Japanese pair edges Americans to win Grand Prix Final gold

AP Photo / Antonio Calanni
First place, Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara, pose after the Pairs Free event during the Grand Prix finals at the Palavela ice arena in Turin on Friday.

Japanese pairs skaters Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara narrowly edged Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier at the Grand Prix Final on Friday in a rematch of their head-to-head showdown won by the Americans at the world championships.

Miura and Kihara became the first pair from Japan to win the capstone to the Grand Prix season when they overcame two bobbles in their free skate, set to the musical project “Sleeping at Last,” to score 214.58 points. That beat out Knierim and Frazier, who made a pair of costly mistakes in their free skate and finished with 213.28 points.

“I was really happy about winning but I lost to the pressure and thought we might have lost because of my mistakes,” said Kihara, who along with Miura will now look toward the world championships on home ice in March in Saitama, Japan.

“It’s been about two years since I last made a mistake so that made me panic. After that, I don’t remember the details.”

Knierim and Frazier still became the first U.S. pairs team to medal at Grand Prix Final, while Sara Conti and Niccolo Macii edged compatriots Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini to give Italy its first medal at the event.

“Every moment on the ice is special,” Knierim said. “Those moments are very limited in life as a skater in your career.”

In the women’s competition, world champ Kaori Sakamoto of Japan leads after the short program with a score of 75.86 points. Mai Mihara is second with 74.58 while Belgium’s Loena Hendrickx broke up a Japanese sweep of the top three spots with Rinka Watanabe in fourth and 15-year-old American Isabeau Levito in fifth.

The rhythm dance also took place Friday and Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier of Canada scored 85.93 to edge the U.S. team of Madison Chock and Evan Bates by less than half a point. Italy’s Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri are in third.

The competition concludes Saturday in Turin, Italy, with the men’s and women’s free skates and the free dance.

The pairs competition at the Grand Prix Final has been dominated over the years by Russians and Chinese. But the former is banned by the International Skating Union from competing after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the latter chose not to compete internationally this season because of the COVID-19 situation in China.

Knierim and Frazier were within a half point of Miura and Kihara after their short program, but their free skate went awry when Frazier struggled through a planned triple toe loop-double toe loop-double toe loop combination. He was only able to land a single toe loop after the initial triple jump, costing them valuable points in the base value.

The second mistake came on their triple salchows, resulting in a negative grade of execution.

“We missed them,” Frazier said of the jumps. “It’s those small errors that happen when you compete.”

Still, the pair skated with fierce energy and unbridled joy, and that was evident in the way they lit up Torino Palavela, and it was reflected in their scores. Knierim and Frazier still ended up with a season-best to carry into nationals in January.

Miura and Kihara weren’t perfect, either, but they were good enough.

They were supposed to do the same triple-double-double combination as the American team but doubled the first jump — though they completed the rest — and likewise received a negative grade of execution on their triple salchows.

“We had a mistake on the jump, and also had a hand down in the solo jump, so that was really upsetting,” Miura said, “but just now when I saw the results … I think that’s a part we’ve improved at. I think that was the result of our practices piling up. But I think there’s still a lot we can do. We want to do our best going toward the world championship.”