USA’s Tomoki Hiwatashi ended this season with a high note when he won the 2019 World Junior title in Zagreb, Croatia—three months after a disappointing result at the 2018-19 Junior Grand Prix (JGP) Final.
“I was definitely disappointed with the results,” said Hiwatashi of the Final. “I wasn’t expecting that. I expected myself to do better than that, obviously, but it also made me kind of think about how I should approach Nationals, Four Continents, and Junior Worlds.”
In hindsight, it was a good learning experience for the skater who wasn’t expecting to see such a large and international crowd in Vancouver, Canada, in December.
“I really think that I was just too excited going into the competition,” he said. “I wasn’t really mentally focused. I was excited to be there, but just was not mentally ready to compete. I was ready going in, but when I actually got there, I just kind of lost myself. There were so many things going on that I just couldn’t keep myself focused on the competition itself.”
After the Final, he settled down and learned to balance his emotions so that he could both relax and focus at the same time.
“In the past, I have found that focusing too much can make me mess up too,” he said. “On the other hand, I never thought focusing on the competition was going to work and that it would have the same effect.”
The following month, Hiwatashi finished fourth at the 2019 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, improving from a 15th and 12th place finish from 2017 and 2018, respectively. He then went on to debut at the 2019 Four Continents where he placed a respectable eighth with a new season’s best in both the free skate and Total score.
In Zagreb, at Junior Worlds, the 19-year-old earned a new season’s best for his short program. He admitted that he felt he could improve on the step sequence but was generally really happy overall with the performance. His free skate featured a quad toe-triple toe and six more triples. While he placed second in both segments, his overall score of 230.32 kept him at the top of the podium over Russia’s Roman Savosin and Daniel Grassl of Italy. The win, however, was bittersweet as he was disappointed about doubling his second quad.
Throughout the season, the skater had been thinking about when to add the second quad. The last time he attempted two quads in his free skate was at the 2017 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships where he underrotated and fell on both jumps. He didn’t want to risk using the second quad at Nationals or the Four Continents this season. However, after the Four Continents, he felt that he had put out the best result he could, which motivated him to try the second quad at Junior Worlds.
“Going into the last event of the season, my motivation went down and I just felt really done with the season,” Hiwatashi admitted. “I just couldn’t seem to get myself hyped up for Junior Worlds. I told myself that maybe if I had some other goals, then I would be motivated, so I put it in. I told myself, ‘this has to work.’ After Four Continents, I practiced it for three weeks and finally decided to put it in. It was a fifty-fifty chance, but I had the confidence to do it.”
Unfortunately, he popped the second quad in Zagreb, but the 2018 CS Alpen Trophy bronze medalist still took the gold and felt that attempting the jump helped in terms of taking his skating to the next step as a senior.
Despite winning the Junior World title, Hiwatashi still feels his free skate at 2019 Four Continents was his best this season. Although he only did one quad (in combination with a triple toe), he still earned a higher technical and program component score at this event than he did in Zagreb. The Four Continents was his first major senior ISU international event.
“This was different than the CS (Challenger Series) event, because there were so many international skaters and the audience was larger than what I’m used to,” he said. “There were people coming from all over, like Japan. “It felt like a nationals and I think it really helped me to get that eighth-place result.”
“It just felt great to be on the ice since the Four Continents was here in America, in L.A.,” Hiwatashi added. “I felt like there was a lot of people who cheered me on. I was surprised when they called my name when I finished my long program. I’m really glad that I did the greatest program I’ve ever done in my life there!”
The skater, who is coached by Christy Krall and Damon Allen, plans to continue working on a second quad for next season. Although he’s toying with the quad Lutz, his second jump will more than likely be a solo quad toe.
“I’m not actually able to land it yet (Lutz). I’m not like Nathan (Chen) or Vincent (Zhou), I’m just taking baby steps,” he explained. “I really love how Jason (Brown) and Yuzuru (Hanyu) skate. There are many styles to many people, and the way Nathan and Vincent does it, it matches their style, and the way Jason and Yuzuru does it, it matches their style, too. The way I’m trying to go is slowly take my step into the quad and focus on my skating skills and presentation that I’ve always been kind of lacking. It’s really nothing that can be done fast.”
“He spent this last year very dedicated to improving his technique and that was sort of a two-fold thing,” said coach Krall. “He really was diligent about his off-ice training, strength conditioning and recovery plan. Therefore, he was able to get his body very fine-tuned so that he could respond to the major emphasis of power that he needed to have in his jumps.”
In addition to improving his training, the skater vastly improved the landings of his jumps. The previous year, Hiwatashi had somewhat of a “square landing and a swinging free leg” according to his coach.
“When a skater lands, the impact is that of ten times their body weight,” noted Krall. “Tomoki is now able to absorb that intense energy and translate it into a fantastic landing.”
While Hiwatashi comes to the senior table with five Junior Grand Prix medals and a Junior World title, he still admits to being nervous about the transition. It’s still too soon to see if he will be assigned a Challenger Series (CS) event, but he is counting on at least one Grand Prix and keeping his fingers crossed for a second.
