The Japanese pairs team of Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara have been turning heads since they first appeared on the scene in the fall of 2019. Though both had previously competed on the international stages with other partners, neither had enjoyed any meaningful success.
In 2019, a coach on the other side of the world thought they would be a good match, and following a brief tryout a new partnership was formed.
Just months after teaming up, Riku Miura, a virtual unknown on the pairs scene, and Ryuichi Kihara, who had not competed internationally in a year, finished fifth at 2019 NHK Trophy. While the result itself was not noteworthy, the connection, the energy and the intriguing potential of this team — that seemingly came out of nowhere — was obvious to everyone.
Kihara, who began skating at age 4, competed in singles for three seasons at the junior level, finishing 10th at the 2011 World Junior Championships. In January 2013, he turned to pairs and was teamed up with Narumi Takahashi, the 2012 World bronze medalist with Mervin Tran. Takahashi and Kihara finished 18th at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games but ended the partnership following a 19th-place result at the 2015 World Championships.
Three months later, Kihara teamed up with Miu Suzaki. The duo had minimal success on the international stages in their three seasons together, finishing 21st at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games and 24th at the subsequent World Championships. In early 2019, Kihara suffered a concussion during a training session and was off the ice for many months.
When his partnership with Suzaki ended in April 2019, Kihara was about to move on, believing his career in figure skating was over. But that thought process was shelved just a few months later when he was asked if he would like to try out with Miura. He jumped at the opportunity. Though they knew of each other through competitions, they had never actually met.
Miura began her career as a singles skater at age 5. In 2014, she was teamed up with Shoya Ichihashi by Canadian coach Bruno Marcotte. The duo finished 10th at both the 2018 Four Continents and World Junior Championships. The following season, they dropped to 14th at World Juniors and shortly afterward the partnership came to an end.
But Marcotte, who has coached Miura since age 12, had already set the wheels in motion to find a new partner for her. “Many years ago, after I teamed Riku with Ichihashi they used to come and see me a couple of times a year in Montréal. So my working relationship with Riku goes way back,” Marcotte explained. “In 2019, after I moved to Toronto, I went to Japan to do a seminar and saw that things between Riku and Shoya were not going well. When they were in Japan they did not have a coach, and their relationship had gotten to a point that was not very stable. So I mentioned to Riku that if things did not pan out with Shoya, then Ryuichi would be a great option.”
Marcotte reached out to Kihara to find out if he was retired or had any interest in skating with Miura. “I was just asking questions at that point,” Marcotte recalled. “Riku and Shoya were supposed to move to Toronto full time in July 2019, but two weeks before they were scheduled to arrive I received a call from Riku. She said she did not feel comfortable moving forward with her current partnership and asked me if I still thought she should team up with Ryuichi.
“I told her if she wanted to go to the Olympics, he is the only Japanese guy that has experience. I always felt that Ryuichi was a better skater than his results showed in the past and that with the height difference between him and Riku, they could have something special. The next day I got a call from Takeshi Honda, who was Riku’s singles coach, and then I reached out to Ryuichi. He told me he would be willing to move to Toronto. Following a brief try out, he told me, ‘we will be there in two weeks.’”
“I thought my career had ended and I was just about to retire when I was invited to try out and I got to meet Riku,” Kihara recalled. “The first time we skated together, I realized this was a good fit so I should just get back into it.”
Miura and Kihara arrived in Canada in July 2019 having skated for just one hour together during their one and only try out, and began working with Marcotte and his team at an elite training center in Oakville, a town situated on the outskirts of Toronto.
“It was like starting from scratch, learning how to do throws and learning how to skate together, getting programs done and preparing them for the Grand Prix season,” Marcotte recalled. “They had a pretty decent competition at NHK Trophy that year for having so little experience. The 2020 Four Continents Championships did not go the way we wanted (the team finished eighth) but heading into Worlds in Montréal they were skating so well. I really felt that Worlds was going to be a breakthrough for them.”
When that competition was cancelled the following month and most skaters who trained in Canada returned to their respective homelands, Miura and Kihara opted to stay. With the international border closed, they knew if they left it would be impossible to return. That decision prevented them from competing at the 2020 NHK Trophy and the national championships in Japan, but gave them more time to work on honing their skating skills and improving their elements.
“We thought of going back to Japan a few times, but we knew if we did we would not be able to return to train with Bruno, so we chose to stay in Canada,” Kihara explained. “We could not go to the rink during the first two months of the pandemic. When it reopened, a limited number of skaters were allowed at one time which made ice time more expensive, so we were only able to do two sessions a day instead of three. I think around December things returned to normal and we were back to doing three ice sessions a day.”
With the 2021 World Championships just a few months away, Marcotte knew he had to put a plan in place for the following season, long before the current one had ended. Once Miura and Kihara left Canada to compete in Stockholm, they would not be returning for the foreseeable future and there would be no time to do two new programs before the Olympic season got underway. His sister, choreographer Julie Marcotte, began working on a new long program set to “Woman” by Shawn Phillips.
