by Anne Calder

Osaka, Japan hosted the final competition in the shortened 2020 ISU Grand Prix Series November 27-29. It had the smallest number of participants (28), but the largest audience (near capacity). For the second week in a row, masked fans were allowed to sit in the stands and support the athletes.

NHK usually draws worldwide competitors, but due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, the 2020 event was limited to Japanese skaters. The singles rosters were full; no pair teams competed. Only three dance couples participated; all usually train in North America.

Misato Komatsubara & Tim Koleto and Rikako Fukase & Eichu Cho left the Ice Academy of Montreal (Canada) and returned to Japan with the coronavirus outbreak. They continued to work with their Canadian coaches via zoom.

Kana Muramoto & Daisuke Takahashi moved to the International Skating Academy in Southwest Florida (USA) in January 2020, but went back to Japan in the spring. The team spent the summer in Florida prior to heading to Osaka to prepare for the NHK Trophy Grand Prix assignment.

All the teams will remain in Japan until after the National Championships in Nagano, December 23-27.

After the Rhythm Dance, reigning Japanese National Champions, Komatsubura & Koleto were ahead by six-points, while the new team of Muramoto & Takhashi held a slim lead over Fukase & Cho.

Rhythm Dance

Komatsubura & Koleto danced to music from Dreamgirls and scored 70.76 points. The curve lift and twizzles were level 4; the Finnstep and pattern dance step sequences earned level 3.

Koleto, who just a week prior to the event received his Japanese citizenship, was quite excited to skate before a live audience in his new home country.

Muramoto & Takahashi made their national and international debut to “The “Business of Love” and “Hey Pachuco” from The Mask plus “Let the Good Times Roll” arranged by Alexander Goldstein.

The rotation lift earned level 4 plus both their twizzles and her pattern dance step sequence were level 3. The segment received 64.15 points. Takahashi, a former singles medalist turned ice dancer, confessed that he had not anticipated just how difficult his new discipline would be.

Coach Oleg Epstein accompanied the team to Osaka and sat masked and at a social distance in the Kiss and Cry.

Fukase & Cho chose selections from La, La Land and scored 63.46 points. The rotational lift and twizzles earned level 4; the pattern dance and diagonal step sequences were level 2. The 2020 Four Continents competitors were thrilled to have scored over 60 points for the first time.

Standing on the podium at the medal ceremony, Komatsubura & Koleto totaled 22 points more than their Montreal training mates to win gold. Fukase & Cho slipped past Muramoto & Takahashi by only .64 points to clinch silver. The new team of Muramoto & Takahashi took home the bronze.

Free Dance

“Une histoire d’amour” sung by French singer, Mireille Mathieu, highlighted the emotional dance by Komatsubura & Koleto as the husband and wife team softly glided across the ice telling their own Love Story. The lifts, combination spin and twizzles received level 4. The team did receive a one-point time deduction.

Koleto was proud of the two powerful programs put out by the team, considering their difficult on-line training sessions with coaches over 6000 miles away in Canada. The total 179.05 score earned the team their first Grand Prix medal.

Fukase & Cho performed their free dance to “My Funny Valentine” and “Feeling Good”. The segment scored 94.43 and a total 157.89 just enough to vault over Muramoto & Takahashi. The 2019-2020 Japanese silver medalists earned level 4 for the combination spin, stationary and straight-line lifts and twizzles. Fukase noted they had work to do before the Japanese nationals.

Muramoto & Takahashi danced an elegantly lyrical performance to music by Russian composer Leon Minkus for the ballet La Bayadère. Unfortunately, on the second set of twizzles, a Takahashi stumble (hands on the ice) earned all negative GOEs plus a one-point deduction. The error plus the lower base value for the level 1 combination spin dropped the team to third place. The segment was 93.10; the total scored 157.25.

Takahashi was disappointed with his twizzles and transition mistakes, but Muramoto noted they were a new team and could do better in their next competition at Japanese Nationals.

The ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final that was to be held as an Olympic Test Event December 10-13 has been postponed. The ISU, in consultation with all stakeholders and considering the pandemic developments, is evaluating the continuation of the 2020/21 season.

ICE CHIPS

Posts on social media leading up to the 2020 NHK Trophy had been dominated by questions about the absence of the top Japanese single skaters like Rika Kihira, Shoma Uno and Yuzuru Hanyu.

However, the anticipated ice dance debut of Kano Muramoto and Daisuke Takahashi soon had Osaka all a buzz. The return to competition by singles icon Takahashi brought an appreciative near-capacity audience to its feet with standing ovations after the Rhythm and Free Dances.

In 2010 Takahashi was the first Japanese man to win an Olympic medal (bronze) and the World Championships (gold). The icon retired in 2014 after Sochi, his third Olympics.

He moved to New York to study English and also dance. He next joined the cast of the off-ice tour, Love on the Floor, created by DWTS pro Cheryl Burke and including Meryl Davis, Charlie White and Kristi Yamaguchi.

At the 2017 Japanese Championships, he was inspired to return to skating. He only competed at two Japanese Nationals before making the stunning announcement that he would be switching from singles to dance and partnering with Muramoto, the 2018 Olympian with Chris Reed.

The team moved to Florida to train with Marina Zoueva and team in January 2020.

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After the NHK Trophy, Tim Koleto noted that the arena had a special significance for him and his partner. It’s where they had competed at their first Japanese Nationals, first NHK Trophy, won their first National title and now their first Grand Prix win.

The team’s Canadian coaches Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon also won their first NHK Trophy 15 years ago at the same arena.

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Eichu Cho or Oliver Zhang is a Canadian-Japanese ice dancer who was born in Montreal, Quebec. He skated with Katrine Roy on the junior level for Canada 2017-2018 prior to partnering with Rikako Fukase.