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[ICE TIME] Spectacular Success in the Combined Grand Prix Final for Japanese Skaters

Collecting seven medals including three golds in the junior and senior ranks in the Grand Prix Final in Beijing, Japan established a national record.

With three gold medals and seven in total, the combined Junior and Senior Grand Prix Final in Beijing (December 6-9) was another highly successful event for Japan. Kaori Sakamoto, Mao Shimada, and Rio Nakata were all victorious in their disciplines. Shoma Uno, Yuma Kagiyama, Rena Uezono, and Hana Yoshida added to the medal haul for the Hinomaru.

The seven medals won by Japan in China established a new record for the country at a combined GP Final, surpassing the six medals that were brought home from Turin, Italy, at 2022's competition.

Ilia Malinin's dominating victory on Saturday night brought up the question of whether we have seen a changing of the guard in the sport. Malinin's five-quad performance in his free skate relegated two-time world champion Uno to a distant second place and made expert observers begin to entertain the possibility.

After watching Malinin's stunning show, legendary skating writer Phil Hersh wrote on X, "Yes, Ilia Malinin fell on 4A. But he followed with five other clean quads, two opening combos in bonus area, to win the Grand Prix Final by 17 points over two-time world champion Shoma Uno of Japan, who skated well. Now 2026 Oly (Olympics) favorite? I say yes."

Grand Prix Final
Two-time world champion Shoma Uno (Tingshu Wang/REUTERS)

After Grand Prix Final, Uno Philosophical about Improving Results

Uno, a three-time Olympic medalist, was confronted with the question of what he needed to do to turn things around in the mixed zone after competing.

"If you think too much, you will have to consider your rival's failures, and figure skating is not an interpersonal competition, so it's different," Uno stated in part in his response. "A sport where you do something that your opponent hates."

Uno then elaborated about his view of competing in the sport.

"I think figure skating is a sport where you have to keep fighting with yourself," Uno commented. "My opponent is both a rival and a friend. Of course, it's a lot of fun to compete for scores and compete at a high level, and I think it's fun to watch, but it's best not to get too attached to that."

Uno's sportsmanship and regard for his fellow skaters shone through in his comments.

"I want to approach this sport with the mindset of being able to honestly say, 'I lost this time, but I want to win next time,' and with a strong relationship with my opponent," he said. "All six of us here have that kind of mentality, so it feels very comfortable."

A Clear Challenge for Uno

You could look at the result in China as a one-off, but it is clear that the 19-year-old Malinin is ascending and improving his all-around skating skills, while Uno, who will be 26 on December 17, is struggling to maintain his championship level.

Uno was dinged with four quarter-rotation short calls at November's NHK Trophy in Kadoma, Osaka Prefecture, and received two more in Beijing. Without a quad axel in his jump arsenal, Uno is going to have to correct the under-rotations if he wants to have a chance of winning a third straight world title later this season.

"In my case, there's absolutely no way for me to be able to jump the quad axel," Uno remarked during the press conference after the competition. "He (Malinin) really has the technical level on jumps that I have never seen before. I wonder how many more years it will take for an athlete at that level to show up."

Yuma Kagiyama (KYODO)

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Kagiyama Medals Again in Beijing

Kagiyama's comeback from injury in the 2022-23 season continued with another fine outing in the city where he captured the silver medal at the Beijing Olympics. Still just 20 years old, Kagiyama has time on his side. He was asked about the possibility of attempting a quad axel in the future and gave an honest response.

"When all my dreams have come true in figure skating, I would actually love to give the quad axel a try," Kagiyama remarked. "But I am sure my quality of this jump would never match Ilia's..."

When questioned about his takeaway from the GP campaign, Kagiyama paid tribute to his fellow skaters.

"I competed with excellent skaters during my last three competitions," Kagiyama said. "My goal is to catch up with these high-quality skaters. I aim to be an even better skater."

Grand Prix Final
Kaori Sakamoto in action during the women's free skate at the Grand Prix Final on December 9 in Beijing. (Tingshu Wang/REUTERS)

Sakamoto Remains a Level Above the Rest

Two-time world champion Sakamoto won the GP Final for the first time on Saturday after two previous appearances that ended without a medal. With a 22-point victory, the 23-year-old showed that she is clearly the top of the class of the senior women's field and will be favored to win her third consecutive world crown at the worlds in Montreal in March.

If Sakamoto retains her title in Canada, she will become the first woman in 56 years to achieve the feat. The last to do it was Peggy Fleming of the United States, who was the world champion from 1966-68.

Sakamoto reiterated what Uno mentioned about the inner battle of skating after her triumph.

"I really wanted to win against myself," Sakamoto noted. "There is happiness from being able to win against myself."

Added Sakamoto, "It's the fact that I have some weaknesses that makes me want to work hard and I can work hard thanks to that."

Mao Shimada performs her free skate at the Junior Grand Prix Final on December 8. (KYODO)

Shimada Extends Unbeaten Streak in Junior Ranks

World junior champion Shimada kept her incredible streak of victories in junior competitions alive with a gutsy performance in her free skate. Trailing South Korea's Jia Shin by less than a point after the short program, the 15-year-old Shimada gave meaning to the phrase "go big or go home" when she landed her triple axel and quad toe loop (a jump that has troubled her this season).

"I am happy to win this competition for the second time," Shimada commented after her victory. "In the short program I made a mistake and so today I was very nervous for the free skating. But before the competition I was able to get my nerves under control and performed well also with my jumps."

Shimada, who has won every junior event she has entered the past two seasons, will represent Japan at the Youth Olympics in South Korea in January, where she will again be competing against Shin.

Junior Grand Prix Final
Rio Nakata is pumped up at the Junior Grand Prix Final on December 9. (KYODO)

Nakata Steals the Show with a Great Skate Under Pressure

As impressive as Malinin's showing was, Ice Time thought the best performance of the week went to Nakata in his free skate. In fourth place after the short program and trailing leader Hyungyeom Kim of South Korea by more than nine points, the 15-year-old Nakata needed something special to erase the deficit and claim the gold and he got it.

Nakata's skate to a James Bond medley was a powerful show of the huge potential the teen has for the future. It's one thing to have a clean skate at a GP and another entirely to do it at the GP Final, which is a major international event, which Nakata did.

The youngster was energized by his showing and was already talking about how he can get even better.

"For the rest of the season, I will try my best to make more progress and improvement in the important jumps like the triple axel and quads and spins," Nakata commented. "I want to challenge more kinds of quads in the next season."

Disappointing Result for Hiwatashi at Golden Spin

Tomoki Hiwatashi, who has shown positive results since moving to Japan in the summer to train under Mie Hamada, suffered a setback at the Challenger Series Golden Spin in Zagreb, Croatia.

The 23-year-old Hiwatashi, who had medaled at his past three events, had a rough go of it in both the short program and free skate and finished ninth with a total of 191.72 points on December 7 in the Croatian capital.

China's Boyang Jin won the Golden Spin with a tally of 258.67.

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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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