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[ICE TIME] For Tomoki Hiwatashi, Move to Japan to Train with Mie Hamada Paying Dividends

Explaining his decision to move to Japan, Tomoki Hiwatashi says, "Mie is a great coach and I wanted to work with her and learn what she teaches."

The words of the late, renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow succinctly describe the predicament that Tomoki Hiwatashi faced in the spring of 2023 after his second straight season of disappointing results on the ice.

"In any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth or step back into safety," Maslow famously observed.

At the age of 23, the American skater from a Japanese family was at a crossroads. Hiwatashi knew he had to do something major to try and reverse his results or watch his career slowly fade into the ether. So he decided to step forward.

The 2019 world junior champion packed up his apartment in Colorado Springs, where he had been training for several years, and flew to Osaka to start a new life in Kyoto training with Mie Hamada at the Kinoshita Academy.

"I made the decision to train with Mie in April or May," Hiwatashi stated in an exclusive interview with Ice Time. "Just wanted a change in environment. Mie is a great coach and I wanted to work with her and learn what she teaches. I wanted to learn her technique and also thought it would be a nice way to get myself more motivated with my skating."

The 2022-23 season was an especially difficult one for Hiwatashi as he was dealing with a significant physical issue.

"I had a major injury in my back during nationals. It was a stress reaction," Hiwatashi recalled. "I had some pain there and I was skating with pain there and had to recover from that, and I wasn't able to do that until around June or July. That is when I was able to get back on the ice and skate more and jump more."

Details of the Back Injury

Hiwatashi, who was born in Englewood, New Jersey, in the United States, gave the background on how the injury developed.

"At the NHK Trophy last year [2022], I had probably the worst result (12th place) I could have gotten," Hiwatashi stated. "After the Grand Prix Series, I was very motivated. I wanted to redeem myself and show that I could do better. On the way toward nationals, I started to have some back pain. Because it was nationals, I just decided to let it pass and do my best.

"Around the end of December, the beginning of January, I started to have severe pain in my back," Hiwatashi continued. "I wanted to compete at nationals, which I was able to do in the short program (coming in third), and I tried to do my best in the long program. But I was nervous and also trying to deal with the pain and it didn't work out for me."

He ended up in 10th place in the final standings.

Confronting Results That Were Not Satisfactory

It is often tough for an athlete to admit that their performance hasn't been up to par. But Hiwatashi looked in the mirror and acknowledged that he just hadn't been getting the job done the past few seasons.

"Throughout the whole season last year, I wasn't doing well in the Grand Prix Series," Hiwatashi said. "I didn't do too well before the Grand Prix (season) either. The whole season last year was just kind of a mess. I felt like I needed to change something and wanted to make a drastic move, rather than just trying to change something small."

Hiwatashi, who was third at the US Championships during the 2019-20 season, confessed that the past few seasons have been challenging.

During the 2021-22 GP campaign, he was ninth at the NHK Trophy and 11th at Skate Canada. Not much changed in the 2022-23 season, as Hiwatashi was ninth at the John Wilson Trophy and last at the NHK Trophy.

"I felt like in the past two or three years I wasn't doing too well. Since the pandemic hit, I wasn't doing too hot," Hiwatashi commented. "I was going up and down. The results were just kind of waving. Sometimes it was alright, sometimes it was terrible. I felt like I needed a big change. Last year was the year that pushed me to make a move."

Tomoki Hiwatashi
Tomoki Hiwatashi in 2020. (Ⓒ ISU)

It's just a shoe!

Putting His Physical Condition First

With his old game plan and life now out the window, Hiwatashi's new approach began by trying to get back to full health.

"When I got here and started training with Mie, the first thing I did was try to heal that injury," Hiwatashi commented. "I had to figure out the middle ground about how I could skate but also heal my back. Working with the trainer at Kinoshita kind of helped me move on and move past my injury.

"Throughout the change in environment and getting better, I felt like it was a good move and Mie also wanted me to try and take a step back from doing all those quads and just kind of do one in each program," Hiwatashi remarked. "That worked out really well for Boston and the Budapest Trophy. I did not do the best and felt like I could have done better. But I felt like it was a good move to take a step back."

Encouraged By His Early Progress

Hiwatashi's results have improved significantly since joining forces with Hamada. He won the Boston Open (part of the US qualifying series) in October with a total score of 227.54 points. Then he finished third at the Challenger Series Budapest Trophy with 223.79 after coming in seventh in the short program.

In November, he traveled to Bloomington, Minnesota, for the US Midwestern Sectionals where he won both the short program and free skate, finishing with a tally of 249.11.

"I went to Sectionals two weeks ago and I tried to do two quads in the long and one in short and that worked out pretty good too," Hiwatashi noted. "Right now, I am in recovery mode. It's working great."

Ice Time asked Hiwatashi to elaborate on where the improvements have been made.

"Right now, it is about changing the techniques a bit and kind of focusing on the consistency of the jumps. I feel like my (triple) axel has gotten a lot better from what it used to be. My toe (loop) is a lot better than it used to be, too."

