Japan’s Kihira upsets Oly champ Zagitova to win Grand Prix gold

Gold medal winner Rika Kihira of Japan performs at the ISU Grand Prix Figure Skating Finals. (AFP pic)

LOS ANGELES: Japan’s rising star Rika Kihira won the battle of the 16-year olds, upsetting reigning Olympic champ Alina Zagitova to claim ladies’ gold at the ISU Grand Prix Figure Skating Final on Saturday.

Skating her free skate programme ‘Beautiful Storm’ by Jennifer Thomas, Kihira missed her first triple Axel but skated clean the rest of the way, including nailing her triple Lutz-toeloop.

“I made a mistake early but got to go out there and finish. I am really happy to perform that way on this stage,” said Kihira.

Kihira, who also won the short programme, finished with a personal best total score of 233.12 points to beat runner-up Zagitova by more than six points.

European champion Zagitova, skating to “Carmen” in her free programme, earned a total of 226.53 points while her Russian compatriot Elizaveta Tuktamysheva grabbed the third spot on the podium with 215.32 points.

The women’s competition was a Japan-Russia affair as Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto placed fourth, Russia’s Sofia Samodurova finished fifth and Japan’s Satoko Miyahara was sixth.

Kihira earned US$25,000 for finishing first while Zagitova collected US$18,000.

Kihira’s victory continued a breakthrough season in 2018. She won two prior grand prix events — NHK Trophy in Hiroshima and the Internationaux de France in Grenoble.

She is the first women to land a triple Axel-triple toeloop in competition when she did it at the junior grand prix finals last year.

Zagitova started the 2018 season several centimetres taller after going through a growth spurt over the summer. But she adapted almost immediately to the added height, winning grand prix series events in Helsinki and Moscow.

The competition continued later Saturday with the Ice Dance free dance and Pairs free program.

Twenty-four skaters and couples qualified from the half dozen competitions of the ISU grand prix series.