originally written for Sports.ru in Russian here
The new season is almost upon us, yet I’ve only just gathered words to speak about the best program of the 2017-2018 season amongst women.
That, to me, is Wakaba Higuchi’s Skyfall.
Frankly speaking, I’m still surprised at how little I’ve heard of her before, how few (international, non-Japanese) fans she seemed to have had even in the season before, when she demonstrated phenomenal musicality (and not just in the wonderful short; her Scheherezade is now my favourite among all I’ve seen), fantastic body control and so on, and so forth.
You know, that feeling when you come to Rostelecom Cup and say that your favorite ladies skater – here and in general – is Wakaba Higuchi, and get confused silence as a response.
Yes, this girl.
She was sixteen at the time. How can you even have such perfect musicality, such fantastic body control, such beautiful lines… all at sixteen? It seems foolish to ask, considering that as a junior she already looked better than quite a few skaters on the senior circuit. (Take a look at this performance, for example.)
The weirdest thing is that all I’ve heard about her when I had just gotten into figure skating is… well, nothing, except that she used to be known for her jumps as a junior. And she does have beautiful jumps, but so do some other Japanese ladies, like Mai Mihara (when she rotates them), Kaori Sakamoto (big and flowy, with smooth exits), and, strangely enough, even Satoko Miyahara – whose jumps may be small, but there’s such a natural ease to them you can’t help but be mesmerised. No wonder she doesn’t have a “jump face”.
So all I’ve heard about was jumps and speed. And I still don’t get how her musicality, her attention to details, her expressiveness, her energy and drive seemed to go unnoticed.
But last season she has no doubt surpassed herself.
I had the utmost luck of getting to see this program four times in person, and it always, always worked. Even in performances that didn’t get the highest marks, the program held up with its dizzying fervor, Shae-Lynn Bourne’s brilliant choreography and the music that never overshadowed Wakaba herself.
She is not sweet, nor particularly “graceful” as some like to imagine female figure skaters should look (even though in my deeply subjective opinion, her kind of strong and compact body is perfect for figure skating), she is not someone you’d call an ice princess. She doesn’t really play with the audience, doesn’t really act. Even back in juniors you could see her disappointment in the Kiss and Cry – at herself, the scores or both. She has no superfluous smiles to spare. There’s nothing superfluous about her at all.
But what she does have is a hunger, a drive, and, I feel like, in some way, an understanding that she deserves better. Sometimes she reminds me of Tatsuki Machida, whose talent and artistic abilities had been been overlooked by the judges, commentators and media alike throughout his whole career — and who is one of Wakaba’s skating idols alongside Yuna Kim.
Again and again, in short and free both, she showed frenetic energy, and nothing – not the scores that didn’t reflect the quality of her skating, nor the trauma at Japanese Nationals or the subsequent failure to get to the Olympics — nothing could stop that.
And so came the Worlds.
I was robbed of seeing “Skyfall” in practice (an experience I treasured, remembering how it made me tear up during the practices at Rostelecom Cup) because of her delayed flight — she rushed onto the ice about 20 minutes after her practice group had already started, her music wasn’t going to play, and yet I couldn’t take my eyes off her while she did crossovers around the rink.
I saw her wonderful short, in practice and in competition.
And during the ladies’ free program I was reminding myself that it didn’t really matter how it would go or how she placed. She didn’t have anything to prove, she didn’t have to prove anything. She would go out and skate, and I would watch this program one last time.
And go all out she did.
I remember shaking, in tears, unable to really take pictures any more. Looking through the viewfinder, I thought she was smiling, and only belatedly did I realise that she did all the jumps cleanly — I couldn’t really think about it, not when she was doing the steps with such ferocity, — and only later did I see her face clearly: the pure emotions, the fury and the relief.
It is a program that, to me, shone like a diamond at every competition — that could’ve lit up the Olympic arena, but that never came to be. Instead, it hit its peak in Milan. I find the final black dress rather fitting here; it’s both a start and a beginning.
Both the program and Wakaba herself deserved better, but I am ultimately endlessly thankful for the opportunity to witness and shoot it so many times.
But none of that really matters.
Skyfall is where we start.
Text and Photos: Copyright © 2017-2022 Daria Rudakova