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Uno captures gold at Japanese championships

With Hanyu battling flu, Uno vaults to top of podium; Tanaka captures silver
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Shoma Uno wasn't perfect, but the 2016 Grand Prix Final bronze medalist did more than enough to secure a gold medal at the 2017 Japanese championships. -Getty Images

Shoma Uno was undoubtedly 'Numero Uno' in the men's event at the 2017 Japanese Figure Skating Championships in Osaka, Japan, scoring an impressive victory by achieving 280.41 total points.

The day before the championships began, skaters and fans alike were shocked by the announcement that four-time and defending champion Yuzuru Hanyu withdrew from the event due to influenza. Sans the reigning Olympic champion and four-time Grand Prix Final champion, Uno -- who recently captured the bronze medal at the Grand Prix Final and won silver at each of the last two Japanese championships -- became a natural favorite to win gold in Osaka.

Skating to the music of "Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra" in his short, Uno stepped out of his opening quad flip, and fell on the quad toe, a stunning beginning to his national championship. As a result, Uno received 88.05 points, but remained in contention, entering the free skate within three points of the leader.

Takahito Mura, who won the bronze at this event last season, delivered a near-clean performance of his Flamenco short, and included a quad toe, solid triple axel and a triple lutz-triple toe combo. He was awarded 90.34 points and entered the free skate in first place.

NHK Trophy bronze medalist Keiji Tanaka skated a solid performance, and ended the short program in third after achieving 85.68 points.

With his sights set on gold, Tanaka was the first among the three to skate in the free skate portion of the event. Set to the music of Federico Fellini, the 22-year-old from Okayama opened the program with a solid quad salchow and followed with a triple salchow. Despite double-footing the following triple axel, which was down-graded, he did not make any fatal mistakes the rest of the way, and received nice Grades of Execution (GOE) on his spins and footwork. As a result, he scored 163.70 and a totaled 249.38 points, which was good for a silver medal.

"I fought hard during my program," Tanaka commented after his performance. "I felt quite nervous and it was overwhelming, so I fought hard against the nervousness. I felt I was able to deliver what I can do in training, but there were also some mistakes that I could've avoided, so I felt both happy and regrettable."

Mura was next to skate. He had a decent start to his "Piano Concerto No.2 by Rachmaninov" program, hung on the opening quad toe, and then nailed a solid quad toe-double toe combo and a huge triple axel. To the shock of the crowd, he surprisingly struggled throughout the second portion of his program. He popped the planned quad salchow into a triple, and then popped a planned triple axel combo into a double.

Mura then changed the planned layout and attempted another triple axel, but this time double-footed the landing and completely lost the combo. His next triple flip was downgraded, and the ending triple lutz turned into a double. Due to these mistakes, Mura finished in third place with 151.77 points coming for his free skate and 242.11 in total.

"I wasn't thinking about winning the title at all after the short program, because I am well aware of what Shoma is capable of," the 25-year-old said. "I skated my program pretty calm until I popped my triple axel in the second half. I lost my focus for a second, and then, the worst pattern of the mistakes I usually have during training all appeared at once. I felt very, very regrettable."

Uno was the last to skate, and saved his best performance for the most crucial program. Skating to the music of "Buenos Aires Hora Cero" and "Balada para un Loco," Uno may not have started in top fashion -- with shaky landings on both his opening quad flip and the following quad toe -- but rebounded to close the championships out with a strong free skate.

In the second half of his program, Uno over-turned the second quad toe, which cost him the planned combo. Nevertheless, he landed the remaining three jumping passes, including a triple axel-half loop-triple flip combination and a triple salchow-triple toe. Despite the mistakes on the jumps, Uno posted the highest technical score of the night with 101.16 points, and his artistic performance was rewarded as the highest component score among the field with 91.20 points. As a result, Uno placed first in free skate with 192.36 and won the event with a combined score of 280.41 points.

"I didn't cry because I won or something like that," the newly crowned and emotional Japanese champion recalled of his time in the kiss and cry. "I cried because I felt my hard training after the Grand Prix Final paid off at the end of the day. I've been practicing my combination jumps really hard since the Final, but I couldn't land my combo in the short program, so I was very frustrated with myself. Today, I missed my combo on the quad toe, but I landed all three combos at the end of the program, which finally made me feel that my tough training was not wasted."

The student of Machiko Yamada and Mihoko Higuchi also spoke about the final triple salchow-triple toe combination.

"I actually didn't feel confident about doing a combo at the end, so I was planning to do a solo triple salchow only. But when I landed the salchow, I heard my coach shout 'go for it,' so I challenged it and it went well. I then felt it was right that I went for it."

At the post-event press conference, the medalists shared their thoughts about the event and their performances.

"I think this is the most frustrated podium finish I've had at nationals over the years," Mura, the three-time national bronze medalist, said. "I need to learn from this experience, train hard and prepare well for the future."

"I felt happy after finishing second at this event, which I really didn't expect, but at the same time, felt regrettable for not being able to pull off the best performance I can do in training," said Tanaka. "From now on, I need to keep improving, keep growing, and be more competitive at the international level so that I can truly carry the title of the silver medalist of Japan."

Uno, aside from feeling happy for winning the title, considered the event a good experience to learn how to adjust himself mentally.

"After Hanyu withdrew from the event, everyone around me said the pressure is now on me," Uno said. "I didn't realize I had been impacted by the pressure, but since I did poorly in the short, and I made several mistakes in the free, I guess I couldn't really argue that I wasn't impacted. I think I need to figure out what was the reason behind my performances, learn to adjust and prepare well for competitions."

The Japanese champion also talked about his future plan to add more quads in order to compete on the international stage.

"I don't think it is competitive enough to only have flip and toe, so I want to go for more types of quad," he continued. "I am now practicing quad loop every day and can land it well. But sometimes before competitions, I suddenly cannot do it well. Maybe in the future I will put it in the program, but not this season. I will probably try to do it in ice shows and exhibitions first, and then go for it in competitions. As for the quad salchow, I am not quite able to hit it, so the possibility of doing it in program is low."