Japanese figure skating star Uno makes big leap(s) with help from U.S. coach

Alex Ouriashev (left) makes a point to Shoma Uno before a recent practice at the Glacier Ice Arena in Vernon Hills, IL  (Philip Hersh photo)

Alex Ouriashev (left) makes a point to Shoma Uno before a recent practice at the Glacier Ice Arena in Vernon Hills, IL  (Philip Hersh photo)

It was a perfect mid-August morning, sunny and dry with a temperature in the low 80s. On such a summer day, most people would do anything to get outdoors.

That is where field hockey player Itsuki Uno, 15, and his father, Hiroki, were going to be. They were headed for the golf course, just as they had almost every day during the Uno family's three-week stay in the Chicago suburbs.

Itsuki's older brother, Shoma, 19, would not be in the golfing party.

"I don't particularly like being outdoors," Uno said through an interpreter, with a sly grin that needed no translation.

Uno was perfectly happy spending his days in an environment that could best be described as anti-summer: the indoor ice sheets at rinks north and west of Chicago, where he was working with the man whose expertise as a jump coach had helped the skater make the podium at all nine of his competitions last season. Five of those were victories, and Uno leaped from seventh at the world championships in 2016 to the silver medal in 2017.

"I was surprised I improved so fast," Uno said.

So it was no surprise he had returned for more work with Alex Ouriashev at the Glacier Ice Arena in Vernon Hills. This, though, was no star turn: Uno shared the ice with skaters of distinctly lesser ability, including countryman Kotaro Takeuchi, 14th at last season's Japanese Junior Championships.

"I feel that I don't have anything in particular that I'm good at or I'm strong at," Uno said. "At the same time, I don't think I have anything that is particularly weak or bad. So I guess that is who I am as a skater."

Uno was nearing the end of his first of two 40-minute sessions of the day. Several times, he played the music for the final section of his new free skate to Puccini's Turandot, beginning with the opera's best-known aria, "Nessun Dorma." The idea was to shape the endurance necessary for a free skate with eight of its 12 jumps -- including three quads and two triple axels -- in the second half.

After nearly every jump, Ouriashev studied the tracing Uno's blade had made on the surface. Then the coach remarked on the jump in the little notebook he carried on the ice: how big the jump was, the correctness of the entrance, the consistency of the landing.

After turning off the music, Uno began doing individual jumps. He tossed off a quadruple toe loop with such ease you could have sworn it was only a triple. Then he started building toward the element he would like to add this season, a quad lutz, a considerable challenge given that that jump has long been problematic for him, with frequent questions about the takeoff edge.

"Timing," Ouriashev told Uno after he fell on one attempt.

Uno, who speaks little English but understands what could be called "skating English," got up, brushed his shaggy hair away from his eyes, smiled and acknowledged the coach's point with an up-and-down shake of his head.

"His timing on the pick is wrong most of the time," Ouriashev explained. "He waits, glides too long, then picks."

By the time Uno's three-week stay in the Chicago suburbs ended Sunday, he had landed both a quad lutz and a quad salchow, the coach said.

Uno's plan is to have a fifth quad in his free skate this season after having done four -- two quad toes, a quad flip and a quad loop -- last season.

Such are the demands on top male skaters in an era when the quad ante seems to ratchet up every year.

"I'm amazed at how fast everyone has improved," Uno said. "Fortunately, I am one of them, so it doesn't feel that hard to compete at this level."

Uno put both the quad flip and quad loop into his repertoire last season. In April 2016, at the Team Challenge Cup, he became the first skater to land a quad flip in competition. He went on to do 18 quad flips in the 2016-17 season (one each in every short program and free skate), getting full base value on all 18 and positive Grades of Execution (GOEs) on nine -- including both he performed at worlds.

He had tried quad loops two years earlier, and after showing video of those attempts to Ouriashev, the two began refining the jump. Uno tried his first one competitively at the 2017 Four Continents Championships -- and earned a stunning +2.43 GOE.

