Skating Highlights of the Week: NHK Trophy and Other Events
Rika Kihira and Hawayek & Baker break through to win first Grand Prix golds in Japan; Trusova and Kostornaia have face off in Kazan.
To most people, Hiroshima is known as the city the atomic bomb was first dropped on. But on the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, it was the location of a much more pleasant event: the NHK Trophy, Japan’s annual Grand Prix event. Not that the history will ever be forgotten. Certainly not by Mie Hamada, coach to two of the three home entries in the ladies competition. Her mother lived through the bombing, her aunt died in it, and she made sure her students-and everybody else-remembered that.
Before the event got underway, the week got off to an sad start, with the withdrawal of Gabriella Papadakis & Guillaume Cizeron, the most anticipated skaters on the roster. It didn’t help matters that it happened too late for replacements. Although it did at least create suspense in the ice dance, with two teams both trying to seize an opportunity for Grand Prix gold neither expected to have this year, even before assignments came out.
There were still two of Japan’s biggest skating stars, and both Shoma Uno and Satoko Miyahara were favored to win. Except Miyahara was now facing an unlikely challenger in the form of Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, who fell off the map after her first comeback in 2015, but four years later is in the middle of another one. The pairs, too, had a heavy favorite.
There were quite other competitions going on around the skating world this week as well. Most of them were very small, but this week’s Russian Cup was one of the bigger ones in the series.
But one skater who was supposed to compete in Hiroshima, and found her back wouldn’t heal in time for that, found somewhere else to skate instead. Alongside coaching legend Tatiana Tarasova, Elena Radionova went to Kazakhstan this week. On Wednesday, they first attended and spoke at the unveiling of the memorial plaque for the country’s beloved skater Denis Ten. That was followed immediately by the official opening of the main office for the Denis Ten Foundation for supporting skating in the country. This was in Almaty’s Halyk Arena, where Radionova skated in his memory:
Despite losing two top names from it beforehand, the NHK Trophy had a stacked field in the ladies. While not everyone in it delivered, it still ended up being the best ladies competition of the fall so far, with everyone in the top seven delivering at least one great skate. It was also a good week for Hamada. Her skaters went one-two-but not with the expected student on top, as both Japanese superstar and resurgent Russian were stunned by Japan’s newest young upstart.
The other three competitions were a little rougher, the men and pairs especially, both of which were won by the favorites. In ice dance, the pressure might have gotten to the two teams suddenly contending for gold, as they both made errors-and that competition’s biggest breakout team actually didn’t make the podium.
Rika Kihira was already having a breakout season, but here she took things to a new level. She started her short by falling on her triple axel. But she started her free by landing it twice, and with a triple toe loop, and then just kept going. Her technical score was ridiculously high enough, but she’s also now strong enough performance-wise she was second here only to training mate Miyahara. It was enough for a top of the world score, and she vaulted up from fifth to claim gold.
She did get a little help from the favorites, but not much. Certainly not in the short, where Miyahara was practically sublime.
Her free skate was a very strong performance too. She would’ve held on had she not been hit by multiple underrotations. She won silver by a little less than half a point, though with the Skate America gold, she needed only to medal to qualify for the Grand Prix Final.
Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, too, needed only a medal. Though with her short program, she looked about ready to continue right where she’d left off. She even beat Miyahara in the segment by a hair.
After she landed the axel in the short, it’s still not quite happening in the free, but this is still one of her best skates of one of her best programs. She actually skated better here than she did when she won in Canada, even though it only got her bronze.
All three home ladies were excellent. Mai Mihara did have a little trouble rotating her triple-triple, but for the most part skated the way she did during her own breakout season two years ago, floating through most of Doris Day and Ennio Morricone-and when for the latter she had to bounce back from a collision with Eunsoo Lim in the free skate warmup. She would’ve medaled or even won at many an event; here she finished fourth.
Mariah Bell was another skater who followed up a short with a fall with a free that was her at her best. It was actually the fourth place program, and she finished fifth.
In sixth, Eunsoo Lim, after that warm-up collision, had a bit more trouble in her free. But she’d already started her senior Grand Prix career with the best short program she’s ever done.
At the other end of her career, Alena Leonova also skated maybe one of her best short programs, a last glorious moment, even if she still couldn’t score that high.
