Tomoki Hiwatashi competes at he 2019 U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 27, 2019 in Detroit.
When Team USA steps onto competition ice this weekend in Grenoble, France, for the third week of the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Series, Nathan Chen won’t be the only current world champion sporting a U.S. jacket.
That’s because 19-year-old Tomoki Hiwatashi won the world junior figure skating championships in March in Zagreb, Croatia, and is set to make his senior grand prix debut on Friday.
“I’m very excited but also very nervous,” Hiwatashi told TeamUSA.org in a phone interview from Colorado, where he trains. “I’m going to try to go all out and give it my best.”
It marks the second consecutive week that an American teenager is making his senior grand prix debut, following Hiwatashi’s training mate (and good friend) Camden Pulkinen’s fourth-place finish at Skate Canada last weekend.
The two 19-year-olds are part of a crop of up-and-coming Americans who are eyeing the greatness of Chen as an inspiration and pathway for themselves. Hiwatashi (2016) and Pulkinen (2018), are both former U.S. junior champions, as are two other young men looking to make their mark at the senior level: Alex Krasnozhon (2017) and Andrew Torgashev (2015).
“I really think we have a strong men’s team right now,” Hiwatashi said. “I think we can become this group that makes American men’s skating exciting for the world to watch.”
You could argue that Chen, 20 years old and already the two-time reigning world champion, has already done that, but his spillover effect is being felt as this next generation tries to push through, too: The already-established Vincent Zhou, 19, won the bronze medal at worlds this past spring, and big-jumping young women are coming up, too, like Alysa Liu, the reigning women’s champion at the national level at just 13 (she is now 14), and 17-year-old Ting Cui. They are aiming to recapture the glory for the U.S. women, as well.
What, exactly, should we expect from the next generation of American skaters?
“Quads… from both the girls and the guys,” Pulkinen said last week at Skate Canada, where he landed two quadruple toeloops (one was called under-rotated). “I know Ting (Cui) has been working on (quads). Tomoki is working on a few, so am I. That’s the next generation: We need quads. If we want to fill Nathan’s shoes, you have to do three or four quads minimum. We’re also working really hard on our components (artistry). We’re all working hard on those to reach that senior level.”
While quadruple jumps aren’t the end-all, be-all in singles skating, they certainly have grown in stature on the men’s circuit, in particular, and – especially in the last 12 months – on the women’s front, too, where the triple Axel is still a rarity, as well.
For Hiwatashi, he plans to do three quads between his two programs this weekend: A quad toe in his short program, and then another toe (in combination) in his free skate, followed by a quad Salchow.
“I’ve been trying to practice the quad Lutz, but I did a show (in Japan) this summer and I needed to make my (other quads) consistent,” Hiwatashi said. “The toe and Salchow are the ones I’m focusing on right now.”
Zhou, who is a freshman at Brown University, has pulled out of the grand prix this fall, saying he is focusing on school. He did not make mention of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January, where he has been on the podium the last three years.
The U.S. men have three spots for this season’s world championships in Montreal, Quebec, in March, and – if you factor in Chen, assume Zhou will be at nationals, and include “old man” Jason Brown (soon to turn 25) – the race for the two spots after Chen is fierce.
After placing fourth behind Chen, Zhou and Brown at January’s national championships, Hiwatashi won the junior world title, which he says brought about the opportunity to skate in Japan for THE ICE, a show that featured Chen and also other top international seniors, like Shoma Uon of Japan and China’s Jin Boyang.
While a junior world title can serve as a harbinger of things to come at the senior level, it’s not a guarantee, and the same goes for a junior national title, something Hiwatashi, Pulkinen, Krasnozhon and Torgashev all have.
“I think we push each other really very well,” said Hiwatashi of his generation. “Me, Camden and Andrew all train in the same place. We talk with each other, look at each other, push each other, skate with each other… we want to do our best. With Alex, he did really well at Skate America, so that pushes me, too.”
Krasnozhon skates in Dallas, at a rink that also features the fourth-place women’s finisher at this year’s nationals Hanna Harrell, as well as national competitors Amber Glenn and the pairs team Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov.
Four of those five skaters are in their teens (Mitrofanov is 22), and nine Americans skating on the senior grand prix this season are still in their teens, while another four are 21 or under, including Chen. That’s 13 skaters under the age of 22 in a sport that had a 15-year-old Olympic champion in PyeongChang… as well as 34-year-old one, too.
“Nathan obviously has set the standard for American men very high,” said Hiwatashi. “That has made me feel that I can’t reach him where I am right now, but it’s given me a reason to push myself and try to reach the top.”
“The U.S. junior men have been so strong. We’ve really (helped raise) the bar.”
Where, exactly, they will all end up is yet to be seen. Chen could be considered a once-in-a-generation athlete, which sets quite the precedent. But as has been proven across the sporting scene in general, healthy competition only brings out better athletes, and right now that is apparent among the next crop of U.S. skaters.
“We all grew up together,” said Pulkinen. “I’ve known Tomoki for so long, and I’ve known Vincent and Nathan for a long time, too. We don’t want to just improve American skating; we want to do so on a global stage. We’re pushing each other… including when we’re down and also when we are doing well. There is a camaraderie there. And that drives us more.”
Nick McCarvel is a video host and freelance reporter based in New York City. He has covered three Olympic Games, including Rio 2016 for TeamUSA.org. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @nickmccarvel as he covers the New York City Marathon this weekend for TeamUSA.org.