It looks like a new star has emerged on the Japan skating scene in Rena Uezono, a 13-year-old from Nagoya who won the Junior Grand Prix in Gdansk, Poland, on Friday, September 29. As a result, Uezono qualified for December's JGP Final with the victory.
Uezono, who finished second at the Istanbul JGP in early September behind Ami Nakai, moved up from second place after the short program to top the podium with her free skate to "Pray" and "Mechanisms." She landed five clean triples and earned level fours on her spins in the win.
Uezono's winning total score was 192.31 points. She won by more than eight points over second-place finisher Minsol Kwon of South Korea who had 183.52. Kwon's compatriot Seojin Youn was third at 176.31.
Uezono established personal bests in her scores in both the short program and free skate in Gdansk.
"I am very happy because I was able to show the audience what I had practiced and got my levels for my spins and steps," Uezono stated in an interview with ISU YouTube announcer Ted Barton after the triumph.
She added, "I will do my best to perform even better in the Final."
Uezono, who was Japan's Novice champion in the 2022-23 season, delighted the crowd with her performance in the free skate. She opened with a lovely triple lutz/triple toe loop/double toe loop combination and remained poised throughout her skate.
The only blemishes on her scoresheet came late in her routine when she was judged a quarter rotation under on both ends of a triple flip/triple toe loop combo.
Analyzing Rena Uezono's Performance
Barton praised Uezono for her seamless fusion with the music of her program.
"She knew every note, every beat," Barton commented in his analysis of Uezono's free skate before adding, "She was on it all the time, in time with the music. Right on top of her game technically. Nice and straight and strong and tight in the air. Great speed and acceleration."
ISU analyst Mark Hanretty applauded the choreography of Uezono's routine and that of Japanese skaters collectively on the webcast.
"I really appreciate the difference, the uniqueness and novelty in that program," Hanretty remarked. "All these Japanese skaters, which we keep referencing, [are] brilliant. A completely different artistic approach."
Barton cited the maturity of Japanese skaters in their performances.
"They are not seniors from an age perspective, but they are seniors from a quality overall perspective," Barton noted. "For juniors, I don't know how you get much better from a connection with the music piece."
Ebihara Earns Bronze in Men's Event in Poland
Daiya Ebihara claimed the bronze medal in the men's event in Gdansk on Saturday, September 30. Ebihara finished with a total tally of 184.73. He vaulted from seventh place after the short program to make the podium with a solid free skate.
South Korea's Juheon Lim won with a big score of 221.55 to earn a trip to the JGP Final, while Beck Strommer of the United States came in second on 200.22.
Though Ebihara earned his second bronze medal of the JGP campaign, he did not earn a direct ticket to the JGP Final. But he will likely be an alternate for the competition.
The 15-year-old from Tokyo skated to a "Mission Impossible" soundtrack in his free skate and hit four clean triples while earning level fours on two of his spins.
Ebihara was judged a quarter short on a couple of jumps and fell on his triple salchow late in the program.
"Daiya said he saw Yuruzu Hanyu at worlds in 2017 and that is when he became serious about his own skating," Hanretty said after Ebihara's free skate. "So now, six years later from the inspiration given by Hanyu."
Ebihara put his hand down on the ice on the landing of his opening triple axel, but Barton liked what he saw of the youngster's jump technique the rest of the way.
"Watch the efficiency on the rest of these elements," Barton commented while analyzing Ebihara's free skate. "Here is the triple lutz. Look at the feet, tight together, legs tight together. Look here at the triple flip. You can't see a lot of space or any space between the legs. The feet are tucked. This is a really good example of air positions."
JGP to Make Final Stop of the Season in Armenia
The JGP will move to Yerevan, Armenia, this week (October 4-7) for the final meet of the seven-event competition. World junior champion Mao Shimada and Ikura Kushida will represent Japan in the women's event. Shunsuke Nakamura will be the Hinomaru's lone entrant in the men's battle.
Shimada, who won the Osaka JGP in September, will be looking to lock up her spot in the JGP Final with a podium placement. Meanwhile, Kushida has a shot at earning a place as an alternate.
Japan will not have an entry in the ice dance competition in Yerevan.
Kihira to Sit out Entire 2023-24 Season Due to Ankle Trouble
Two-time Japan champion Rika Kihira, who has been battling an ankle injury for the past two years, announced last week that she would sit out the remainder of this season to try and recover from the ailment.
Kihira explained her decision in a post on X on September 29.
"I have made the decision to skip this season, so there may be some tough moments ahead this year, but I will try my best to stay positive," Kihira wrote. "This season, first and foremost, I need to heal my injury!! This is my top priority. I hope it heals quickly.
"Until I recover from my injury and can resume intensive training, I will focus on maintaining my muscle strength, physical fitness, physique, nutrition, and sleep management as much as possible," Kihira continued.
"I will do my best in these areas too, [and] I hope everything goes my way for the next season, leading up to the 2026 Milan-Cortina Olympics, with a focus on making a complete recovery this season."
Surprising Results at Ondrej Nepela Memorial
Cha (222.16) finished sixth in the competition won by Italy's Gabriele Frangipani (243.91), while Lee (191.10) placed second behind compatriot Chaeyeon Kim (202.26).
Japan had no skaters entered in the event in Bratislava.
Nepela was the men's gold medalist at the 1972 Sapporo Olympics and a three-time world champion. He passed away in 1989 at the age of 38.
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.