We’re two thirds of the way through the 2021 Grand Prix and the shape of the Final is beginning to come into view (check out the current standings, qualifiers, and top scores in my guide here). NHK Trophy this weekend saw both the season debut as well as the absence of several key figures, and featured some very interesting stories. Here’s five key takeaways from the Tokyo event.
The theme of injuries has been looming in the background all season but was brought front and center this weekend. Before the event even started, seven skaters or teams had withdrawn, all citing injury or recovery from injury as determining factors. To illustrate just how significant these withdrawals were, three of the six competitors pictured on the cover of event program did not compete.
Then, during the six-minute warmup for the second group of the women’s short program, 15-year-old Russian Daria Usacheva took a bad fall and had to be carried off the ice by medical personnel. The Russian Figure Skating Federation said in a statement that she “had a ligament tear of one of the internal muscles of the right leg in the growth zone of the femur,” and Match TV reported that Usacheva had been struggling with hip and groin pain long before the start of the Grand Prix. Usacheva had already won a silver medal at Skate America and had a shot at gold here after Alexandra Trusova and Rika Kihira withdrew due to their own injuries, but Daria was ultimately forced to withdraw herself and the outlook for the rest of her season is unclear.
This worrying trend of injuries can really be traced back to the World Championships at the end of last season, which also saw a number of withdrawals and a dramatic mid-competition injury when French skater Mae-Berenice Meite ruptured her Achilles tendon on the first jump of her short program. The training interruptions and inequalities caused by the COVID-19 pandemic combined with the pressures of the Olympic season have created a unique situation where athletes are clearly more prone to injury, and with only 83 days until the Winter Games, that should be cause for concern.
A major theme in both the men’s and women’s event was underrotated jumps. Despite finishing second overall, Vincent Zhou ranked sixth in the free skate with three underrotations, two jumps on the quarter, and two jumps popped into singles, meaning he had exactly one clean jumping pass. Bronze medalist Junhawn Cha also had a downgraded quad Salchow, two underrotations, and two q’s. On the women’s side, Young You and Alysa Liu both attempted triple Axels in both programs; three of the four were underrotated falls with only Liu’s in the free skate being landed upright, but with a q for good measure.
Perhaps the technical panel was just a bit harsher at these events–though we’re talking about two different callers in two different events–but plenty of skaters have been put on notice that they need to clean up their rotations. We’re now well into the season, so excuses of “clearing off the cobwebs” don’t really play anymore.
With no Russians competing in the women’s event, we had our first non-Russian Grand Prix champion of the year in Kaori Sakamoto. This technically makes Sakamoto a double NHK Champion, though the event was almost entirely domestic last season. Her total competition score of 223.34 makes her the closest to the Russians on paper, though she was still almost ten points off of the third-highest scoring Russian woman (232.88 from Elizaveta Tuktamysheva at Skate Canada). Sakamoto’s first and fourth place finishes in her two assignments will likely be enough to qualify for the Grand Prix Final, though it hasn’t been mathematically confirmed yet, and with another bronze medal here, Young You could also have a shot at making the Final. Surprise silver medalist Mana Kawabe unfortunately had a much worse outing at Skate Canada, finishing ninth and receiving no Grand Prix standings points, so mathematically she will not be able to qualify.
Shoma Uno also took his second NHK title in front of a home crowd, giving the Japanese fans a win to celebrate in the absence of two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu. Excitement for Hanyu’s season debut had been at an all-time high when he announced his intent to attempt a quad Axel during the competition, but he sadly withdrew due to an ankle injury a few days later. The injury is reportedly very similar to the one he sustained prior to the 2018 Olympics, so while his chances have slimmed, we know to never count Hanyu out when it matters most. Meanwhile Shoma Uno has solidified his chances of repeating as an Olympic medalist with a silver and a gold on the Grand Prix, and a ticket to the Final secured.
World Champions Reign
NHK saw the Grand Prix season debut of reigning pairs World Champions Mishina/Galliamov and reigning ice dance champions Sinitsina/Katsalapov, with both taking the gold their respective disciplines.
Anastasia Mishina and Alexander Galliamov easily dispatched fellow Russians Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov and posted the highest free skate and total competition scores of the Grand Prix so far. They went almost entirely clean, apart from a hand down on the final throw of their free skate, while Tarasova and Morozov returned to their trademark inconsistency with major jump issues in both programs. Tarasova and Morozov are stunning when they skate well, but they have a tendency of getting derailed by these sorts of errors and it’s been their downfall over the past few years, so they’ll need to clean things up if they hope to go back ahead of Mishina and Galliamov.
In ice dance, Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov were not quite as dominant. In the rhythm dance, they were only three-tenths of a point ahead of Chock and Bates, and in the free dance they barely had the edge in technical score despite a shock fall from the Americans early in their program. Even though the technical side was well off of what we saw from Papadakis and Cizeron last week, the judges were more than happy to help on the PCS side and actually gave them slightly higher components that the French in both programs. Of course, scores can’t be precisely compared across events, but the amount of politicking happening for the Russians is abundantly clear, even when the programs are still shaky.
Team Japan Throwdown
A big story for the home crowd was the international debut of ice dance team Kana Muramoto and Daisuke Takahashi and their win over the main national representatives of this quad, Misato Komatsubara and Tim Koleto. Both teams are competing for Japan’s single Olympic spot in the discipline, and while Komatsubara and Koleto have put the work in over the past three years and shown steady improvement, they were narrowly defeated by Muramoto and Takahashi in both segments here. And it wasn’t just sentimental PCS scoring for Olympian Muramoto and World Champion Takahashi–they won in technical score as well. In the end, the difference was just over seven points, but if any clue was needed as to which team the Federation favors at the moment, Muramoto and Takahashi were invited to perform at the exhibition gala while Komatsubara and Koleto were not.
It’s easy to understand the federation liking the popular appeal of the new team. Takahashi is extremely well-known in Japan, as the first Japanese skater to win an Olympic medal in men’s singles, and his success in ice dance could not only bring in more eyes, but also draw talented skaters into the discipline, which has gone largely neglected in the country. Komatsubara and Koleto certainly aren’t out of it yet, but it’s important to understand that there’s more than just scores to consider in this fight for a trip to the Olympics. The teams will face off again at Japanese Nationals in December, and that’s the competition that really counts, so both teams will be training very hard over the next few weeks.