By Hiro Yoshida
After a glittering career as a junior skater, Japan’s Marin Honda move to seniors has been a rocky road. Now in her second year of training under Rafael Arutunian in California, she has set her sights on turning her fortunes around in the seasons ahead.
When Honda turned up for the Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany at the end of September, it had been nine months since her last competition. In her fourth appearance at the Japanese National Championships in December 2018, she had finished fifteenth, her lowest placing to date. It was a setback, but not unexpected given that she had only began deconstructing her skating technique with Arutunian months earlier.
“When I decided to move to America and work with Rafael, I was told it would definitely take two to three years and at the time I understood that,” Honda said. “To take apart everything I had learned over the previous ten years and reset was, in a sense, like trying to compete in a completely new sport. During my first year, which was last season, even though I was confident I was training properly, I did not yet have the feeling that I was improving. However, now in my second year, I can gradually understand, and I just need to persevere a little bit more.”
Honda had previously been coached by Mie Hamada and she had been crowned 2016 World Junior champion and taken the silver medal at the same event in 2017 behind Alina Zagitova of Russia. Her achievements had brought her a certain amount of celebrity in Japan where figure skating is enjoying an unprecedented level of popularity. Honda believes this attention distracted her from concentrating on her skating and left her directionless.
“In my second year of juniors and my first season moving up to seniors, I did not have any expectations of myself,” Honda recalled. “Due to the fact I was receiving attention, I strongly wanted to do things differently to other people and have as much attention as possible. Thinking about it now, I feel my mindset was closer to that of a celebrity rather than an athlete. In that sense, deciding to change the environment I was in was a really good thing for me and gave me the opportunity to start from scratch and let go of who I was and my way of thinking up until then. I think last year was a year I was able to face the world as an athlete.”
Honda started the 2017-2018 season well with a win at the U.S. Figure Skating Classic in Salt Lake City, Utah. However, her two Grand Prix assignments in Canada and China produced only two fifth place results.
The fight for one of the two Japanese spots in the ladies field at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic Games ultimately came down to the 2017 Japanese Nationals in Tokyo. Honda placed sixth in the short and dropped to seventh after the free.
On the day of the Olympic ladies free skating in February 2018, instead of South Korea Honda found herself at the Challenge Cup in The Hague, Netherlands along with friend and rival Wakaba Higuchi who had written her a letter after they had both failed to make the Japanese Olympic team.
“At that time, both of us were at our lowest and it was a time when there were not many things to laugh about,” Honda recalled. “I have known her since we were little and we have been good friends since the time we were at the Nobeyama development camp together. At the competition in the Netherlands, we shared a room and consoled and encouraged each other.”
Honda realised she needed a change to her training environment after the 2017-2018 season. Initially she did not consider locating overseas, but it began to dawn on her that moving outside her comfort zone was what she needed to do.
“I originally did not have the desire to train abroad and I had never given it much thought,” she said. “After the Japanese Nationals that were the final Olympic qualifier, my personal goal vanished, and everything felt like it went dark and I took some days off practice. At that time, I looked at other skaters and began to feel like there were areas where I could still grow and things I needed to learn.
“I decided to give up all fun things at once. Being in Japan, you are free and can go out to have fun. You can speak the language and socialise with friends from school. Everything was free and easy. Moving to America meant that my life would be centred around skating and I began to feel like I should put myself in such a strict environment until the next Olympics.
“From there little by little it became a real goal. For example, because I started on reworking my jumps after I moved to America, I was able to set the goal of first of all the double Axel and jumping like everyone else in the correct way. Up until then I did not have set goals and it really felt fresh and a good thing for me.”
Going back to basics was a difficult task for Honda who had been a skating prodigy and was not used to failure.
“I do not know if I should say this about myself, but before if I thought I wanted to try a particular jump I was able to do it after a few attempts,” Honda said. “Compared to skaters who struggled to master jumps, because I was able to do them so quickly, conversely I did not have stability.”
When she went through a growth spurt, the ease with which she accomplished jumps began to desert her and knocked her confidence in her own abilities.
“I never really struggled or had to really think hard about anything,” Honda said. “However, when I hit puberty, I grew in height and, by the time I moved up to the senior ranks, I began to have issues with my jumps in practices. Even with that, during my first year as a senior, I was able to do them somehow in competition, but in practices I felt acutely and saw for myself I was becoming unable to do them.”
In addition to relearning her skating technique, Honda has also had to deal with communicating with a coach in English for the first time. It has not come naturally to her, but she is keen to brush up her skills even if she does lead a somewhat reclusive life in California.
“Besides when I am skating, I am doing homework from school and I do not go out to have fun at all,” Honda said. “I am completely shut off from English. If I am spoken to, I will reply, but I am not yet good at approaching people and asking questions. I do want to improve that part of me.”
