Riku Miura's decision to pick pairs skating over singles has proven an astute one as she and her on-ice partner Ryuichi Kihara took the honor of being the first Japanese athletes to qualify for the Beijing Winter Olympics.
The only Japanese skating pair competing in Beijing, Miura and Kihara emerged as a surprise contender for a pairs medal and "Team Riku-Ryu," as they are known at home, hope to give fans some late drama before the Chinese capital closes the curtains on the games.
The pairs short program will take place at the Capital Indoor Stadium on Friday, followed by the free skate on Saturday, one day before the closing ceremony. In that event, they will be looking to add to the bronze they picked up in the team event on Feb. 7.
As part of the Japan team, the duo had a disappointing short program in which they finished ranked fourth but they showed their ultimate potential later with a second-ranked score in the free skate, something that Miura knew they had in them.
"When we skated together for the first time, I felt like we can get to the top," the 20-year-old Miura said before the games.
Born in Hyogo Prefecture in western Japan, Miura, who started skating at age five, began her high-level career as a singles skater, then switched to pairs in 2015.
Because singles figure skaters are the sport's most prominent identities, the decision to skate with a partner was not easy to make.
But her coach and former Olympian, Takeshi Honda, who finished fourth in the men's singles at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, thought she needed a circuit-breaker and encouraged her to find a partner.
"This doesn't make you a loser. It's better to regret doing it than to regret not doing it," he told her.
Miura took his word for it and tried out with her current partner, who had twice competed on Japan's Olympic team. They teamed up in 2019.
Size does matter in couples skating, and unison is key in pairs. Miura is petite at 145 centimeters, and Honda thought her small but muscular frame could be ideal for a pairs skater.
In pairs skating, the female partner is lifted overhead, spun around in the air, and even thrown into mid-air rotations. The less she weighs, the easier it is for her partner to manhandle her.
Kihara, who is nine years older than Miura, is 30 centimeters taller, a good combination in pairs, a discipline which looks favorably on couples with a large height difference.
Both pairs figure skating and ice dance feature a man and a woman competing together and skating to music, and they can look almost identical.
But ice dancers are not allowed to jump, and partners are almost always physically connected in some sort of hold. Rather than focusing on big jumps and throws, ice dancing focuses on maintaining rhythm and using intricate footwork.
Miura and Kihara, who both competed internationally with other partners in the past, moved their training base to Canada due to the shortage of training centers and coaches with experience in pairs skating in Japan.
They contributed personal best performances in the Beijing Games team event short and free skates that delivered 16 of Japan's 63 team points.
"Miura and Kihara, the true stars of pairs skating this season," tweeted Meagan Duhamel, who helped Canada win gold in the team event and took bronze in pairs at the Pyeongchang Games.
Honda is also pleased with the new partnership and the intriguing potential of the team.
"They're the first pairs team (from Japan) to have a real chance against world-class pairs. I'm glad I made her say yes at that time," Honda said.