By Hiro Yoshida
After narrowly missing out on a place at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, Japan’s Wakaba Higuchi has now set her sights on Beijing in four years’ time and will start on that road this week at the World Figure Skating Championships in Milan, Italy.
This will be the second consecutive year that Higuchi will skate at the World Championships. She made her Worlds debut in Helsinki, Finland in 2017 and was given the unenviable task of being one of the skaters trying to secure maximum spots for Japan at the 2018 Olympics. Ultimately, Higuchi finished 11th and, combined with Mai Mihara’s fifth place, it meant that one of the strongest nations in terms of depth in female singles skating would have just two berths on its team for the PyeongChang Olympics.
While it was partly down to how she had skated that she was now facing into a challenging season ahead, she knew that she had to move on quickly.
“Honestly, I did not have time to dwell on it,” she said. “However, if there had been three spots I could certainly have been able to go to the Olympics. I did feel responsibility because my mistakes meant that there were only two spots.”
Higuchi worked on creating two strong new programmes during the off-season. For her short programme, she chose “Gypsy Dance” from Ludwig Minkus’ “Don Quixote” which was choreographed by Massimo Scali. She took a modern approach for her free skating routine and opted for the James Bond theme song “Skyfall” by Adele with choreography by Shae-Lynn Bourne.
At the start of the 2017/2018 season, Higuchi appeared to make a very strong case for receiving one of those Olympic places. She scored new personal bests of 74.26 points for her short and 217.63 points in total on her way to a silver at Lombardia Trophy in Bergamo, Italy behind future Olympic champion Alina Zagitova.
The following month she took bronze behind Evgenia Medvedeva and Carolina Kostner at Rostelecom Cup in Moscow, Russia. Two weeks later in Beijing, China, she narrowly lost gold again to Alina Zagitova by just over a point at Cup of China. She was the only Japanese female skater to automatically qualify to the Grand Prix Final following the conclusion of the initial Grand Prix events.
However, things did not go according to plan at the Grand Prix Final in Nagoya, Japan in December. Competing amongst the best skaters in the world, the occasion got to her and she ended up finishing in last place of the six entries.
“In my first season as a senior, because I had so many competitions where I had no similar experiences before, there was so many situations where I totally did not have a clue how to handle things,” Higuchi said. “It was a good experience and at the start of this season I had in my mind that I wanted to use what I had learned last season. That worked well at Rostelecom and Cup of China. However, at the Grand Prix Final I had another new experience as it is a competition where only the very best get to compete and I got a big shock and was overwhelmed. I realised that there were still a lot of things I needed to improve.”
Two weeks later, she was at the Japan Figure Skating Championships in Tokyo, the deciding event for which two female skaters would represent Japan at the 2018 Olympics. Despite all the preparations that she made, an error apiece in each of her programmes proved to be very costly.
“My intention was to be at my peak for Japanese Nationals but looking back now I was not able to do that,” she said.
Higuchi popped a double Axel, the first element of her short, into a single. She skated the rest of the programme cleanly and was in fourth place going into the free. She made a strong start in the free but doubled a planned triple Salchow. She placed fifth in the free and remained in fourth overall. It was the first time she had not been on the podium at the event since she made her debut in 2014.
“In the short, I really felt like I could not afford to make any mistakes and I remember driving hard into the opening Axel. The big thing there was that I had the Olympics on my mind. In the free, the Salchow had been on and off for me and going into to it I felt something strange. Thinking about it now, if I had been calmer and changed the layout of the programme to what it is now I might have been able to do it.”
At most national championships, a double Salchow would only have been a minor error. However, in the highly competitive field in Japan, this blip sealed Higuchi’s fate.
“It was just a single moment, but that one moment was such a huge thing. It is disappointing that I was not able to do it, but I do not have any regrets.”
Pressure was no doubt a factor on her performance at Japanese Nationals but falling apart totally was not an option. Higuchi believes her practice sessions leading up to the competition assisted her in that respect.
“You certainly feel it mentally and technically, but due to the way I had trained I knew that even if I had one mistake on the next element I was not going to make the same error and that helped me even at Japanese Nationals.”
There was an anxious wait for her and all the other contenders for the two Olympic spots with the selection announcement taking place the day after the free.