Last season, Hiwatashi skated to “Cry Me a River” for his short program (chosen and choreographed by Mark Pillay), while he personally picked the “Fate of the Gods” for the long, which was choreographed by Ben Agosto.
“We never had an idea for the long. I was searching on the internet and it was just random,” the skater recalled. “I found it on YouTube and I thought it sounded really good. It kind of fit me and I felt I could skate to it as soon as I heard it.”
For the upcoming season, Hiwatashi is working with Tom Dickson on his new free skate to Igor Stravinsky’s Petrushka in which he will portray a puppet. The short program music is still to be determined, but the skater will have opportunities to go to Canada to spend time with Mark Pillay again.
Although the skater has taken ballet before, he was never very serious about it as he felt he was never “really good at it.” Now, however, it plays an important part given the theme of his new program. Hiwatashi is also motivated by how good Nathan Chen is at ballet.
“I never got to those levels,” he said of Chen, “so I’m a little bit scare of doing it, but I think I will be able to manage it. I’m still trying to find my way in this program and purify it a little bit. I’m not even half-way done with the program, but it feels really good! I really want to give a performance that reaches the audience.”
In terms of improving and who he looks up to, Hiwatashi says that 2002 Olympic champion Alexei Yagudin of Russia is one source of inspiration, pointing out his routines to “Winter” by Bond and Nick Glennie-Smith’s The Man in the Iron Mask.
“I loved his skating, I loved how he went and did the quad toe,” said Hiwatashi. “His program at the Olympics was the best program that I have ever seen and I don’t think anyone has done better. There are also Yuzuru, Nathan, and Shoma Uno—they are all going for new things, getting records, and it is amazing how they can keep up the great work. I haven’t been able to do that consistently, so I am inspired by them. Vincent is a skater who skates at my rink and he does a quad Lutz, quad Salchow, quad flip, quad toe and he inspires me. Mao Asada has been an inspiration since I was little. While I did not know Yagudin, I do know Mao Asada from when I started staking and she inspired my mother to get me to skate.”
In fact, he was able to see Asada perform in her “Thanks Tour” when he went to Japan for a few weeks to visit family after Junior Worlds.
Hiwatashi, who is noted for his extreme flexibility, is also one of the few skaters known to jump and spin clockwise after training with his first coach, Oleg Podvalny, who felt the skater was a “lefty.”
“I just kind of went with the flow,” he chuckled. “I’ve been doing everything right-handed and I never bothered to think about it too much. In hindsight, maybe I really am a lefty, but my mom always taught me ‘righty.'”
Podvalny also introduced the Biellmann spin to the skater who is known for his extreme flexibility.
“The Biellmann is just this one thing that not many men can do and I want people to think that it is my thing now,” said Hiwatashi. “I want when people see other male skaters do the Biellmann to think ‘Tomoki can do it better!’ I want everyone to think I have the best one. I have been doing it since I started skating, since I was five, so a long time!”
Over the past season, one area that Hiwatashi feels that he’s improved in the most is consistency.
“I got better at that,” he said. “I tried to get better at landing my jumps, getting the correct levels, and I feel like my skating skills in general have improved over the past few years. I also think I’ve gotten better with expression and performance.”
Expression is was one area that Hiwatashi felt Ben Agosto really pushed him in, especially after the 2006 Olympic silver medalist created his exhibition routine prior to the JGP Final.
“It was not something I would normally do,” said Hiwatashi of his 90’s dance-theme routine. “It was music that required dance as well as confidence and a little sarcasm. I was really embarrassed trying to do it, but I also felt that it might help my confidence, so I didn’t argue with Ben’s choice. In the beginning, I felt very awkward and didn’t want to do it in front of other people. After the JGP Final, I didn’t think I would need it, so stopped practicing it.”
After winning the Junior World title, however, the skater found he wasn’t quite off the hook.
“After I won, I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, I have to do the exhibition!'” recalled Hiwatashi. “After the victory ceremony, it was the only thing I could think about. I hadn’t practiced it in a while. There was a small gym at the hotel and I got changed right away and started practicing for like three or four hours. I was trying to look at videos Ben and I took and trying to get the dance moves right.”
During the exhibition practice, he received encouragement from other skaters, so he felt less abashed. He recently did a show in Denver and Chicago and now feels a bit more confident.
“I feel like I have more ideas that I can possibly use in the future,” Hiwatashi said, while recalling that at event at banquets, he was the one who always sits and eats. “I’m not really the guy who goes out and starts dancing.”
For next season, one of his goals are to show the world his versatility as a skater, especially with his new free skate.
“I want to show people that I have a lot of variety and that I can do more than what I did last year and the year before,” said Hiwatashi.
The fact that he has proven his consistency time after time this past season is a big part of how the skater grew in confidence. He grew in the belief that his training and consistency has really helped him know that he has the capability of being in the top echelon in the world of figure skating.
“That consistency grew in the confidence which has allowed him to now say, ‘I can develop into a very mature, artistic, pleasing athlete to all types of different music,'” said Krall. “It was like a progression, like climbing the rungs of the ladder, and I think that’s why he is able to say, ‘I am willing now to set myself into a new mode of training which is more artistic, because my technical and my training are really a part of me now.'”