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[ICE TIME] Mao Shimada and Rio Nakata Going for Gold at Winter Youth Olympics

Japan has a strong record of success in figure skating at the Winter Youth Olympics. Shimada and Nakata are poised to add to the nation's medal haul.

World junior champion Mao Shimada and Junior Grand Prix Final titlist Rio Nakata will enter the Winter Youth Olympics in Gangwon, South Korea, as the favorites in their respective events. Both skaters are 15 years old, and they will be looking to add to their impressive string of victories in the 2023-24 season.

The men's singles competition is slated to begin with the short program on Saturday, January 27, with the women's short program to follow the next day.

Japan has a strong record of success in figure skating at the quadrennial extravaganza and is the defending champion in the men's discipline where Yuma Kagiyama captured the gold in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 2020. Sota Yamamoto was also the men's titlist back in 2016, while Shoma Uno claimed the silver in 2012.

Winter Youth Olympics
Rio Nakata is the reigning Junior Grand Prix Final men's champion. (KYODO)

To be eligible to compete in the Winter Youth Olympics, individuals had to be born between January 1, 2006, and December 31, 2009. 

The skating in South Korea will be held at the Gangneung Ice Arena, the site of Yuzuru Hanyu's second Olympic triumph in 2018, with 68 skaters from 25 nations taking part. Shimada will be joined in the women's lineup by Yo Takagi, while Haru Kakiuchi, who was fourth at the Japan Junior Championships, will back up Nakata.

Once the singles, pairs and ice dance competitions have ended, there will be a team event held, with Japan having a chance for a medal despite not having an entry in either pairs or ice dance. Russian skaters continue to be banned from international competitions by the ISU and thus will have no participants at the Winter Youth Olympics.

Winter Youth Olympics
Jia Shin in a September 2023 file photo. (ⒸISU)

Women's Medal Favorites for Winter Youth Olympics

Shimada's prime challenger will once again be South Korea's Jia Shin, who took second behind Shimada at the 2023 World Junior Figure Skating Championships and again at the JGP Final in Beijing in December. With Shimada and Shin likely battling for gold and silver, the chase for bronze will likely come down to Shin's compatriot Yuseong Kim, who was fourth at the JGP Final, and Takagi. 

It appears highly likely that the podium in Gangneung will be filled by only Japanese and South Korean skaters.

Shimada told Ice Time at last year's world juniors in Calgary that one of her goals for this year was to win the gold at the Winter Youth Olympics and it will have to be considered an upset if she doesn't, even with Shin skating on home ice.

Winter Youth Olympics
South Korea's Hyungyeom Kim competes in the men's short program in the Junior Grand Prix Final in Beijing on December 7, 2023. (ⒸISU)

Expected Medal Contenders in the Men's Field

Nakata's likely foes will include the host nation's Hyungyeom Kim, who took the silver at the JGP Final behind him, and Slovakia's Adam Hagara, who was third at the same competition. Jacob Sanchez of the United States is another potential medal contender.

Switzerland's Naoki Rossi, the 2023 world junior silver medalist behind Kao Miura, was scheduled to compete in South Korea but had to withdraw due to an illness that will keep him out of competitions for the remainder of the season. Ice Time exclusively reported this news on social media earlier in January.

Marin Honda speaks at a news conference on January 11 in Tokyo. (ⒸSANKEI)

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Honda Calls It a Career

Marin Honda, the 2016 world junior champion, officially announced her retirement at a press conference in Tokyo on January 11. The 22-year-old had a successful junior career but was unable to repeat that in the senior ranks due to her inability to execute the jumps required at that level.

Honda has revealed her intention to become a professional skater and should excel in that capacity and could also choose to follow her sisters Miyu and Sara into the entertainment field.

"No matter which moment I look back on, skating is a part of all my memories," Honda was quoted as saying at the press conference. "Throughout my long competitive career, both the good times and the challenging ones, I was fortunate to have the support of many people, and I am grateful for that."

Marin Honda in a December 2022 file photo. (ⒸSANKEI)

Honda, a Kyoto native, saw her career decline during the 2017-18 season, when with an Olympic bid on the line she placed fifth in her two Grand Prix assignments and seventh at the Japan Championships, and was passed over by the Japan Skating Federation for Kaori Sakamoto, who went to the 2018 Pyeongchang Games and finished sixth at the age of 17.

Though Honda exuded elegance on the ice, she could not match the determination and jumping ability of Sakamoto, who has gone on to become a two-time world champion and Olympic medalist, as she got older.

Honda Struggled in Recent Years 

Honda's last GP event was the 2020 NHK Trophy where she finished ninth. The writing was on the wall at that point, but Honda continued to qualify and compete in the Japan Championships, likely to satisfy sponsorship obligations. She placed 21st, 26th and dead last in 28th the past three years. It was a sad conclusion to a career that looked very promising early on.

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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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