Creating that quad prowess led Uno to begin working with Ouriashev, who coached Gracie Gold to the U.S. junior title, a world junior silver medal and a second-place finish at the 2013 U.S. Championships before she left to join Frank Carroll in the fall of 2013.

"We were looking for a jump coach," said Uno's mother, Junko.

One of her son's Japanese coaches, Mihoko Higuchi, had been impressed with Gold's jumps and wanted to see if Ouriashev was interested in teaching Uno. At the request of Uno's agent, Koji Ohama, skating agent/impresario Ari Zakarian called Ouriashev to sound him out.

Uno first came to the Chicago area, where Ouriashev has taught for two decades, in the summer of 2016. That would also be the first of the four visits Uno made to Ouriashev last season.

"It was a huge surprise when they asked me," Ouriashev said. "I am not like top level of world coaches and U.S. coaches."

Ouriashev, a native of Ukraine, was nervous about the prospect of coaching one of the best young skaters in the world. He called an old friend, Dallas Figure Skating Club coach Alexei Letov, before accepting.

"Alexei gave me the confidence to try," Ouriashev said.

Uno, the 2015 world junior champion and the youngest man to quality for the 2016 Grand Prix Final, also was uncertain about what Ouriashev expected.

"At the beginning, I gave it all at each practice, and it was physically exhausting," he said. "Now I know how to control and balance my training more.

"I was able to get good results out of it, so I wanted to come back this season and gain more things."

Uno felt his decline at the end of his brilliant senior debut season (2015-16) came from too much training and not enough competition. That is why he did several competitions -- Four Continents in Gangneung, South Korea, site of next year's Olympic Games; the Asian Winter Games in Sapporo, Japan; and the Coupe du Printemps in Luxembourg -- in the six weeks before worlds.

"Two years ago, I had a big gap between Four Continents and worlds," Uno said. "I did not do well at Four Continents, so I put so much pressure on myself, and it kind of crushed me. Last year, I planned not to have a time gap between competitions so I would stay in shape and be ready for competition all the time."

Uno comes into this season as the reigning world silver medalist from a nation that is gaga about figure skating. That his countryman, Yuzuru Hanyu, the reigning world and Olympic champion, is wildly popular in Japan deflects attention away from Uno.

"[Hanyu] is someone I look up to," Uno said. "I like the attitude he shows about skating. He is a great jumper, of course, but I think he is a well-balanced, all-around skater.

"It is mentally easier to chase someone, to have someone above me all the time. But I will probably end up skating longer than he does, so hopefully I am the one to carry that kind of pressure in the future."

Uno, from Nagoya, has sponsorship deals with Toyota Motor Company and Colantotte, a company that makes magnetic jewelry advertised to have health benefits (he wears a necklace). A "Shoma Uno Official Calendar 2018" is set to be released nationwide in Japan next month.

Yet the diminutive star (he stands 5 feet, 2 1/2 inches tall) insists the publicity generated in the last year by his skating and his stature as an endorser has not changed his life.

"I am probably not being noticed in the street as much as what many people might imagine," he said. "Sometimes people do come up to me to talk, but that is not very often, so I am happy."

Asked if he is a celebrity in Japan, Uno demurred.

"I try not to think about that," he said.

Uno is taking this academic year off from Chukyo University to focus on skating. Yet he and Ouriashev are trying not to focus either on the Olympics or a way to beat Hanyu, the favorite among an incredibly strong group of men's skaters.

"I don't have a particular goal for this season," Uno said. "My ultimate goal is not for this season but for the future."

Uno's first competition, as it was last season, will be next month's Lombardia Trophy in Italy. His Grand Prix assignments are Skate Canada in late October and the Internationaux de France in mid-November. Just as he did last season, Uno plans to return to the Chicago area for more work with Ouriashev after the Japanese championships in late December.

"Sometimes you get people you really like, and you are entirely happy to help them," Ouriashev said. "Even if we don't speak English, his personality is such that even if you are in a bad mood, he puts you in a better mood. He is bright, like good weather."

Maybe that is why Uno doesn't need to get outside. He simply brings the sun and warmth onto the ice with him.

(This article originally appeared on icenetwork.)