Photos by Robin Ritoss
SAITAMA, JAPAN – Since 1908, which was the first year there was a pairs event at the World Championships, no team from Japan has won the World title. That is until the 2023 edition of the ISU championship event when Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara won the country’s first World title in pairs. The team did it in front of their home crowd in the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan.
Miura and Kihara, who train with Bruno Marcotte in Oakville, Ontario, had a six point lead over 2022 World champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, of the U.S., after the short program.
Miura and Kihara kicked off their “Atlas Two” and “Shared Tenderness” free skate with a triple twist and a triple toe-double toe-double Axel sequence. However, Miura doubled the side by side Salchow, and while she hit the throw triple Lutz, she fell on the throw triple loop towards the end of the program. They earned a personal best score of 141.44, which was second in the free skate, and a total score of 222.16, which was enough to claim their first World title.
“I’m happy that I was able to come back here again, however I showed my weakness and there were a few mistakes which is very regrettable,” Miura said. “After Four Continents our practices were really good, solid and stable, so having made mistakes today was very regrettable.”
Miura and Kihara won gold at the ISU Grand Prix Final, Four Continents Championships and the ISU World Championships, which has been coined the “Grand Slam.” Their coach, Meagan Duhamel, also achieved “Grand Slam” with her partner, Eric Radford in 2014-2015 season.
“Honestly, we both didn’t know (coach) Meagan (Duhamel) achieved the “Grand Slam” (winning the ISU Grand Prix Final, Four Continents and Worlds) as well, but we are not even close to being as good as her, so we need to keep working harder, ” Kihara remarked.
Knierim and Frazier have had to overcome a bit of adversity at these World Championships. They have been without their coach, Todd Sand, who suffered a heart attack while in Calgary for the ISU World Junior Championships earlier this month. Sand is now in a hospital closer to his home in California, where his wife and coaching mate, Jenni Meno, and their two sons, Jack and Matthew, are by his side.
“I think it’s a very deep question because Todd’s condition is very serious so it’s difficult to train when you feel broken inside, when your person is not there,” Knierim said about Sand following the short program. “However, that person is the one who instilled a fight in us so we’re able to work hard every day to make him proud (voice wavering as she becomes tearful) and I think we did a good job of that today.”
In the short program, Frazier fell on his side-by-side triple toe. Skating for their coach, in their “Sign of the Times” free skate, Knierim and Frazier executed a triple twist, and throw triple loop and flip. Their side-by-side triple salchow was called on the quarter and Frazier had trouble with the triple toe-double toe-double toe combination, doing a triple toe-single toe-double toe instead.
The two-time U.S. Champions won the free skating segment with a season’s best of 142.84 points and remained in second place with 217.48 points. They became the first U.S. pairs team to win consecutive World medals since their coaches, Meno and Sand, won their two World bronze medals in 1995 and 1996.
“It’s just been a Worlds with emotion,” Frazier said. “I’m so proud of our fight in the two performances. But it wasn’t our best. It was a little better than at home training. I would say I feel very good about our fight and the program we put out. It took a lot of courage to come here this week and do what we needed to do and I’m just proud of Alexa and I.”
In third after the short program was Sara Conti and Niccolo Macii. The Italian pairs team, who train with Barbara Luoni, have had a successful season – claiming bronze at the Grand Prix Final and then becoming the first Italian pairs team to win the European Championships. In their “Cinema Paradiso” free skate in Saitama, Conti and Macii completed a triple twist, side-by-side triple toe-double Axel and triple Salchow, as well as throw triple loop and triple Salchow. They achieved a new personal best free skate score of 134.84, which was third in the free skate. They took home the bronze medal with a total score of 208.08. They made history winning the first ever World pairs medal for Italy.
“The skate today was not our best, our legs were stiff, and we were really tense. We felt that we could have lost third place, but we fought, and we are very happy how we fought for it,” Macii said.
“It’s a great achievement for our nation, for our team. I think this gives a lot of push to the Italian movement, even for the kids. I think this will give a lot of power to the Italian movement. We are really happy that it’s us to make this historical medal, and we will celebrate it tonight,” he added.
2023 ISU Four Continents bronze medalists and Canadian champions Deanna Stellato-Dudek and Maxime Deschamps finished off the podium in fourth place with a total score of 199.97. Deschamps fell on their side-by-side Salchow and Stellato-Dudek doubled the jump.
“It is kind of how we ended our season last year and I had a lot of fire throughout the off season,” Stellato-Dudek told Figure Skaters Online following the free skate.
“The season overall was amazing,” Deschamps added.
2023 U.S. and Four Continents silver medalists Emily Chan and Spencer Akira Howe finished fifth with 194.73 points followed by Lia Pereira and Trennt Michaud, of Canada (193.00 points).
“I was over excited in anticipating the performance,” Chan said following their free skate. “But other than that, I thought the audience had great energy, so it really gave me the energy to keep going.”
“It was great to skate here in Saitama, especially having my family in the arena supporting us,” Howe added.