Japan's Marin Honda, skating star since 11, revels in growing spotlight

Marin Honda, 16, in her dazzling senior debut at U.S. International Figure Skating Classic.  Her 19 elements in two programs all received positive grades.  (IceNetwork photo)

Marin Honda, 16, in her dazzling senior debut at U.S. International Figure Skating Classic.  Her 19 elements in two programs all received positive grades.  (IceNetwork photo)

SALT LAKE CITY -- When she was only 11 years old, Marin Honda was anointed by Japanese media as the worthy successor to Mao Asada, the most decorated figure skater in her country's history.

Since then, the hype around Honda has grown exponentially in her homeland, a country that has developed a boundless passion for figure skating over the past decade.

So, there were six Japanese TV networks and 10 Japanese newspapers in town to cover a second-tier event -- the 2017 U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in Salt Lake City -- because it was Honda's debut on the senior international circuit.

Saturday night, in the ladies' free skate, Honda made the trip both worthwhile and memorable for the compatriots in the media and the audience at the Salt Lake City sports complex.

Just one month past her 16th birthday, Honda delivered a brilliant performance to music from "Turandot" that belied her age, no matter that there were moments when the powerful music overwhelmed her ability to interpret it.

She wound up with a commanding victory over Mirai Nagasu of the U.S., who opened her free skate with a big and solid triple axel that was judged slightly imperfect for a barely two-footed landing.

Honda, who also won the short program, had 198.92 points (a noteworthy 131.12 in the free skate) to 183.54 for Nagasu and 182.32 for reigning U.S. champion Karen Chen, who has been very impressed by Honda.

"She's really beautiful and elegant," Chen said. "She has a flow on the ice that's really amazing. Everything looks so effortless, like it's a piece of cake."

Honda's only mistake was doubling a planned triple salchow late in the four-minute free skate. She landed five other triple jumps, including a triple flip-triple toe combination, with élan.

"With the high altitude, I didn't expect to do so well," she said through a translator. "Without a doubt, I did everything I was hoping for."

She had become Japan's next great skating hope by winning Japan's Novice B title in 2013. After that, the Japanese Skating Federation made her the youngest-ever selectee on its national list, a designation that meant the federation began paying for her training.

Three seasons later, in her first season as a junior, Honda won the World Junior Championships. Last season, she did a free skate of ethereal beauty in finishing second at the world juniors to Russia's Alina Zagitova, who is more advanced technically and less refined artistically.

Honda already has two personal sponsors, Japan Airlines and Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper. She did a Disney video, which created an impression of her skating on the ocean, to promote the Japanese release last summer of the latest in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies.

She also has 215,000 followers on Instagram. By comparison, long-time U.S. skating star Ashley Wagner has 155,000.

Honda revels in the spotlight. She finds no pressure in having gotten so much attention at an early age and takes pride in being seen as the heiress to her idol, Asada.

"I love the cameras. The more, the better," Honda said. "If anyone thinks I may be the next Asada, I am happy to hear it."

She is confident enough that even a question about her chances to make the podium at the 2018 Winter Olympics does not produce a rote answer.

"It is my dream to win a medal," she said.

Honda, born in Kyoto, is the middle child of five. The oldest, Taichi, 19, was 12th in men's singles at last season's Japanese Championships. Her sister Miyu, 13, is a child actress. The youngest in her family, Sara, 10, can be seen in video practicing, and nearly completing, triple axels.

Nagasu did triple axels in both her programs at this event, getting full base value credit for each. She is the first U.S. woman credited with landing one since 2005. Her second, in the free skate, was so good it validates her commitment to doing the jump.

"Just write about that," she said, laughing.

Nagasu had mistakes on all but one of her six other jumping passes, including one fall and six jumps called under-rotated. Her score was 119.73.

"I felt really strong throughout the whole program," she said. "A year ago (when she struggled early in the season), I would have been ecstatic with 119 points in the free."

(This article originally appeared on icenetwork.)

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Click here for Marin Honda's Disney "Pirates of the Caribbean" promotional video. (Photo at left.)