by Klaus-Reinhold Kany
(3 December 2020) Eleven Japanese ladies and Young You from South Korea participated at this year’s NHK Trophy. The general level was good but not extraordinarily high.
Kaori Sakamoto of Hyogo, who had been sixth at the Olympic Games of 2018 and fifth at Worlds 2019, is a powerful skater who sometimes lacks stability. But in Osaka, she celebrated a run-away victory with 29 points of difference to the rest of the field with 229.51 total points. She is coached by Sonoko Nakano and Mitsuko Graham. Star choreographer Benoit Richaud from France worked with her on her programs, this season only online.
The 20-year-old skater took the lead in her stellar short program to the “Concerto En Re Minor“ by Johann Sebastian Bach in a modern version and “Bach a la Jazz“ and “Spring Flowers“ by Doan Phu with an outstanding double Axel (six GOEs of +4 and one of +5) which is planned triple. Her triple Lutz was excellent, the combination of triple flip and triple toe loop as well, like the three spins and the step sequence. All those elements had mainly GOEs of +3 and +4 and some +5. Her components were around 8.8. She commented, “It was the first time in five years I had the Lutz in the short program and I was able to skate clean. So I am happy. At the end during the layback spin I heard the audience applaud so it really felt good and I enjoyed it. It is very motivating to skate in front of an audience.”
In her free program, Sakamoto used three music pieces from the soundtrack of ”The Matrix.” Like in the short program, almost all elements were outstanding and had mainly GOEs of +4 and many +5. The first one was a double Axel, next was an excellent combination of triple flip and triple toe loop. Five triples followed, and her three level 4 spins were also stellar as well as her two step sequences. This time her components had an average of 9.2, with four 9.75 as highest ones for performance.
”I am happy that it went as well as in practice,” she said. ”If I had not lost the points on spins and steps I could reach 230 points overall, so I will aim for that at Nationals. I know there is room for improvement. I couldn’t skate for one month and a half so I was able to work more on my strength training and maybe that has contributed to no major falls this season. These six weeks have helped. This free program being clean is something I was unable to do last season.”
Wakaba Higuchi of Tokyo won the silver medal, earning 200.98 points. She had been second at Worlds 2018 and fourth at Four Continents 2020. Skating to ”Bird Set Free” by Sia, she started her short program with a triple Axel, but fell. The combination of triple Lutz and triple toe loop as well as the triple flip were good, the spins and the step sequence very good and her components around 8.0.
She explained, “In my Axel, the axis was off so that was a mistake. But I was able to regroup and remain calm to land the next two jumps. The entry into my Axel will be different in the free skating and I have long practiced this one so I will feel more confident going in tomorrow. It was nice to hear the warm applause. I decided to put the triple Axel in my short program about a week ago because it was getting more stable and at NHK Trophy there is nothing at stake in a good way, so I discussed it with my coach that it would be a good experience.”
The 19-year-old skater started her free program to ”Poeta” by Vicente Amigo and to ”Flamenco Passion & Soul” by Gino d’Auri with a triple Axel which was one-quarter under-rotated (q), followed by a combination of triple Lutz and triple toe loop, the latter of which was also slightly under-rotated. Three more good triples came later, but she doubled the Salchow and the second Lutz. Two spins were good, one only got the basic level. Her step sequence was excellent and had six GOEs of +4 and one of +5. Her components has an average of 8.4. This was only the fourth best free skate, but it was enough to keep the second place.
Later she commented, “The triple Axel made me really happy. Finally I landed it in competition. I was able to link into the next jump so that was good. It was difficult to maintain my focus since I was getting tired. So I will need to improve that for Nationals. I have practiced that I will remain calm after the Axel to really focus on the triple-triple. The atmosphere with the audience is both a joy and tension of a real competition, so I welcomed it.”
16-year-old Rino Matsuike, who trains with Midori Ito’s coach Machiko Yamada in Nagoya, took the bronze medal with 198.97 total points. She had been third at the Junior Grand Prix in Riga in 2019 and in Osaka she gave her senior debut. In the short program to ”The Color Purple” by Quincy Jones, her triple Lutz was excellent, the double Axel as well, but in her combination of triple flip and triple toe loop, the flip was under-rotated. Spins and steps were very good.
She said, ”Skating first has made me nervous and it was a special tension. But skating first at NHK Trophy is something I should enjoy I told myself. There were no big mistakes in the jumps. I was relieved to have the audience cheering and applauding. It was fun.”
With the second-best free program of the competition to ”Perhaps Love” by Jones Denver she moved up from fourth to third position. She tried seven triples (no Axel), six of which were at least clean, and with two triple-triple combinations in the second half. Highlights were her spins and steps.
”Yesterday,” she said, ”I didn’t think I would be in the second group, so I was nervous. I told myself that it is an honor to be skating there at NHK Trophy, so I wanted to enjoy every moment. I realized that the senior-level skaters have more energy and use the whole rink and look larger, so I learned a lot and will work on that.”
Mai Mihara, who had been fifth at Worlds 2017, finished on fourth position with 194.73 points. She had to sit out last season because of health problems, but celebrated a successful comeback. In her short program, she under-rotated the triple toe loop after the triple Lutz and was a bit slow.
She shared, ”It was a warm welcome and applause from the audience. The triple-triple was not my best, but I was able to regroup after that.“ In the third-best free program, she moved up from seventh to fourth place. She performed seven triples, five of which were good and two a bit under-rotated. She said, ”when I was spinning I heard the great cheering and applause and in my steps, I had tears and couldn’t see anything. I was just so happy with the clapping that was louder than the music. It was not the best (performance), but with my triple-triple and everything, there were no major mistakes. There were banners and standing ovations from some so I am grateful.”
Mako Yamashita, also from Nagoya, performed a faultless short to ”The Barber of Seville” and she had excellent jumps including a combination of triple Lutz and triple toe loop in the second half. She started her free with a quad Salchow which she landed forward. Three triples were good, but she stepped out of the Lutz. Therefore she dropped from third to fifth place with 186.13 points. She explained, ”At the morning practice I was asked what to do with the quad (Salchow) and in the six minutes warm up I said I will give it a try and made the final decision after my warm up.”
Mana Kawabe of Kyoto is sixth with 185.70 points. She fell on the triple Axel in the short and stepped out of this jump in the free. Young You from South Korea sometimes trains with Mie Hamada in Japan. She missed two jumps in the short and said, ”I was in panic.” But she had a good free program (in spite of three under-rotated jumps) with a clean triple Axel which helped her to move up from 12th to seventh place with 181.13 total points.
Yuhana Yokoi placed eighth with 176.49 points after a good short and a free with several mistakes. Marin Honda, Junior Worlds Champion in 2015, finished ninth with 162.57 points. She has a very good style but technically she no longer as strong as in 2015. Tomoe Kawabata placed only tenth, winning 162.24 points after a free program with several mistakes. Nana Akari is 11th with 162.15 points, ahead of Chisato Uramatsu who ended up 12th with 162.14 points, one hundredth points less.
The best Japanese lady Rika Kihira did not participate because she trains in Switzerland and was nominated for the Grand Prix in France which was cancelled.