who was second at the Japan Junior Championships last month, put on an inspired effort to “Yumeji’s Theme” that earned her a standing ovation. Despite a couple of under-rotations (on a triple flip and double loop), Kawabata moved the judges with her combination of power and grace.

“I’m really glad to have a clean short program and free skate,” Kawabata stated. “This was great progress for me. I made many mistakes in practice but was able to skate well in the competition.”

Kawabata is looking forward after the best result of her young career.

“I concentrated hard to skate cleanly on all of my elements tonight,” Kawabata remarked. “In the future I want to improve the PCS (program component scores), transitions and try new jumps.”

Miyahara, who was second after the short program, had an error-filled skate to the theme from “Schindler’s List.” The two-time world medalist racked up seven under-rotations and one downgrade.

“I was really good at practice, but I could not control myself tonight, especially in the second half,” Miyahara stated. “I tried to express myself, but it was too bad.”

Sakamoto competed to “The Matrix” and had a tough time with her speed and jumps throughout the program in a calamitous effort. She under-rotated four jumps and had another downgraded.

“Until last year I could fight because I had another skater (her friend Mai Mihara) close to me,” Sakamoto commented. “But this year I could not fight by myself. I’m old enough now that I should be able to rely on myself.”

Mako Yamashita (170.75) who was fifth after the short program, struggled in her free skate to “Scent of a Woman” and wound up 11th.

Junior champion Mana Kawabe (169.28) landed her opening triple axel, but had a few other issues in her free skate to “Black Swan” and finished 13th.

The men’s free skate is set for Sunday, with Yuzuru Hanyu in the lead, Shoma Uno in second place and junior Shun Sato in third.

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