Japan figure skating in good hands with talented teenagers

Japan figure skating in good hands with talented teenagers
Shoma Uno (L) skates his short program. Satoko Miyahara (R) performs her free program at the All-Japan Figure Skating Championships in Nagano last month.

Figure skating in Japan entered a transition phase when a number of stars called it quits or took a hiatus in 2014 after the Sochi Olympics.

A group of teenagers, though, recently emerged to fill the void, with two diminutive skaters leading the way. At the All-Japan Figure Skating Championships late last month, Satoko Miyahara, 16, was crowned the new queen, while 17-year-old Shoma Uno finished second on the men's side behind reigning Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu.

Much of the focus will be on whether the up-and-coming duo can make their presence felt on the world stage, mainly at the Four Continents in Seoul in February and the World Championships in Shanghai in March.

"I want to go to my first World Championships with the confidence I've built up here [in the All-Japan]," Miyahara said on Dec. 28 after winning her first national title.

The 1.47-meter Miyahara captivated the crowd at Big Hat arena in Nagano with her dynamic skating, landing difficult combination jumps that included a triple-double-double sequence in the free skate that helped lift her past opening-day leader Rika Hongo.

Miyahara, a Kyoto native, has been likened to skaters such as two-time world champion Miki Ando, and the younger version of Mao Asada when she earned the silver medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

Combining jumps that were high in level of difficulty with precision spins, she won her second straight Japan junior championship in 2012. She also finished third in the All-Japan that year at 14.

But more than talent, coach Mie Hamada is impressed with Miyahara's dedication to practice time, pointing out her charge mastered difficult maneuvers through hard work.

"She is a prodigy who does not hesitate to make the effort. She just never seems to leave the rink," Hamada said.

Miyahara has shown steady progress in the last two years. In the 2013-14 season, she was fifth at both the NHK Trophy and the Rostelecom Cup in Russia, two Grand Prix events. And this season, she finished third at both Skate Canada and the NHK Trophy, which were both in November.

Now she will face off against the world's top skaters at the Four Continents and World Championships as the champion of Japan.

Uno ready to challenge Hanyu

Meanwhile, despite being overshadowed by Hanyu, who recently completed an All-Japan three-peat, Uno performed well at the competition.

In fact, the 1.59-meter Uno finished higher than all of his older competitors, except Hanyu, topping such big names as Tatsuki Machida and Takahiko Kozuka to be the runner-up. He was third both in short programme and free skate, nailing a quad jump in both programs.

Uno, a second-year student at Chukyo University High School, first hit the ice with the Grand Prix Tokai Club, a Nagoya-based skating club that also produced Asada. In fact, he gained inspiration from Asada herself.

When Uno was a kindergartner, he once visited Nagoya Sports Center and horsed around with Asada.

"I think I was a nuisance, but I enthusiasctically chased her around while she was practicing at the rink. I remember she spent some time playing with me," Uno recalled.

In mid-December, Uno won the Junior Grand Prix Final, becoming the first Japanese male to win the title since Hanyu in 2009. He rallied from third after the short programme, cleanly completing every manoeuvre in the free skate, including a quad jump. "I can clearly see the progress on my jumps [from last season]," Uno said.

The emergence of Uno has reinvigorated Hanyu, who just turned 20 last month.

"I'm happy to have a new rival. I think I need to pump myself up," the reigning Olympic champion said.

Uno wasn't chosen to skate at the World Championships, but he'll be at the Four Continents.

In addition to Miyahara and Uno, skaters even younger have shown potential this season - Wakaba Higuchi, who just turned 14 this month, was third at the All-Japan, and Sota Yamamoto, also 14, finished second behind Uno at the Junior Grand Prix Final.

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