Skating's rising star Kihira takes on Zagitova

In a stunning debut on the senior circuit this year, 16-year-old Rika Kihira has chalked up consecutive wins in the International Skating Union (ISU) Grand Prix of Figure Skating, securing her ticket to the final in December. Her triple Axel combined with a triple toe for the NHK trophy, the most difficult jump ever achieved in women's figure skating, already had the world's attention. Fans are now watching how she will do against another star her age, Alina Zagitova, Russian gold medalist at this year's PyeongChang Olympics.

Two stunning Golds at Grand Prix

The NHK Trophy earlier in November was Kihira's first appearance in the ISU Grand Prix series. She placed 5th in the short program after falling in her first triple Axel, then came back stronger in the free program, opening with a triple axel, triple-toe loop combination before landing another high-grade triple Axel, successfully landing all jumps and winning the highest rating of 4 for her spins and steps.

She scored 154.72 in the free skate with technical points of 87.17, more than the record number awarded to Zagitova earlier in the season and competitive with the men. In total, she earned 224.31, beating Japanese ace Satoko Miyahara.

Shizuka Arakawa, who won gold at the Turin Winter Olympics in 2006, described Kihira's triple Axel as a seamless, textbook move with beautiful aerial posture and orbit and a clean landing.

Rika Kihira won the NHK Trophy in her Grand Prix debut in Hiroshima on November 28.

Kihira's second round in France showed her recovery skills and level of control over the game. She placed second in the short program after a misfire in her triple Axel, and opened her free program with a shaky triple Axel that was evaluated as under-rotated. She soon recovered by switching to a double Axel combined with a triple-toe loop. Kihira scored 138.28 in the free skate with 3 successful jumps in the latter half of the program. Her total score was 205.92, winning her a second gold medal and a ticket to the final, but with some regrets about her performance.

"I haven't had a perfect performance yet in the short and free programs this season," she told news media. "I'll do my best in the final so I don't have any regrets."

Kihira rivals Russia's Zagitova

The world has been watching Kihira's every move since she beat Zagitova with her triple Axel in the 2016 Junior Grand Prix. Just two months younger than Zagitova, she failed to meet the age requirement for the PyeongChang Games.

At the Junior Grand Prix in 2016, Kihira beat Zagitova.

Unlike other jumps, the triple Axel starts with a forward takeoff and is considered the most difficult in the sport with few women skaters able to land it successfully. Japanese figure skating star Mao Asada, who retired earlier this year, pursued it throughout her career. Kihira is one of a select few to succeed in including the maneuver in her routine.

What's more, she combines it with a triple jump, which no other female skater has achieved in official ISU games. Kihira is now ready for a showdown with Zagitova.

Kihira heads to the final

Kihira's skills are attributed to her exceptional physical strength. She spends most of her day training, with 6 hours of skating, plus ballet practice and physical training. She attends high school through correspondence, studying on the move from one training session to another. She even makes her own lunch to ease the burden on her parents. Kihira says she has a special passion for her trademark triple Axel.

"I can draw people's attention with the jump," she said, adding, "I'll keep trying it as everyone expects me to."

Kihira is also practicing a quadruple jump that some Russian juniors have already achieved. "I have to consider how to improve on what I've already done...and I want to practice the quadruple jump for the coming era in women's quadruple jump," Kihira said.

As the world's top skaters get ready for the finals, expectations are high that Kihira and Zagitova will usher in a new era in women's figure skating. The Grand Prix Finals start on December 6th in Vancouver, Canada.