Hiwatashi, who will turn 24 on January 20, 2024, confessed that he has been surprised by his results so far this season.

"I am doing a lot better than what I expected in competition," Hiwatashi stated. "This is the first year for me with the change, and usually in that situation, a good result doesn't just come out. I was kind of committed to taking this as a change year and thought it might not be so great. That is what I thought when I was coming here, but it is going better than I expected."

Tomoki Hiwatashi
Tomoki Hiwatashi, seen in December 2019, was a five-time medalist on the Junior Grand Prix circuit. (Aude Mugnier/CC BY-SA 4.0/via WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Golden Spin in Croatia Up Next

This week Hiwatashi will travel to Zagreb, Croatia, to compete in the Golden Spin (December 6-9), another Challenger Series event.

"At Boston and Budapest, I have done one quad toe in each program," Hiwatashi commented. He added, "At Sectionals two weeks ago, I did one quad in short and two toes in long. In my long program, I made some small mistakes with the triple axel and the triple salchow became a pop and did a double.

"I feel like the motivation for this competition is to try to do a clean program with what I have now. Everything won't be perfect, but I think I am in a good position right now and pushing to be better."

Hiwatashi said pops and falls have plagued him the past few seasons.

"I have been popping a lot and falling a lot, and I want to improve my consistency on those," Hiwatashi noted. "It's getting better. I haven't popped a single toe in competition this year and I have been rotating each one of my triple axels."

Mie Hamada (KYODO)

Great Atmosphere at Kinoshita Academy

Hiwatashi says he has really been enjoying training with the elite skaters who are part of the Kinoshita Academy.

All of the skaters at Kinoshita, especially the juniors, are great skaters," Hiwatashi declared. "Shunsuke [Nakamura], Mao [Shimada], Hana [Yoshida], Mone [Chiba]. They really motivate me to push forward and be better. Being near them during practice makes me strive to be better.

"Being able to train at Kinoshita rink and working with Mie has changed my technique a lot and the way I practice and skate," Hiwatashi remarked. "There was a lot of getting used to and adjusting to. I really appreciate what they have done for me."

Coach Hiroaki Sato traveled with Hiwatashi to Budapest and Bloomington, and Hiwatashi says he appreciated the concern Hamada's team has shown for him.

"They care about me and wanted me to have someone there and to have someone to talk to," Hiwatashi stated. "The team really cares about what I do during the competitions and how I go into the competition. They really worry about me and told me that I should have somebody around."

On His Own and Enjoying It

For the first time in his life, Hiwatashi is also living by himself and enjoying the challenges of being independent.

"I am living in an apartment by myself, cooking for myself, and doing laundry," Hiwatashi said. "Everything feels new, but it is great. It is something every person would kind of go through. I do miss my family sometimes, but it's good. A lot of the connections that I made throughout my life are helping me now. I do see my family in Kobe (where his sister and grandmother live) every once in a while.

"Living in Kyoto is really fun. Recently I went to Nara to feed the deer. I really enjoyed that," Hiwatashi stated. "Walking through Uji and seeing all of the shops is great. It's something that I have never experienced myself. I have never lived here or stayed here this long, so it has been amazing for me."

Ice Time inquired about what Hiwatashi misses most about home.

"I do miss talking in English," Hiwatashi remarked. "Every time I go to the US I am speaking English and it feels like it has been a long time since I did it. That is a good interaction for me.

"I do miss downtown Chicago and also the nature in Colorado. Definitely miss those, but I am not homesick yet."

Tomoki Hiwatashi
Tomoki Hiwatashi, the men's gold medalist at the 2019 World Junior Championships. (David W Carmichael/CC BY-SA 3.0/via WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Continuing His Studies Remotely

Ice Time inquired about Hiwatashi's educational plans following the move to Japan.

Hiwatashi said, "I am still doing online classes like I have been doing."

He added, "I take them one at a time at Pikes Peak (State College). I'm not able to do everything as efficiently as people like Nathan [Chen], Vincent [Zhou] or Camden [Pulkinen]. They are doing great with both skating and academics.

"It (combining skating and academics) was frustrating for me. I used to stress about that, but I didn't want that kind of stress. So that is why I take one or two classes a semester."

Aiming for the 2026 Olympics

Ice Time wanted to know what Hiwatashi's long-term goal was at this point.

"The ultimate goal is 2026 (the Olympics in Italy). I feel like that is a big goal that everyone has," Hiwatashi commented. 

"That is also something that I want to achieve in my career. I am just trying to take it one step at a time now. Each year brings a new season and I am very confident now that I would like to compete until 2026.

"I will push to make the team for worlds this season," Hiwatashi added. "Whatever result I get is the result I get. If it is Four Continents or worlds, I will do my best and hope for the best."

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Author: Jack Gallagher

The author is a veteran sports journalist and one of the world's foremost figure skating experts. Find articles and podcasts by Jack on his author page, and find him on X (formerly Twitter) @sportsjapan.

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