Working with Arutunian, she has noticed her ability to understand and communicate with him has gotten better since she arrived.
“Last year I was not able to understand even half the things I was told,” Honda admitted. “At competitions when the warm-up finishes and your name is called for your turn, skaters receive advice from their coach and start their performance. Last year, I was skating at competitions where I could not understand what that final piece of advice was. This year at the very least I have become able to understand what I am being told and I am able to see small signs of improvement.”
At the Nebelhorn Trophy this season, Honda doubled a planned triple flip in her short programme and fell on a triple loop and singled a double Axel in the second half of her free skating. She finished in fifth place overall. She acknowledges that rebuilding her skating is still a work in progress.
“At practices, things have been going well, but trying them out in competition, the jumps and everything else have not even been seventy percent of what I can do in training.
“After last year’s Japanese Nationals, my jumps had never reverted to how they used to be even once in practice, but when it comes to competitions I get nervous and my previous bad habits appear. Just before my coach said, ‘That is why I told you it will take two years’ and I realised once more how difficult it is.”
The gap between the Nebelhorn Trophy and her last skate at Japanese Nationals had also played on her mind and caused her anxiety.
“I was really scared,” Honda said. “Since I started competing, I have never felt as nervous as I have this time and I thought I was going to lose my mind that is how nervous I was. Having said that, I think I skated well enough despite those nerves.”
Honda has kept her short from last season to “Seven Nation Army” and worked with Lori Nichol on a new free to the “La La Land” film soundtrack. Nichol was initially unconvinced about the choice of music, but eventually came round.
“Lori asked me if there was any music I wanted to skate to and at the time I was travelling back and forth between America and Japan. I watched ‘La La Land’ three times on board flights. I did not really have a particular piece of music in mind I wanted to skate to, but perhaps because I was influenced by this film I told her I wanted to skate to ‘La La Land’. However, Lori’s reaction to that was not great and she said it was too overused. She advised me to choose something that could become a signature programme for me and was more challenging music that no other skater had used before. We got the music edited for competition anyway and when Lori heard it herself she really liked it and so we decided to give it a try.”
Despite not having a perfect skate to her free in Oberstdorf, Honda feels that the programme has more potential.
“I think there is still room to grow or rather it can only grow,” she said. “I can take it positively or lose confidence from it, so I am going to work hard and practice and take it as a positive. I could hear very well the audience reaction as I was skating, and it made me really happy.”
In July 2018, Honda’s sponsor Japan Airlines established its own figure skating club of which she is a member. Her affiliation with the airline has sparked an interest in a potential future career within the industry.
“I do not know if this is realistic or not, but I want to study English more and become a flight attendant,” Honda said. “I would have to take a test and go to school and it is a bit of far-away dream, but it is one of my dreams.”
For the moment however, she is very much focused on skating and shutting out anything that detracts from her competitive goals.
“My way of thinking is really changing compared to how it used to be, and I am really putting importance on the present for skating of course. There are others think I want to do and become, but I am concentrating on one thing at a time and I want to make the most of each day right now.”
This includes upgrading her technical content so that she can adapt to a number of situations during her routines. At practices in Germany, she regularly landed triple loop-triple loop and triple flip-triple loop combinations.
“I am working right now in practices to be able to put any jumps in combination in the both the short and the free,” Honda said. “That would have been totally impossible for me last season. In that aspect, my jumps have gotten better, and I hope to be able to show good performances in the Grand Prix series.
“This year I want to enter lots of competitions,” Honda continued. “My bad jumping habits of old that come out during competitions is only something I can learn from at competitions.”
After her subpar results at last year’s Japanese Nationals, Honda was not initially named to the national team for the 2019-2020 season. When she received an invitation to the Cup of China when this year’s Grand Prix assignments were announced back in June, she was subsequently added to the roster of skaters eligible to represent Japan internationally. Due to the withdrawal of Mai Mihara, she will also skate this weekend at Skate Canada in Kelowna, British Columbia.
“I was not disappointed at getting just one Grand Prix assignment, but rather I was grateful for even getting one considering my condition last season and was really happy,” Honda said. “I want to prepare well for those competitions and apart from that I want to do good performances at Japanese Nationals and at the big competitions afterwards.”
Japanese Nationals has traditionally been an event that has not gone well in the past for Honda. This season she is determined to bury the ghosts from her past performances at the competition.
“Ever since I was a junior I have not had positive experiences with Japanese Nationals, and I have never had a good performance. Especially since the Japanese Nationals that served as an Olympic qualifier, it has become a difficult competition for me. With this year’s Japanese Nationals again, I have to overcome what happened last year, so it makes me more anxious. My biggest goal for this season is to perform well this year and I want to build towards that.”