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Uno aims for first senior world title in Milan

Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno and four-time national champion Satoko Miyahara will lead Japan’s team at the world championships this week in Milan. With two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu sitting out the competition, Uno has a chance to step out of his famous teammate’s shadow by winning his first senior world title.

Uno, who was second behind Hanyu at last season’s worlds in Helsinki, will be striving to top the podium this time around.

Miyahara, who placed fourth at the Pyeongchang Games with the best performances of her career, will be looking to return to the podium at worlds for the first time since 2015, when she claimed the silver medal in Shanghai.

Uno’s prime challengers will be China’s Jin Boyang and American Nathan Chen, while Miyahara will contend with Pyeongchang gold medalist Alina Zagitova and bronze medalist Kaetlyn Osmond.

More important than individual glory for Uno and Miyahara, however, is the quest to retain Japan’s three spots for men at next year’s worlds in Saitama and regain the three places for women that Japan lost last year.

In both instances, Japan needs to have its top two skaters finish a combined 13th or better.

At this point it appears that the men will face the greater challenge. With Hanyu and Javier Fernandez out of the picture, and Uno likely to finish on the podium, the job will fall to Kazuki Tomono and Keiji Tanaka. One of them will need to come in somewhere close to 10th to produce the right equation.

Tomono may be the better bet now, as he is coming off a second-place showing at the Coupe de Printemps in Luxembourg over the weekend. The 19-year-old from Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, was fourth at the Japan nationals this season after taking seventh at the NHK Trophy.

Tomono, who was Japan’s junior champion last season, looked sharp at the Coupe de Printemps, cleanly landing a quadruple salchow and seven triple jumps to win the free skate. If he can replicate this form at worlds, that should get the job done.

Keiji Tanaka looked shaky while finishing a disappointing 18th in Pyeongchang, and though he has had a decent season, it is hard to predict how he will do in Italy. The 23-year-old was second at nationals, and fourth at the Four Continents. Tanaka is certainly capable of placing in the top 10, but only time will tell.

With silver medalist Evgenia Medvedeva pulling out of worlds due to injury, Miyahara has a good chance of making the podium if the judging is done fairly. Italy’s Carolina Kostner was fifth behind Miyahara in Pyeongchang, and at 31 could be competing in her final worlds on home ice. Let’s hope that sympathy is not a factor in the scoring.

In a twist of irony, for the second straight year the task of securing the three spots for next season’s worlds will fall to Wakaba Higuchi. With Mai Mihara placing fifth in Helsinki last year, Higuchi needed to take eighth or better but came in 11th.

Aside from bobbles at the Grand Prix Final and nationals, Higuchi has put forth a solid effort the season and should be equal to the task this time around. Higuchi was clearly heartbroken after coming in fourth at nationals and losing the second Olympic spot to Kaori Sakamoto.

I think this is a real chance for Higuchi to silence the doubters with a couple of strong showings at worlds. The 17-year-old clearly has the ability, she just has to be mentally strong and minimize her mistakes.

Japan trio sweeps podium

Mai Mihara, Sakamoto, and Yuna Shiraiwa completed a Japan sweep of the medals at the Coupe de Printemps on Saturday. Mihara won the gold with a total score of 215.49 points, with Sakamoto (202.56) taking the silver and Shiraiwa (181.79) grabbing the bronze.

The 18-year-old Mihara skated really well, hitting seven triples and receiving level-fours for her spins and step sequence, in her free skate to “Gabriel’s Oboe.”

Sakamoto, who was sixth in Pyeongchang, lost a chance to win when she fell on the back end of her double axel/triple toe loop combo, then doubled a planned triple loop late in her free skate to “Amelie.”

Despite her disappointment at coming in second at her final event of the season, Sakamoto is to be saluted for the fine season she had. Winner at the Four Continents, second at nationals and Skate America, and an Olympian at 17.

Shiraiwa, who struggled in her first senior season, landed six triples in her free skate to “Pictures at an Exhibition,” but recorded only level-threes for her spins and step sequence. The 16-year-old knows what she needs to work on before next season begins.

Hiroaki Sato was fourth in the men’s event, while Sota Yamamoto took fifth as he continues to make progress in his comeback from serious ankle injuries.

Mura calls it a career

Takahito Mura announced his retirement from competition at a news conference alongside Mao and Mai Asada last week in Tokyo, where Mao formally announced plans for her “Mao Thanks Tour” around Japan in the coming months.

The 27-year-old Mura had a long career that saw him take the bronze medal at nationals five different times. The native of Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture, enjoyed his best season during the 2014-15 campaign when he won Skate Canada, finished third at the NHK Trophy, and was fifth at the Grand Prix Final.

