Beijing Olympic gold medalist Yuma Kagiyama clinched a spot in December's Grand Prix Final with a narrow win over two-time world champion Shoma Uno at the NHK Trophy on Saturday, November 25 with an inspiring performance.
The 20-year-old Kagiyama will now be returning to the sight of his greatest moment, where 22 months ago he captured the silver medal behind American Nathan Chen at the 2022 Winter Olympics in the Chinese capital at the age of 18.
Kagiyama edged Uno by less than two points on Saturday and admitted that he had butterflies before taking the ice. He came through with flying colors, however, but fell on his second triple axel.
"I was the last to skate, so I was nervous, but I did everything I needed to do on the ice," Kagiyama stated. "Regarding the triple axel, it was a technical issue. So, I will go back to practice that and do better next time."
Kagiyama said he was generally pleased with his performance.
"The first half of the program went really well," Kagiyama noted. "I was very much into the music [and] I'm looking forward to the Grand Prix Final now."
Yuma Kagiyama Aims for Improvement
Kagiyama missed almost all of last season with an ankle injury. But time and the addition of former world champion Carolina Kostner to his coaching team have helped hasten his return to skating's elite ahead of the GP Final (December 7-10).
Kagiyama qualified for the 2021 GP Final in Osaka, only to see it canceled at the last minute during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"This will be my first Grand Prix Final, so I still have many things to work on," Kagiyama commented about the upcoming trip to Beijing. "I will try to improve and focus on myself. As long as I show a good performance, the score will follow, so I will try not to make mistakes."
Uno Reacts Calmly Despite Second-Place Finish
Though he did not emerge victorious, Uno sounded unworried after coming in second at the NHK Trophy where he praised coach Stephane Lambiel for his guidance.
"All his advice is always full of passion and love," Uno remarked on Saturday. "What made me happy today is that he was happy."
Uno said he wanted to take a look at how he skated before saying too much else.
"Judging my performance regarding the artistry, I would like to look at my performances first," Uno said. "I was really focused on the competition."
He then said, "I want to watch again and consider how I would feel if I was a spectator."
A Judge's View on Under-Rotation Calls on Uno's Quadruple Jumps
There was some controversy in the judging at the NHK Trophy after Uno was determined to have been a quarter rotation short on all four of the quadruple jumps he attempted in his free skate.
Dr Masaru Ogawa, a judge who won four straight Japan titles during his competitive days, gave his view on why Uno might have been dinged on all of his quads in an interview after the competition.
"I have heard that the ISU has instructed (judges) not to miss not only the lack of rotation but also illegal takeoffs," the 59-year-old Ogawa was quoted as saying.
He added, "I think the fact that Uno's toe is not straight (on the ice) is also being evaluated. When you put the toe on the ice, you rotate a quarter and then start the jump, so this may be interpreted as a failure of rotation."
Whatever the reason for the under-rotation calls, Uno is going to have to clean up the issue if he wants to retain his GP Final crown and win a third straight world title in the coming months.
Ziegler Stunned Competitors, Fans with Surprise Victory
Though the focus at the NHK Trophy was primarily on the battle between Kagiyama and Uno, one could argue that the skater of the event was American Ava Marie Ziegler, who seemingly came out of nowhere to win the women's competition. Her performance reminded Ice Time of how Sarah Hughes won the gold at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics with a great free skate.
Ziegler, a 17-year-old from Dover, New Jersey, delivered the best skate of her career with her free program to "Liberation" and "Bound to You" on Saturday, jumping from fifth place after the short program to claim the gold with an improvement of 27 points on her personal best total score.
Nick Zaccardi of NBC Sports provided a snapshot of just how far Ziegler has come in the past 10 months in a post on X on Saturday after her win:
January: 9th at US Championships
June: Gets 0 Grand Prix assignments
August: Added to last Grand Prix after another skater withdraws
November: Wins that Grand Prix (fifth after short program)
Now: Ranked second in the US
Ziegler Says Inner Drive Helped in NHK Trophy
"I really used my fifth-place result from yesterday to motivate me because I know that I could do better and I really used it to push me to be the best that I could be today," Ziegler stated on Saturday.
Added Ziegler, "I did stick to my plan, which was to execute everything as I can do in practice and to really just show everybody that I can do it and be consistent and clean. It (this result) definitely helped with my confidence."
Ziegler led an American 1-2 finish with teammate Lindsay Thorngren and ended a couple of lengthy droughts in the process. The result in Osaka marked the first US women's 1-2 at a Grand Prix since the 2016 Skate America where Ashley Wagner won and Mariah Bell came in second.
You have to go back more than 25 years to find the last time the US women went 1-2 at a GP that wasn't Skate America. That came in March 1997 at the GP Final in Hamilton, Ontario, where Tara Lipinski and Michelle Kwan took the gold and silver, respectively.
Sakamoto Reveals Plan Looking Toward 2026 Olympics
Two-time world champion Kaori Sakamoto, who will attempt to win her first GP Final in China, said she is already thinking about strategy for the 2026 Olympics in Italy in a recent interview with Sports Graphic Number that was translated into English and posted on fs-gossips.com.
"For the Olympic season, I want to perform with choreography and music that give me the best chance of winning, something where I can envision myself winning," Sakamoto commented. "I consider the preceding three years as a time to explore and try different things to discover what suits me best."
Added Sakamoto, "I feel quite comfortable with this, and if it works well, I'm also considering sticking to a similar genre for the Olympic season."
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.