Rinka Watanabe: “There were many times when I thought, ‘I want to quit.’ In the end, I thought that if I quit now, I would regret it for the rest of my life.”

Posted on 2023-07-29 • No comments yet


Interview with Rinka Watanabe.

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source: jbpress.ismedia.jp dd. 29th June 2023 by Takaomi Matsubara

“The outlook for last year’s off-season and this year’s off-season is significantly different.

“I had the opportunity to participate in many ice shows, and I am truly grateful for the wonderful experiences I’ve had. It’s been an honor,” said Rika Watanabe with a smile.

In April, she took part in the “Stars on Ice” performances in Okushu and Yokohama, and in May, she appeared in the “Ice Explosion” show in Fukuoka. Looking ahead, she has “Dream on Ice” scheduled from the end of June and “One Piece on Ice” in August. Last year, she only participated in “Dream on Ice.”

This transformation during the off-season reflects the essence of the previous season. In March’s World Championships, Rika herself described her journey as a “rapid career advancement.”

“I used to be a newcomer, inexperienced, and now I’ve come close to being a medal contender, so I think it’s quite rare to have such a career advancement within a year and a half.”

Indeed, Watanabe’s words are accurate, as she quickly rose through the ranks, not just taking a step but making a leap forward.

Winning the first Grand Prix Series title

The turning point came in September of last year at the Challenger Series Lombardia Trophy. Watanabe delivered impressive performances in both the short and free programs, successfully landing a triple axel in the free skate, and secured the victory.

“You could say that the Challenger Series marked the beginning of the story. Without that win, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to compete in subsequent events.”

The “subsequent events” refer to her qualification for the Grand Prix Series.

Originally, Watanabe wasn’t selected to participate in the Grand Prix series, but due to a withdrawal by another skater, she was given a spot at NHK Trophy. Shortly after that, she was also selected for Skate Canada, resulting in her participation in two major competitions. It was all thanks to her triumph at Lombardia Trophy.

With these opportunities, her remarkable success continued. Making her Grand Prix Series debut at Skate Canada, she came from sixth place in the short program to win the competition. At NHK Trophy, she finished ninth in the short program, but made a comeback in the free skate, securing third place in that segment and ultimately finishing fifth overall. The improvement in her free skate performance held great significance because it allowed her to qualify for the Grand Prix Final, where only the top six skaters of the series can compete.

Watanabe finished in 4th place at the Grand Prix Final, just one step away from the podium, and went on to compete in the Four Continents Championships and the World Championships, both of which were her first appearances on those stages.

She fondly recalls Skate Canada as the most memorable experience.

“It was an opportunity for many people to see me skate, and it left a deep impression on me.”

She continues with a smile, reminiscing about the joyful memories.

“At that time, I felt grateful just to be able to compete, and I didn’t feel too much pressure. To travel to Canada, you need to register an ‘ETA’ (Electronic Travel Authorization), but I didn’t receive approval until the day before departure.”

Until the last moment, she wasn’t sure if she could enter Canada and participate in the competition. It was a situation that could have caused panic or unnecessary stress for some, but Watanabe felt differently.

“I was just grateful to be able to enter Canada and compete.”

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Her most significant experience was the change in her mental aspect. Not everything went smoothly; she didn’t perform as well as she hoped at the Japanese Nationals after the Grand Prix Final and finished in 12th place.

After winning at Skate Canada, the NHK Trophy and the Japanese Nationals became competitions that she approached from a completely different standpoint. Until then, the Japanese Nationals had been the highest-level event for her, and she had never aimed for competitions beyond that, so there were some difficult moments in that regard. However, she believes that the most significant experience was the change in her mental aspect, not just at the World Championships but also in the shift in perspective and position when participating in competitions she previously couldn’t even attend. She feels that there are few things one can learn that surpass the experiences gained from participating in such competitions.

With her triple axel as her weapon, Watanabe left a strong impression last season with her performances in her short and free programs, two pieces with contrasting musical styles. Her performances exuded strong energy and joy of skating, which also contributed to her radiant presence.

Until the 2021-2022 season, she had never competed in the Grand Prix series, so what was the reason that suddenly allowed her to broaden her horizons on the world stage? Aside from her results, where did the brilliance of her performances originate from?

“At one point, I was considering quitting figure skating,” she reflects, but how did she overcome that phase?

Rika Watanabe was a highly promising athlete from an early age.

