Christmas is over, and with it also went the 2016-17 Japan Figure Skating Championships. We are under 14 months away from the Pyeongchang Games, and this is usually the season when we see transitions - new skaters emerging and veterans at a crossroads. We certainly saw some of that this past weekend, particularly in 6-time Japanese champion Mao Asada's shocking tumble to a 12th-place finish.
Asada's slide continues
A combination of knee problems and an associated implosion of confidence has tanked Asada's season. She has never finished outside of the top eight at Japan Nationals in her 13 prior visits, dating back to the 2002-03 season, and her 12th place here was lower than even what was expected based on her performances this season.
She experienced a similar lull the season after Vancouver when she was reworking her jump technique, and she built her way back to the top and won her third World title in 2014. But since Sochi, it has not been smooth sailing for Asada - issues with her trademark triple axel, general inconsistency, a nagging knee injury for the past several months, and with that, much more conservative skating. In a lot of ways, this earlier-than-expected end to her 2016-17 season is likely good for her.
The question, though, is where she goes from here. Resting the knee will be first priority, but then it's comes back to whether or not she will return for the Olympic season. We've seen this season that the triple axel has become a must-have for Asada to be competitive. If her money jump returns and she can regain her confidence, it's easy to see her back in the mix. But even with strong components, she doesn't have the leeway for errors that she had a few years ago.
After three World titles and an Olympic silver, Asada is skating less for the accolades now and more for personal satisfaction. Whether or not an athlete should retire is not up to us. There are athletes out there who would much rather give it their all and not step away with unanswered questions, I'd imagine that Asada is one of them.
Establishing a new normal
This transition season has very much been about Miyahara firming up her role as #1 in Japan and the rise of Higuchi and Mihara internationally. The favorite coming in, Satoko Miyahara won her third consecutive Japanese title, with reigning silver medalist Wakaba Higuchi continuing her strong season defending her silver medal. And so Miyahara and Higuchi have become the new normal - they were the two strongest Japanese women on the Grand Prix this season, and they expectedly enter the championship season as the 1-2 from Japan. Mai Mihara, who has also had a tremendous season thanks to her consistency, grabbed the bronze and a well-earned trip to the World Championships in March.
On the men's side, with Yuzuru Hanyu out recovering from the flu, Shoma Uno walked through the door open by his absence to win his first Japanese title. But it wasn't that easy, as errors on his quads kept him from dominating the competition the way we had expected him to. Short program leader Takahito Mura looked to be cruising to a Worlds spot during the first half of his free skate, but fell apart in the second half and gifted the silver (and said Worlds spot) to Keiji Tanaka.
Fear not, Hanyu fans - he should be back at Four Continents in February before he heads back to Worlds. I wouldn't be surprised if this forced break helps Hanyu to peak at the right time this season.
So what was that about PCS?
If not for a popped flip, World junior champion Marin Honda would have been the spoiler on the podium. Honda is not yet age-eligible for Worlds, but her skating is years beyond her her status as a junior about to transition to the senior ranks next year. One of the general (unconscious) biases in skating judging is age and eligibility, where juniors are just inherently scored lower than seniors in components.
For a large majority of the cases, the scoring is right on - many of the junior skaters don't skate with the same power, edge quality, interpretation, and performance as the senior skaters. Honda's case, though, is vastly different - she's got the all-around package to be challenging with the best of the senior skaters now, but at Japan Nationals, her components were barely distinguishable from others of her tenure. To say that Honda's components were a couple points lower than those of Rika Hongo's, for example, is pretty egregious.
Compare Honda's skating with those of the very top women at Japan Nationals, and it becomes clear that she's not your average best junior skater. She's one of the best senior skaters in the field, but we'll have to wait at least another year before we see her properly awarded for it.
And finally, Kanako.
Speaking of skaters who are skating for their own personal satisfaction, Kanako Murakami continues to push on despite knowing that her technical content no longer competes with the best in the world, and having tons of trouble putting down clean jumps.
On Sunday, Murakami skated her best free skate in a long, long time. And though her eighth-place finish was her lowest ever, it may have been one of her most satisfying.
And yes, Murakami's best competition days are behind her, but the joy and love for skating that she exudes is absolutely magnetic. These are the moments you live for as a skater.