NHK Trophy 2014

Osaka, Japan

December 10, 2014
By Atsuko Kuryu
Photos © Keiko Kasai

This year’s NHK was held at the Namihaya Dome in Osaka, Japan, November 28 - 30. There were 23 single skaters and 15 pairs and ice dance couples from 13 countries gathered to battle it out for the last spots in the Grand Prix Final. There was no shortage of drama: a surprising winner, unbelievable mistakes, coming back from injuries, great performances beyond all expectations and much more. Compared to last year, the audience was somehow different. Maybe that was because many Japanese skaters had retired, with new fans following, changing the fan age and maybe gender demographics. The venue was noticeably quieter than last year, but the competitions were very interesting and many young skaters are emerging. They will create a new era of the sport and wage new battles from now on.

Pairs

Canadians Meagan Duhamel/Eric Radford claimed their second title of the Grand Prix events. They delivered a perfect short program with strong technique and amazing speed. Everything they did was beautiful and looked so easy. They got no -GOE for any single elements at all. They were also first in the free program, although their performance was not as good as the day before. Meagan looked a little off and fell in the landing of the throw quad Salchow, and made some other mistakes as well. Still, their total score was enough to win.

Runners up Yuko Kavaguti/Alexander Smirnov of Russia nailed their short program where they skated very carefully, but a bit slow. On the contrary, they skated more freely and with more involvement in the free skating. It was dramatic and grand despite some mistakes, and went along with the Tchaikovsky music. I believe this program will be a masterpiece in figure skating history if everything goes well.

China’s youngsters, Xiaoyu Yu/Yang Jin, finally made the podium and also qualified for the Grand Prix Final. Their performance was so fresh and lyrical that it reminded me of their coach, Hongbo Zhao’s skating. I really hope they will follow in their (Xue Shen/Hongbo Zhao) footsteps. Japan’s hopefuls in this field, Narumi Takahashi/Ryuichi Kihara, ranked only 11th because of Narumi’s repeated falls in their jumps. But they have certainly improved in many ways.

Afterwards, Eric said in the press conference they expected more in the free skating, and felt a bit disappointed; they definitely wanted to land the throw quad. Alexander admitted they were also disappointed in their free skating, but were at the same time satisfied that they fully managed to display their dramatic aspect and make their program interesting. He was also happy for a spot in the Grand Prix Final.

Xiaoyu said she could enjoy their performance instead of worrying about mistakes. She wants to enjoy every moment of every performance. They will practice more in preparing for the final after they go back home. When Meagan was asked why they attempted the difficult throw quadruple Salchow, she said they aim to be the best and want to push the sport forward. To the same question, Yuko answered that they had worked on the quad for 8 years, so it felt natural to include it in the program, and that this free program required them to include a quadruple there, it was inevitable.

 

Ladies

Things went very well in the beginning of the short program for the ladies, especially in the second group. There was one flawless performance after another and new season bests. But the next day things changed. Some ladies turned triples into doubles, others fell while landing jumps.

Gracie Gold, USA, won the short program with the world season best score of 68.16 points. She fully showed off her technical ability and her gorgeous skating skills. But in the free skate she fell on the triple Lutz and popped two other jumps. The program was very good, and Gracie had the extra advantage of her skating skills. In my opinion, her amazing ice coverage was the best of all. She skated from one end of the ice to the other without making it look rushed. Gracie is elegant and has natural class. Her score in the free skate was 123 points which easily won her the title. She maintained a neutral attitude toward the Grand Prix Final after the short program because of pros and cons. Between Skate America and the Grand Prix Final, there is only a little over a month and little time to get in shape. On the other hand, Barcerona is a nice place to go because of the mild climate and beautiful scenery. However, she said she was very happy to have qualified for the final.

Alena Leonova of Russia landed all her jumps cleanly in the short program and earned 68.11 points, which was just 0.5 behind Gracie. Her Chaplin Medley fit her very well. Pretending to be Chaplin she spread his world on the ice, to later become a femme fatale in her tango free program. She was very expressive, but not all the jumps were clean. She got 118.29 points and placed second overall with a total of 186.40; only 4.70 behind Gracie. Alena was very happy with the result and she is in very good condition now. She wished to remain that way to the Russian nationals.

Satoko Miyahara of Japan skated a flawless short program, but was a bit behind the more experienced skaters in dynamics and expression. She was awarded 60.69 points and a 4th place. She usually doesn’t make multiple mistakes, but this particular day, she did. Still, it was no worse than giving her the chance to come back in the free skate, claiming the bronze and a spot on the podium with an overall score of 179.02.

Kanako Murakami is very feminine and elegant and showed some recognizable improvement in expressiveness and artistry during her short program. The audience couldn’t wait until her performance had finished to get on their feet and give her a standing ovation. She was third after the short program. But in the free skate her triple Salchow-double loop-double loop combination didn’t count, and she lost some 8 points in the process. She only placed 7th in the free skate and 4th overall with 173.09 points.