Her free skate, which can be presumed to be her last Grand Prix skate (until told otherwise), wasn’t all that bad either, even if a little reality crept back in, and she slipped down to seventh.
We did get a first look at one top ice dance team this week: Kaitlin Hawayek & Jean-Luc Baker had an injury during the summer, and so ended up starting their season here. Their rhythm dance puts them through their paces, a challenge they seem mostly up to meeting-except that he stumbled in the second tango pattern. It left them five points behind, and gold seemed lost.
They’d been hard-pressed to follow up the free dance so good everybody rejoiced when they spent a second year skating to it last season. But this season, they’ve got a better one, more emotionally complicated and even more beautifully skated. When it was their main competition’s turn to fumble, they made up the five-point gap and claimed their first ever Grand Prix gold.
Had Tiffani Zagorski & Jonathan Guerreiro won, they would’ve locked for the Final, and they skated as a couple worthy of it in the rhythm dance. But he went wrong in their twizzles in their free dance, and that wasn’t even their only rough spot. With silver and bronze, they’re now instead left in suspense, and the only ice dance team to officially qualify for the Final this week were Charlene Guignard & Marco Fabbri, who won two silvers earlier, and were just waiting for it to become mathematically certain.
As one young American team won their first gold, another won their first medal. Rachel & Michael Parsons managed that on the strength of a fluid rhythm dance where they beat Hawayek & Baker technically. Their free dance was good too, though that’s copyblocked on YouTube, and I wasn’t able to find it anywhere else.
Noone was looking much at Lilah Fear & Lewis Gibson. They weren’t really anybody, and twizzle issues in the rhythm dance had left them all the way down in seventh. Then they broke out their lively disco free dance, and were technically brilliant in it. They had the highest TES score of anyone by over three points, and would’ve even won the segment if not for an extended lift, with the kind of score that can get a team places. This time it only got them to fourth, but they’re officially not nobody anymore.
The pairs competition was, at least, better than it was last week. Nataliia Zabiiako & Alexander Enbert certainly were, cutting out the falls and instead holding things together and elevating their performances quite a bit. The kind of grandiose and gothic themes they’ve embraced aren’t to everybody’s taste, but suit them extremely well. They too are headed to the Final with two golds.
Unlike their other fellow dual silver medalists, Cheng Peng & Yang Jin didn’t have to wait; they got themselves locked for the Final immediately upon winning their second silver this week. They too improved upon their performance from their first event. In the free skate especially, although they partly did that by deliberately jumping double instead of triple salchows.
Below the top two, the event was a little messier. But Alexa Scimeca Knierim & Chris Knierim, who showed up with Jenni Meno & Todd Sand, the sort of a 90s version of them, as their new coaches, they skated better here than they have anywhere in some time. At least enough so for their free program, especially, to properly demonstrate just how good they’ve become artistically. Also to narrowly take bronze.
After the trainwreck that was most of the men’s competition, it was deeply relieving to see Uno skate his free program so well, the couple of fumbles easy to overlook. With two golds he locked not only himself for the Final, but also Michal Brezina, another skater who won two silvers earlier but had to wait for it to become official.
Last year, Sergei Voronov won this event simply by being the guy who landed the hard enough jumps when most of the field skated badly-and the top Japanese guy withdrew beforehand. This year, the top Japanese guy remained around to beat him, but with his best skate yet of Ten’s program, he more or less did it again for silver. With bronze at Skate America, he may or may not make the Final.
Matteo Rizzo, like Uno, made a handful of mistakes, but is good enough a performer to get past them, and also to squeak out the bronze.
Kihira continued to be at her poetic best in the gala, skating to hit Norwegian track “Faded.” The winners in the gala all did encore performances, so she also reprised a section of her free.
Once again Hawayek & Baker have kept one of last year’s programs, in their case, their popular Austin Powers show program. And since the second piece of music in their free dance is called “In This Shirt,” for their encore he took off his coat to show us his shirt, as well as some impressive arms.
Miyahara worked her Cirque du Soleil marvels in front of the home crowd.
Rachel & Michael Parsons were good with the Bob Dylan.
