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[ICE TIME] Mao Shimada Aiming for More History at World Junior Championships

Mao Shimada has a shot at becoming the third woman to repeat as world junior champion, joining Elena Radionova and Alexandra Trusova.

Reigning champion Mao Shimada will attempt to defend her title and etch her name again in the history books when the World Junior Figure Skating Championships get underway with the women's short program on Wednesday, February 28 in Taipei.

The 15-year-old Shimada took the crown in 2023 in Calgary, Canada, becoming the eighth Japanese woman to earn the honor. Now the young star will try to move into even rarer company as just the third woman ever to repeat as the world junior titlist, joining Russia's Elena Radionova (2013, 2014) and Alexandra Trusova (2018, 2019).

Shimada, the Junior Grand Prix Final winner the past two seasons, will enter again as the odds-on favorite to top the podium. Her primary challenger for the second straight year will be South Korea's Jia Shin, who was the silver medalist in 2022 and 2023. The South Korean skater also came in second to Shimada at the last two JGP Finals and the recent Winter Youth Olympics.

Shin, also 15, is a fine skater, but she lacks the powerful triple axel and quadruple toe loop that make Shimada so dominating a force in the sport. 

Mao Shimada
Mao Shimada has won back-to-back Junior Grand Prix Final women's titles. (KYODO)

If Shimada is on her game in Taiwan, it will be another gold for her trophy case. A win by Shimada would mean that she has won every junior competition she has entered in the past two seasons, an almost incomprehensible achievement.

Joining Shimada in the women's field will be compatriots Rena Uezono, who has made a splash in her debut season in international competition, and Ikura Kushida. The 13-year-old Uezono was the bronze medalist at the JGP Final in December 2023 in Beijing and possesses huge potential. She is a good bet to come home with a medal from Taipei.

Rio Nakata in a January 2024 file photo. (Provided by OIS/via KYODO)

Nakata Looks to Get Back on Track

On the men's side, JGP Final gold medalist Rio Nakata will enter as one of the favorites and hope to give the Hinomaru a repeat of the 2023 Mao-Kao double in Canada, where Shimada and Kao Miura made it a glorious event for Japan with victories in both the women's and men's events.

The 15-year-old Nakata has been a bit inconsistent this season. After a fine JGP season that saw him take first and second in his two assignments and win the JGP Final, he was 17th at the senior Japan Championships, then came in a disappointing fifth at the Winter Youth Olympics in January.

Shunsuke Nakamura, the Japan junior titlist in the 2023-24 season, and Haru Kakiuchi are also entered in the men's lineup. Both have the possibility of earning a place on the podium.

Nakata's biggest challenge will likely come from Slovakia's Adam Hagara, who took the bronze at the JGP Final and the silver at the Winter Youth Olympics. France's Francois Pitot and South Korea's Minkyu Seo will also be in the running for medals.

Sae Shimizu and Lucas Tsuyoshi Honda will represent Japan in the pairs competition at the world juniors. Meanwhile, Sara Kishimoto and Atsuhiko Tamura will do the same in ice dance.

Kaori Sakamoto competes in the women's free skate at the Challenge Cup in Tilburg, Netherlands, on February 25. (KYODO)

Sakamoto Rallies for Victory at Challenge Cup

Two-time world champion Kaori Sakamoto came from behind after the short program to win the Challenge Cup in Tilburg, Netherlands, on Sunday, February 25. The 23-year-old Sakamoto entered the event as a final tune-up ahead of the world championships in Montreal in March.

Sakamoto trailed teammate Yuna Aoki by more than four points following the short program but came back in the free skate to win with a total score of 212.43 points. Aoki was second at 209.37, while France's Lorine Schild took third on 176.68.

Belgium's Nina Pinzarrone was expected to vie for the title with Sakamoto but withdrew from the competition shortly before it began.

Sakamoto landed six clean triples in her skate to "Wild Is The Wing" and "Feeling Good" by Lauryn Hill. However, she fell on her final jump (a triple loop). She also earned level fours on all of her spins and step sequence.

"I am not completely satisfied. In my short program, there was a mistake on the lutz," Sakamoto was quoted as saying. 

She added, "In the free (skate), [a] fall on the loop. There are things that I need to improve, so I will fix them for worlds, so at worlds I can be completely satisfied."

Yuna Aoki in action at the Challenge Cup on February 24. (KYODO)

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Aoki Establishes New Personal Bests

Aoki hit five triples in her free skate to "She" while notching level fours on all of her spins and step sequence.

"Skating after Kaori, I was nervous, and I could tell that I was nervous," Aoki stated. "But I skated without making any big errors. Looking at the competition overall, I could make new personal bests in the short and free, and was relaxed coming into the competition. So overall I am satisfied."

Men's runner-up Tatsuya Tsuboi (left) and third-place finisher Kazuki Tomono display their medals at the Challenge Cup in Tilburg, Netherlands, on February 24. (KYODO)

Tsuboi, Tomono Take Silver, Bronze in Tilburg

Tatsuya Tsuboi and Kazuki Tomono made it four medals for Japan by placing second and third, respectively, in the men's competition in Tilburg on Saturday, February 24. Tsuboi held a narrow lead after the short program but was overtaken by Kazakhstan's Mikhail Shaidorov in the free skate.

Shaidorov's winning tally was 256.34, while Tsuboi had 254.81. Tomono finished with 251.61.

The 21-year-old Tsuboi landed two quad salchows and six triples in his free skate to "High Strung." But he could only manage level threes on all of his spins and step sequence.

"This season I got to compete in the Grand Prix. I didn't get the results I wanted, but I could reflect on what hadn't worked out in those cases," Tsuboi commented. "That helped me with nationals, and here I could make it past the 250-point mark."

Tomono's planned opening quad toe loop in his free skate to "Halston'' was downgraded. He did land another quad toe loop and a quad salchow on the quarter and five triples. The 25-year-old Tomono also had spin issues, earning a level four on one, but just a level three and level two on the others. His step sequence received a level four.

"I could get good feelings from my skating this year, so I want to step up for the next season," Tomono remarked. "I'm still thinking about choreographers for next season's programs."

Yuna Nagaoka and Sumitada Moriguchi (158.44) came in sixth in the pairs competition won by Italy's Sara Conti and Niccolo Macii (197.82).

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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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