After finishing third at this season’s nationals, Mura was named the first alternate for Pyeongchang, losing out on the third spot to Tanaka.

Mura, who won the Four Continents in 2014, is married now and has two children. Ice Time wishes Takahito the best of luck in the future.

Miyahara honored by school

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Kansai University and its president Keiji Shibai had a wonderful ceremony earlier this month to honor Miyahara for her performance in Pyeongchang. The 19-year-old is a second-year student in the school’s College of Letters.

It was nice enough that they had the celebration, but then Shibai topped it off by awarding Miyahara a surprise special gold medal in recognition of her representation of the university at the Olympics. It was a richly deserved honor for the Kyoto native, who fought her heart out in South Korea trying to get a medal.

“It was special to be at the Olympics,” Miyahara said after the ceremony on March 8. “I went there thinking I would be really nervous, but everything was more fun than I imagined. I was able to skate while feeling more excited than tense and could do my best in both the short program and free skate.”

Boosting Sapporo’s 2026 bid

Ice Time (@sportsjapan) asked followers in a Twitter poll last week if they thought the 2026 Sapporo Olympic bid should use Hanyu as its key ambassador like Pyeongchang did with Yuna Kim.

With nearly 600 people participating in the poll, 91 percent of the voters favored Hanyu having a highly visible role in the effort to get Sapporo the Winter Games for the first time since 1972.

If Yuzu is willing to do it, it is hard to see any downside to this. The double Olympic champion is both a prominent and highly respected member of the Olympic movement, who certainly has the power to move people. This sounds like the kind of challenge he loves.

Kim did a fantastic job for South Korea in helping to secure the 2018 Games, flying around the world to campaign for the bid and speaking on its behalf in the final presentation before the IOC.

Worth every yen

Hanyu donated a pair of signed boots, minus the blades, earlier this month for an online charity auction to raise funds for schools affected by the March 11, 2011, disaster in Tohoku. A picture of Hanyu holding the boots was posted with the auction.

By the time the auction ended, Hanyu’s boots had sold for ¥8,500,100 (or approximately $79,000). While the money going to a good cause certainly made the winning bid worth it, I’m sure the feeling of actually receiving the boots for the winner was priceless.

Watanabe scores an ace

Emi Watanabe, Japan’s first female world skating medalist, showed she is more than just a skater recently. Last week Watanabe hit a hole-in-one during a round at the Daiei Country Club in Chiba Prefecture.

Watanabe, who captured the bronze medal at the 1979 worlds in Vienna, used a 7-iron on the 110-yard, 13th hole for her first ace. The Tokyo native was an eight-time Japan champion and placed sixth at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics.

Many golfers go their entire lives without carding an ace, but now Watanabe has one to go along with her world medal. Ice Time extends his congratulations on the accomplishment.

Baiul has quad concerns

Ice Time reached out to 1994 Olympic champion Oksana Baiul recently to get her take on world junior champion Alexandra Trusova of Russia making history by landing two quads in her free skate earlier this month in Sofia.

“Alexandra Trusova should be very proud of her accomplishment landing two quads,” Baiul wrote in an email to Ice Time from Las Vegas, where she now lives. “It is amazing to realize what she had to endure while training to achieve landing one let alone two quads. Trusova certainly has set a new level for ladies figure skating.”

Baiul, while congratulating Trusova, also expressed concerns about female skaters and the toll quads will take on their bodies.

“The downside is the added pressure to compete with a quad by ladies in competition, which also raises serious concern for the unrealistic expectation of the ability to sustain being able to continually land them,” Bauil added, “and the injuries that will occur to the younger generation competing today. Most do not appear to be taking their long-term physical well being into consideration.”

Baiul, a native of Ukraine who is 40, is slated to star in “Sonja: Queen of Ice, the True Life Story of Sonja Henie,” a major motion picture to be released next year about the only three-time women’s Olympic figure skating champion.

Looking into the crystal ball

Ice Time had an interesting exchange with a veteran skating writer at the Pyeongchang Olympics ahead of the men’s singles competition. Getting on the bus one morning to ride from the Media Village to Gangneung Ice Arena, I asked him, “Do you think Hanyu is going to do it again?”

In short order the writer said to me, “I think (Javier) Fernandez and (Patrick) Chan are probably past it in terms of being able to win. I don’t think (Nathan) Chen is ready yet. That just leaves guys Hanyu has already beaten (Shoma, Boyang). I think Hanyu will get it done.”

The conviction the person said it with really struck me. Then everything unfolded exactly as he said.

Amazing.

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