Consequently both Satoko and Kanako lost the chance to go to the final. Kanako said this was very frustrating because her goal from the beginning of this season was to compete in the final. Now she will make more changes in her programs and prepare for the Japanese nationals. The third Japanese contestant, Riona Kato, succeeded with her performance. She landed almost all the jumps cleanly and reached level 4 for all of her spins, then piled up the highest technical score of 63.75 in the free skating. She has been expected to do this since she was very young, but has had many ups and downs on the way. Now she trains in the US with Anthony Liu, which has made her flourish.

Men

More drama followed in the men’s competition. The surprising winner was Daisuke Murakami, who, after a solid short program, also nailed a fabulous free skate and secured the gold medal. This was the first time for him to get on the podium. He was third after the short program with 79.68 points but rose to first place in the free skate with 166.39 points, both of them new personal bests. He withdrew from this NHK Trophy two years ago and has had a hard time coming back. He said the worst experience he had was about a month after the withdrawal when he was watching the Nationals through youtube in his hometown in the US. He should have been there! But he toughed it out through those hard time and finally won the title. The results of his efforts were well deserved. Daisuke said he had never thought of getting on the podium, nor imagined a win at this big event, and admitted he couldn’t be happier.

Russian Sergei Voronov doubled two planned triples in the free skate and turned the quad toe to a triple. Still, he landed his other jumps solidly and won the silver medal. His short program was not perfect either, but he used the music fully to add excitement to his program. His total score was 236.65 points. He had thought of the NHK Trophy as the toughest event in the Grand Prix series because so many wonderful skaters had come together, not least the three strong Japanese skaters. But there he was at the press conference for medalists, which made him really happy. He also expressed how he felt about qualifying for the final: “I’m so happy, because at age 27, this is the first time for me to qualify. The best skaters in the world will get together and I want to perform my best with the best skaters who compete there.”

Overnight leader Takahito Mura performed an almost perfect short program and earned 86.28 points. He was the one expected to win this event. But he made some serious mistakes during his free program and was only 4th, just behind Yuzuru Hanyu, with a score of 148.16. However, this was enough to send him to Barcelona. The biggest mistake in his free skate was to single the attempted triple Axel, where he lost more than 7 points. He lost even more to under-rotations and down-grades. He explained his failure with skating last being a first experience for him, making him nervous. But having experienced it now taught him a lot and made him realize he had much more to learn from delivering bad performances.

Yuzuru popped his quads and one triple Axel, and was 5th after the short program. He missed more jumps in the free skate, but ranked 4th overall, which just barely qualified him for the Grand Prix Final. He said he will compete there without thinking about being the reigning Olympic and World champion. He will compete only as a skater who made the last spot in the final. He added many might think he didn’t win the NHK because of the injury he sustained at the Cup of China, but that was not true. He lost because he was weak and didn’t have enough ability. Hm.

Jeremy Abbott of the USA showed a gorgeous short program, but crashed in the free skate. He said after the short program that there was something about his points he didn’t agree with, but he was satisfied with the performance itself. His movements in the free skate were very tranquil, with peace and musicality, although some jumps were less than good. I wanted to congratulate Jeremy Ten, Canada, who returned to the Grand Prix stage after two serious injuries. This was the second Grand Prix event he finished. He seemed stronger than he was before the injuries, and he shoots for the Canadian nationals in January.

Ice dancing

In the short dance, Canadians Kaitlyn Weaver/ Andrew Poje took the lead by a big margin. Moving fast and dynamically, they strongly impressed the audience who gave them a standing ovation. The runners-up, Penny Coomes / Nicholas Buckland of Great Britain, scored 60.49. Their vivid short dance went well to the music and the audience awarded them generous applause.

Ksenia Monko / Kirill Khaliavin of Russia were third, while Americans Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker moved very fast and smoothly to rank 4th. Their scores were very close to Penny/Nicholas with the margins of 0.49 and 1.99 respectively in the short dance. The drama kept going. Russians Victoria Sinitsina/Nikita Katsalapov, 5th in short dance, made some unusual mistakes: Nikita dropped Victoria during a lift and failed to get her up high enough in another. Because of this they slipped to 7th overall.

Penny/Nicholas seemed unable to control their nerves. There was a lot at stake since this free dance would decide whether or not they got tickets to their first final. They didn’t begin as well as they had in the short dance. Nicholas fell during their midline step sequence, and they lost power and slowed down. They dropped to 5th overall with 137.88 points, and unfortunately lost the tickets to Barcelona.

Kaitlin/Jean-Luc displayed a fresh and pretty Romeo and Juliet on the ice and did make the podium. They scored 87.91 in the free dance and 146.41 overall. Their brisk performance enchanted the audience. Jean-Luc explained they had not thought about the ranking at this event, but were very happy they finally got a medal at their second Grand Prix event.

Ksenia/Kiril had good speed and their spins and lifts were light as air. Their overall score was 152.54. Being asked about the tough environment of the competition, Kiril answered honestly that yes, it was tough. They practiced in the morning and then went back to the hotel. Off to the rink again for warm ups and competition, then repeat the procedure the next day. They were a little tired, but it was the same for everyone else. And they were satisfied with the result; they finally got the silver medal!