“They had been so long without competing, we felt it would be a good idea to give them a challenge and something new to work on,” said Marcotte. “I came up with a lift that would be a Level 4 that they knew how to do before they left for Worlds, so all the strategy and planning for the following season was done before they went back to Japan.”
In December 2020, Skate Ontario allowed his team to take part in the Challenge competition to give them some experience, “but for nearly a whole year that was all they did — that one Challenge event,” said Marcotte, adding he was so grateful for that opportunity.
Fourteen months after their last major competition, Miura and Kihara exceeded many expectations with their 10th place finish at the 2021 World Championships. That result secured a pairs berth for Japan at the 2022 Olympic Winter Games, plus the option to send another team to the Olympic qualifying event, Nebelhorn Trophy, to try to earn a second. “Our coach had actually told us that we were going to place top 10 but frankly we did not believe it,” Miura recalled with a laugh.
“We believed 100 percent in his training but when he told us about the placement, I thought ‘Ah, maybe,’” Kihara added. “Objectively, we got very good scores at Worlds, but I have to say that we lacked practice, so it was not really our best. We did not know what to expect after a year of not competing, but although it was not perfect, I think we managed well. We were just so happy and grateful to be able to skate in front of people again.”
Marcotte was confident the team would skate well in Stockholm, but he was less sure about how they would be received by the judges. “I knew they were a top 10-calibre team, I just did not know how it would work out,” he said. “I did not know what the reaction would be, but I knew Riku and Ryuichi had so much quality going their way. And right from the first practice, coaches came to me to talk about this team they had never heard about. It was really a breakthrough.
“One thing that was key to their success at Worlds was that at the practice sessions they were on point, so that helped a lot. They made quite an impression on the judges that came to watch their practices. They had a really good result in the short, finishing eighth — it was not perfect, but it was enough to make a statement for sure. Ryuichi had never qualified for a long program at Worlds before, so it was a great experience.”
That competition marked just the third time Miura and Kihara had competed as a team. “It was difficult to say for sure where we thought we would end up,” said Kihara when asked about the result. “But one thing we were sure of from the moment we first skated together was that we were going to make something special out of this partnership. Even now, I can’t say for sure what this all means for us. Is this as far as we can go? Is this really great? It is difficult to fathom at this time.”
In late April, Miura and Kihara competed at the World Team Trophy, finishing third in both segments, which contributed to Japan’s bronze-medal finish.
With the Canadian border still closed to international travel, Miura, 19, and Kihara, 29, had to remain in Japan. Marcotte began coaching them remotely, but with no set training base in their homeland they were forced to find ice wherever it was available. “We had two training bases. On weekdays we trained at a rink in Kyoto, and on the weekends we went to a rink at a national training center in Osaka that is close to the Kansei airport,” Kihara explained.
“It was very challenging to train with Bruno remotely. Because of the time difference we had to first come up with a time when we were all awake. We used FaceTime and Zoom but it was very difficult because it also depended on whether we had an Internet connection.”
Marcotte communicated with Miura and Kihara every day, either giving them on- or off ice lessons or just staying in touch to see how they were doing. “The one thing that was good was that they stayed extremely committed to their training and committed to me,” said Marcotte. “I saw them every day. If I did not see them on the ice, we would talk. They were fortunate to get a lot of ice time, but it was a bit sad that they had to travel a lot. And even though they were home, they could not really be with their families.
“The biggest challenge when you have a team that is alone is their relationship. But one of their strengths … well there are a lot of them, but one of them is their work ethic. Another is their willingness to learn. They are never satisfied, and they don’t act like they know everything. The third thing is their relationship. They are like best friends.
“But the problem is, when you are coaching remotely you lose the feeling a little bit of the relationship. You don’t know it as well. That is one of my main roles as a coach — to figure out what is happening mentally. Are they in a good place? Observing the body language was one thing that was really hard for me to see and that can be hard when things are getting tough. So that was the biggest challenge.
“Ryuichi told me his biggest fear was to get up from making a technical mistake. They were working well but always holding back for fear of making a mistake. I told them not to be afraid because they had to just keep pushing the envelope.”
Miura and Kihara kept their short program from last season — “Hallelujah” by k.d. Lang, which Kihara said was always the plan. The decision to use the piece that Lang made iconic was a joint one made by Miura, Marcotte and himself. “We discussed various options with our coach, and it sort of came together organically. So for the short — and the long for that matter — it is not that we are making a very detailed interpretation of the meaning of the words. For us, there is no religious connotation.
“Because we could not do any competitions last season it was really tough on us, and I think what we are now trying to express is how happy we are to be back on the ice and to be able to skate. So we are trying to express joy and happiness about skating in particular.”
Miura said her favorite element in the free is the throw triple loop because when she lands it “Ryuichi is kind of running after me, and when I see him doing that I am like, ‘OK, this is good.’”