“I thought I was going to go crazy. I was sending messages back and forth with Satoko (Miyahara) and I was stressed out. If I had given everything and came fourth, I would have been able to wait in a more relaxed state. However, I had made mistakes and came fourth, so I was 70% sure that I would not be selected. There was the remaining 30% where I believed that I might be picked because my results up until then would be evaluated.”
The following evening Higuchi went to the arena to hear the decision in person at the same time as her fellow skaters. As the Olympic team would be announced live on Japanese TV, the skaters and their teams were kept in the dark until the last minute. It was a difficult place to be when she found out that she would not be going to Korea.
“The first to sixth placed skaters were called to a meeting room and all the skaters were in their boots and ready to go.
“In order that those outside in the hall and elsewhere are unaware until the announcement has been made, those who were not selected were quarantined. It is difficult to explain what the atmosphere was like. It was like a funeral.
“The TV in the room where we were quarantined was showing the announcement live and at a high volume. It was tough to watch.”
Higuchi, who is active on social media, shortly afterwards posted a message to her large following on Twitter that confirmed that she was going to stay in the sport and work towards qualifying for Beijing 2022. The words of support from others, including from another elite athlete in person, inspired her to make the announcement.
“The Olympic swimmer Rikako Ikee visited me backstage. She told me that this was not the end and that there would be a next time and this experience would definitely take me to the next step. It is true that this is not the end and that it is a necessary experience for the next time. However, there is not going to be a next time after the next time, so I decided that I needed to work hard for that which was what I was thinking when I tweeted.”
Shortly after Japanese Nationals, Higuchi celebrated her 17th birthday on January 2nd. Close friends through her a birthday party and avoided any reference to the PyeongChang Olympics.
“Everyone was careful about my feelings and there was no talk about the Olympics. Thanks to them I had a very enjoyable birthday.”
While she tried to put her disappointment behind her, she found it to be a struggle both physically and mentally.
“I tried to snap out of it, but I was not able to get over it. I was only finally about to get over it once February came. Up until then, of course I had Worlds as a goal, but honestly my heart was not in it. I was a bit lazy in practice.
“For 10 days from January 1st, I was injured and I did not skate at all. Gradually, I started skating again and it was only once when it was February that I truly began skating at 100%. It took a little time, but personally I think I was able to practise well. There were new discoveries and I really enjoyed training.”
Although she was not going to be at the Olympics, Higuchi had been given the nod to represent Japan once again at the World Championships. In advance of that, she travelled last month to compete at the Challenge Cup in The Hague, Netherlands. She led Japan to a clean sweep of the podium.
“When I saw the media attention increase as the Olympics were about to start, I thought to myself that the Challenge Cup took place at the same time as the Olympics and that it would be a good opportunity. If I could do well there, it would give me confidence. I tried my hardest as if I was actually skating in the Olympics.”
Competing the very same week as the ladies’ event in PyeongChang was a useful distraction for Higuchi. She was not able to see her teammates perform but hearing that they were satisfied with how they had skated gave her another degree of closure.
“I could not watch the performances, but I saw them being interviewed on TV. Kaori (Sakamoto) and Satoko (Miyahara) both spoke like they had given their all. If they had said that they had not been able to show their best, I probably would not have been able to move on. The fact they gave performances they were happy with made me satisfied. It gave me the motivation to do well in Milan, so the Olympics were a good influence on me.”
With 2019 Worlds taking place in Saitama, there is a certain expectation that Higuchi and Miyahara will deliver results that will increase Japan’s spots for a home championship. However, Higuchi has learned the hard way that thinking about results might not be the best way to achieve goals.
“Of course, it is important to be aware that you must not make mistakes at competitions where spots are on the line or at Japanese Nationals, but recently I have started thinking that should not become too much pressure and that I want to give performances where I know I have skated as well as I could have.
“I want to go at my own pace, not put pressure on myself and be ready to compete in the right frame of mind.
After Worlds ends, Higuchi will move into her final year of senior high school. She is already looking forward to a little bit more time with her classmates and considering the future direction of her education.
“I want to stay back at school after classes are done and chat with friends. I also want to spend the whole day at school as I am hardly ever there all the way from morning through to when classes end. I also want to think about what university I will attend.”
Higuchi will be 21 in four years’ time when Beijing 2022 comes around. Her goal is to grow as a person and a skater.
“I want to become an athlete that can handle whatever is thrown at me.”