In the 2013-2014 season, when she was in fifth grade, she won the Novice B category at the Japanese Novice Championships. She was also invited to perform at the NHK Trophy exhibition, where she delighted the audience with a lively performance of “The Boogie Bumper” at the Yoyogi First Gymnasium.

However, she couldn’t continue smoothly on her path. Despite dealing with injuries, her competition results didn’t turn out as she had hoped.

Watanabe shares her experience:

“During my middle school and high school years, I spent days that didn’t live up to the vision I had for myself, thinking, ‘I should be able to achieve more.’ Looking back now, it was truly, really challenging times.”

She struggled with the gap between the ideal version of herself she wanted to be and the reality she faced. It felt as if she was drifting away from who she truly wanted to become.

After the 2016-2017 season, when she was in her second year of middle school, Rika Watanabe made a significant decision to travel to Canada and make it her training base.

“People often say it was a big decision, but for me, it didn’t feel like one. My coach told me, ‘You’re going to Canada,’ and without any hesitation, I simply said, ‘I’ll go,’ without thinking about the consequences, for better or worse,” she recalls with a laugh.

Her passion for figure skating was evident in that decision, but amidst her struggles, she was also on the verge of losing that passion.

“I started to lose confidence in myself and couldn’t see anything around me. To be honest, there were many times when I thought, ‘I’ve had enough,’ ‘I want to quit.'”

Before the 2018-2019 season, Watanabe pondered whether she should give it her all one more time or quit.

“In the end, I thought that if I quit now, I would regret it for the rest of my life.”

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In 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic spread worldwide, Rinka Watanabe was unable to return home and initially practiced at Kinoshita Academy.

“The success rate of my jumps improved, and overall quality also improved. But then, I found myself in a situation where I could perform well in practice but not in competitions.”

She finished in 27th place at the Japanese Nationals in December 2020.

In April 2021, she enrolled at Hosei University and returned to the Tokyo metropolitan area.

“Even though it was remote learning, there was a condition to attend for exams. At that time, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to practice at the MF Academy in a ‘care’ arrangement. After about two months, I felt that I wanted to dedicate my entire figure skating life here.”

The reason was not only the excellent training environment but also the encounter with Coach Kenkai Nakaba of the MF Academy. It changed her destiny.

“When I talked about being afraid of competitions, he said something that struck me. ‘Of course, there’s no guarantee of success, but just because you fail in practice doesn’t mean you’ll fail in competitions.'”

At that moment, it hit her.

“I felt a sensation as if the chains that I had been binding myself with were released. I realized that I had been putting chains on my own body, and of course, it’s something like a trauma, so occasionally, I have flashbacks. However, I am no longer bound by them.”

The symbolic event that represented the unchaining of herself was the 2021 Japanese Nationals in December. She secured the 8th place in the Short Program and in the Free Skate, she successfully landed all her jumps, including the opening triple axel, delivering a flawless performance without receiving any negative marks. Until then, she had never achieved a single-digit placement in competitions, and in the previous year, she had finished in 27th place at the same championship. However, in this particular competition, she achieved an impressive 6th place. This performance earned her the opportunity to compete at the World Junior Figure Skating Championships for the first time.

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The transformation was evident in her words during competitions. Regardless of whether things went well or not, Watanabe spoke with a positive and strong attitude.

“I think that’s the most significant change. By verbalizing my thoughts, there’s a sense of commitment to follow through with what I say. It also naturally empowers me to stay positive.”

Starting with the previous exchange, she built a trusting relationship with her coach and gained a lot, which led to her radiant performances in the last season.

“Encountering the new version of myself and facing different struggles and challenges, of course, there were different hardships. But I believe even those hardships are something you can’t truly experience unless you reach a certain level of understanding, so I feel grateful for them.”

At the age of three, she was captivated by Shizuka Arakawa’s performance in figure skating, and since then, she has been dedicated to the sport.

“I believe figure skating is a sport that can particularly stir people’s emotions. It’s a fusion of art and sport. To me, figure skating is like my life. It encompasses everything I am,” Watanabe said.

Despite the moments of contemplating quitting due to hardships, her unwavering passion for figure skating, along with relentless efforts and dedication, created the foundation for her growth. It is from this nurturing ground that her potential was brought to life, making the 2022-2023 season a testament to her progress.

“I want to aim higher and higher in the upcoming season,” she expressed.

For her short program, she continued to work with Kenji Miyamoto, while for the free program, she sought the choreography of Shae-Lynn Bourne.

This is all part of her journey to encounter a new version of herself once again.

Looking ahead with a vision of the future, Rinka Watanabe has her sights set on the upcoming season and beyond.


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