“That part is not at all enjoyable for me,” said Ryuichi with a laugh.
In mid-July, they performed in the annual “Dreams on Ice” shows in Japan and two weeks later were on their way to the U.S. Marcotte knew he had to get the team out of Japan, but as they could not return to Canada until the border reopened in early September, he reached out to a good friend to help with their training in the interim.
“We tried to get them into Canada, but that was a little tricky, so then we had the idea of bringing them to Boston. I have a really good friend, Bobby Martin, who runs the Elite Edge club in Boston. We have collaborated for many years, so I was like this is the guy I have 100 percent confidence in,” Marcotte explained. “I went to Boston the first week they were there and worked with them. Then they worked with Bobby the following week and then my sister Julie went to work on their programs. They had another week with Bobby and then they came back to Canada.”
“The coaches and everyone there were really, really nice to us,” said Miura. “Even now we miss our rink mates. We really enjoyed the experience. But we were absent from Canada for almost six months, and we really wanted to get back here. “Initially it felt very strange, a bit surreal, but we are very happy to be back at our home rink and back into our normal routine. I am so happy that we finally have a normal life and can skate with our training mates again. Six months is a long time, but we are happy to be back in our groove.”
Kihara agreed. “We wanted to return for so long and we are so thrilled to be here. But what was normal everyday life here last year does not feel quite normal yet.”
What they did not know until their return was how much their Oakville training mates had missed them, Marcotte said. “They are such great people — the kind of people you want to be around — and they are good for Kirsten (Moore-Towers) and Mike (Marinaro) and for my younger teams. Since their return, the level of skating of Kirsten and Mike has improved. The weird part is that even though we were far apart, somehow we stayed close. I don’t think they improved that much in Japan but they did not regress and that was so huge.”
In early June, Japan announced it did not have a second team to field at Nebelhorn Trophy to attempt to claim the second spot that Miura and Kihara earned at the 2021 World Championships.
Miura and Kihara were assigned to Autumn Classic International in September, Skate America in late October and NHK Trophy the following month. Marcotte said those decisions were based on the fact that “this year the options were not very good. When we had to make a decision about where they were going to compete, I did not know what the status would be in Canada with coming in and out, and I did not want to run the risk of not being able to return to Canada after Skate America.
“So Autumn Classic was a good strategy as far as doing something locally, staying home and not having to worry about all the restrictions elsewhere.”
Kihara said their personal goals for the Grand Prix season were to medal at one of the events (at least) and achieve an overall score of more than 200. Those goals were achieved, with a silver medal finish in Las Vegas, a bronze medal in Tokyo and combined scores of over 200 at both competitions.
As a former pairs competitor, Marcotte understands all too well that Miura and Kihara’s victory at the Challenger Series and Grand Prix events has changed the dynamic when it comes to expectations and pressure. But he is determined to keep those distractions as far from his team as possible. “There is a lot more attention and a lot more expectation, so our job is to keep them focused on what they have to do, to put aside all the newfound expectations of other people as well as the attention and let us manage all of that.”
With the Olympics now on the immediate horizon, Marcotte’s goal is to keep his students — who he described as perfectionists — strong and confident “no matter what,” to work to maximize the grade of execution scores and “obviously get a little more speed going into the elements and a little more power in places. It is a mental game, to work on their confidence. They have the potential to be a lot better than what they are right now.”
“What we have seen so far is not their max; I think their max is a lot higher and that is what we have to work on. They have the potential to keep growing and improving, and I strongly believe that if they focus on themselves and not so much on the final result, they could shock the world.”
Miura and Kihara are aiming for a fifth or sixth place finish in the individual competition in Beijing. Marcotte thinks that goal is definitely achievable but knows the dynamic at the Winter Games will be one his team has never experienced before. “The Olympics is a funny competition. The environment is different, the expectations are high and funny things happen at the Olympics — and this year it will be even more so. Also, when there are expectations the work is harder, the weight is heavier on the shoulders, and they have never had to deal with that, so the key is that this does not change. And if it does not change, they could get a personal best.”
In late December, with the possibility of the Canadian border closing once again, the Japan Skating Federation announced that Miura and Kihara would not compete at the national championships. It also confirmed the team had been assigned to the 2022 Olympic Winter Games and the World Championships. They will make their Olympic debut in the Team Event on Feb. 4.
Though many skaters from this Olympic quad will be hanging up their skates at the end of this season, Miura and Kihara will not be among them. Kihara feels he has worked too hard for too many years to get to where he is today to leave it all behind after just two seasons skating with Miura.
“We are just starting to be able to do well and win events, so there is no way I am going to stop now,” he said. “I have been doing the hard work for seven or eight years — I am not going to quit anytime soon.”
Ed. Note: This article has been updated from the cover story that ran in the IFS December 2021 issue.
2022 OLYMPIC WINTER GAMES