Kaitlyn/Andrew already had the big stars air about them. Their skating was not as strong as last season’s free dance; still it was very powerful and beautiful. The audience gave them a standing ovation while waving lots of Canadian flags. Kaitlyn/Andrew received 169.42 overall for their performance, but they were not satisfied (because of their mistakes). Kaitlyn said they were happy to win the NHK Trophy though, and that they want to reform their free dance for the final.

Smiles on ice

Right after the ice dance victory ceremony, there was a small after-show called “Smile On Ice”. This was a product of Akiko Suzuki and Nobunari Oda, who both started as professional skaters from this season. Their performance, choreographed by Akiko, was a quite light and brilliant piece where they skated as the perfect pair, but without the lifts. The audience smiled, clapped, laughed and enjoyed it fully. Akiko chose the music, costume and others by herself. She said “I wanted to maximize Nobu’s big smile and happy atmosphere on the ice; however, I got to know how difficult it is to transfer what I had in mind to the ice. But I think this is my first step (as a choreographer)!”

The exhibition

The exhibition following the competition started with the flag ceremony by some very young skaters. They had practiced hard and showed the audience a wonderful performance. All the skaters in the gala looked relaxed and even more expressive than during the competition.

Act I

First out was Canadian Elladj Baldé, who literally climbed over the boards to get on the ice. He pretended to be a school boy who was very awkward when he wore his glasses, but once he lost them, he changed into a cool guy and an amazing dancer. He could dance both funnily and in a cool way, and he immediately captured the heart of the audience. As the first skater, he successfully set the mood for the show.

A gifted newcomer on Grand Prix stage, Riona Kato, performed next. She was very cute and nailed her jumps and lovely step sequence in her The Show program. More newcomers, Japanese ice dancers Emi Hirai/Marien De La Asuncion, displayed their sexy and entertaining style. Sergei Voronov landed a quad toe at the beginning of his program to prove how good his condition is.

Although Narumi Takahashi/Ryuuitchi Kihara are pair skaters, their program to Fireflies was very danceable, and China’s princess, Zujin Li, gave the audience a dreamy moment through her beautiful I Dreamed a dream from Les Miserables. Kaitlin Hawayak/Jean-Luc Baker’s gala program was as fresh and brisk as their free dance. Skating to Frente A Frente, Kanako Murakami’s flamenco was performed with passion.

Pair bronze medalists Xiaoyu Yu/Yang Jin moved very lightly but with speed, and their lyrical performance enchanted the audience. And what a moving performance Yuzuru Hanyu delivered! He always does things by the book in competition, but here at the exhibition he skated very softly and from the heart. He skated to Flowers will bloom (but in Japanese) and landed a tremendously high triple Axel to show that his condition was all right after all.

Act II

The second act started with the performances by two Japanese hopefuls. Sena Miyake won the novice nationals this year, he skated to Totentanz. Marin Honda, who was second at the novice nationals, performed a vivid program to These boots are made for walkin’. Both kids thoroughly showed off their potential.

Alena Leonova skated to Tanguera and was very attractive as a mature woman. Her passion captured the crowd. Jeremy Abbott has this thing for expression, and he is a musicality genius. His Latch by Sam Smith program started out slow and flowing to turn sexy and sharp. Jeremy is the edge-master!

Yuko Kavaguti/Alexander Smirnov showed various amazing spins in their passionate program to Habanera. It was a different take on Carmen, where she was lifted by one foot, something that wouldn’t have been allowed in the competition. Skating to Let Her Go, Satoko Miyahara looked really pretty in her pink asymmetric dress. She was very solid, like she always is.

Ksenia Monko/Kiril Khaliavin had good speed, and there’s a freshness in their skating that really pleased the audience. Takahito Mura nailed a big quad toe and high triple Axel in his cool and masculine program to Feeling Good. The highlight of Meagan Duhamel/Eric Radford’s Say Something was their long and fast eagle, which was really impressive.

Gracie Gold really shook it in her danceable program Shake it off (Taylor Swift), where she showed some funny movements and totally entertained the audience. Kaitlyn Weaver/Andrew Poje drew the entire crowd into the story they acted out on the ice through A song for you, and let the audience feel their passion inside. Another program to Say something was skated by Daisuke Murakami, who had delivered the performance of his life the day before. It was a quiet but inspirational number, especially considering this was his first victory after overcoming some tough experiences. He got a big standing ovation.

At the finale, all the skaters and Domokun, the official NHK Trophy mascot, came onto the ice and skated together and some even had a very short cold spot. Elladj did not one but two back flips! A few of the ladies did pretty spins, the ice dancers lifts and the pairs death spirals. This spectacular exhibition ended in a friendly atmosphere.

After three hot and exciting days of competitions, the NHK Trophy was over. As it turned out, all the winners experienced their first victories, which seemed to be a suitable outcome for the beginning of a new era. We will watch these new and very different battles (compared to the battles of former seasons) and I believe they will be both exciting and interesting. See you next year!

 






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