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Rika Kihira roars back to win Japan Junior Championship with two triple axels

MAEBASHI, GUNMA PREF. – Rika Kihira hit two booming triple axels in the opening minute of her free skate to rally to victory Sunday night at the Japan Junior Championships at Gunma Ice Arena.

The 15-year-old was more than eight points behind leader Mako Yamashita following Saturday’s short program, but went to her money-making move when she needed it most and earned the prize she was hoping for.

Kihira’s winning total was 193.46 points, to best Yamashita (190.03) and third-place finisher Nana Araki (177.07).

Mitsuki Sumoto retained the lead after the short program to claim the men’s title. Sumoto, a 16-year-old from Osaka, won with a total score of 198.19.

Sena Miyake took second place with 189.17, while Tatsuya Tsuboi moved up to grab third on 189.15.

Kihira competed to “La Strada” and set the tone for her outstanding performance with a triple axel/triple toe loop/double toe loop combination jump that had the crowd roaring. She didn’t waste any more time getting the fans to crank up the volume even more, as she followed her opener with another triple axel.

The Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, native showed she has what champions are made of — finding a way to win when the odds are completely against you.

Kihira landed seven triple jumps in the triumph, with the lone blemishes coming when she doubled a planned triple loop and was hit with an invalid element for repeating a triple lutz/double toe loop combo.

“I am so happy to win,” stated a beaming Kihira. “It’s a big improvement from last year (when she finished 11th in Sapporo).”

Kihira credited training partner and three-time national champion Satoko Miyahara for helping her.

“Practicing each day with Satoko is inspiring,” said Kihira. “I’m happy she is doing well at Skate America (where Miyahara leads after the short program).”

Kihira, who received level-fours for two spins and her step sequence, is the lone Japanese woman to qualify for December’s Junior Grand Prix Final.

Yamashita didn’t make it easy for Kihira, taking the ice last in the 24-skater program and displaying great fortitude throughout her skate to “Madame Butterfly” while landing six triples.

The 14-year-old from Nagoya looked in good position to win the title until she doubled a planned triple loop on her next-to-last jump.

“I’m pleased to finish second,” stated Yamashita. “I struggled last year at this event (where she placed 16th).”

Yamashita, the first alternate for next month’s JGP Final in her hometown, is already looking ahead.

“This result has given me motivation to practice hard for the future,” Yamashita commented. “I can see the benefit of my hard work.”

Yuhana Yokoi (172.97), was fourth, while Riko Takino (164.78) settled for seventh after falling on her opening triple axel.

Kaori Sakamoto took the women’s title in 2016.

Sumoto, who is the only Japanese man to qualify for the JGP Final, opened with a triple axel and landed seven triple jumps in his free skate to “Les Miserables,” but under-rotated his final jump (a triple lutz).

“It feels good to win. I was nervous being the final skater today,” Sumoto stated. “I don’t like starting in that position.”

He also overcame a wardrobe malfunction, as early in his program a velcro strap on one of his pant legs came loose. The crafty Sumoto tried to fix it during one of his spins, but it quickly came undone again.

Sumoto, who was the bronze medalist last season, forged on and completed his skate without any problems.

“I was worried about my costume and tried to fix it, but fortunately it did cause any trouble,” Sumoto commented.

Kazuki Tomono was the men’s champion last season.

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