Kirsten Moore-Towers & Michael Marinaro came here with a shot at the Final, but lost it when they made too many errors for a very disappointing fourth. They consoled themselves as best they could with Regina Spektor.
Mihara brought back the Cinderella music with which she first broke out-and did a four-jump combination to it!
When Bell’s “Stand by Me” number was one of the best moments of the Skate Canada gala, she got invited to perform it again.
Deniss Vasiljevs, who came in eighth, got invited to perform anyway because they knew he’d be good. He threw on an outlaw’s cloak, broke out the Woodkid, and was.
View full results here.
Volvo Open Cup
The bigger of the week’s other two international events was the Volvo Open Cup in Riga. Latvia’s main international event, it was part of the Challenger series once, and at another time had legend Evgeny Plushenko use it as his Olympic season warmup. But this year it was a low-profile event indeed, probably only the biggest of the week outside the Grand Prix because another, the Ice Challenge in Austria, was canceled.
The biggest names in Riga were senior ice dance winners Betina Popova & Sergei Mozgov. They had an excellent performance of their rhythm dance.
They may now be becoming known for their Power Rangers show number, because more of the world has heard of those, but they might just be throwing themselves harder into their Master and Margarita free.
Silver medalists Katharina Muller & Tim Dieck also had a strong rhythm dance. Their free dance this season, though, is not a good idea.
None of the other events had anyone quite on Popova & Mozgov’s level. But the senior ladies event had Ivett Toth, who managed to win it too. Last year she became famous for skating to AC/DC. This year, she settled for Bruno Mars.
Her free skate was to more straightforward dramatic, if modern, music. Despite missing both her lutzes it was one of her better ones.
View full results here.
Cup of Russia, Rostelecom, Stage 4
The penultimate Russian Cup in Kazan was on the big side in its roster, but that wasn’t for Russian Nationals qualifying. Instead, it was flooded by multiple skaters who are bound for the Junior Grand Prix in December, meaning they’re already in if they want to compete. They even won three of the four senior events. As is typical in Russia, the biggest event were the ladies.
An increasingly unusual thing happened in the senior ladies short program: Alexandra Trusova lost. She skated perfectly well in it, and it was by less than two points, and to other top Russian phenom Alena Kostornaia, but perhaps it serves as statement she’s not the best at everything just yet.
When it came to winning the competition, though, Trusova was perfectly fine once she’d rotated both quad lutzes in her free, landed the one with the triple toe, and after her third quad failed ridden the rest of the program home.
Kostornaia is practically falling behind with the amount of still difficult technical content she’s doing. But her skating was flawless throughout the week, even when her programs themselves were a touch less so. That was ultimately enough for silver.
Of the skaters who actually need to qualify for Nationals, Anastasia Gubanova managed to finish the highest in third, with the best free skate she’s put forward even in a fall where she’s generally skated well. With two third place finishes, she’s pretty much safely in.
It was unfortunate for Maria Talalaykina that there was no room for her on that podium, even when she skated about as well as she could’ve. She’ll have to make do with third and fourth at her two Cups, which at least should be enough for Nationals.
Petr Gummenik is now firmly established the Russia’s current top junior man, and he won the senior men here. He’s mostly doing it by being generally solid.
He wasn’t the biggest man in the competition, though. That was instead the former top guy actually trying to qualify for Nationals here. After years of struggling and pretty much losing last season to injury, Maxim Kovtun still isn’t all there technically. But with a standard bullfighter program he won the free skate by a point, and came within a point and a half of winning overall, mostly on the strength of his performance.
Anna Scherbakova competed in the junior ladies, and she, too, had to come back from second to win, and did so by attempted two quad lutzes, and landing the one in combination.
View full results here.
Next week the Grand Prix series will be in Russia. But the Rostelecom Cup, like the NHK Trophy this week, has just lost one of its top ice dance teams: Madison Chock & Evan Bates had to give their second event up too. And this time, instead of creating suspense for gold, it’ll destroy it, turning Alexandra Stepanova & Ivan Bukin from the challengers to the unchallenged. And while they just got Yuna Shiraiwa onto the ladies roster, they may lose Karen Chen; she put up an Instragram saying she’s out, then took it down. They may be trying to replace both these withdrawals, but it would be a close thing.