Shingo Nishiyama thrives at the Cricket Club
About a year ago 14-year-old Japanese skater Shingo Nishiyama flew to Canada, all alone but with an ambition. His destination was the Cricket Club in Toronto where he was to work with famous mentor Brian Orser. Although Shingo has not yet reached the top, he placed third and fourth at Novice Nationals in 2013 and 2014, and this season he was ninth as a junior. He has wonderful skating skills and his own style which has earned him many supporters. Unfortunately he was injured during practice in Toronto, but lucky for me he returned to Japan for treatment. I caught up with him at the Jingu Ice Rink in Tokyo and asked him about choosing to move to Canada, his life there, his goals and more. He is ambitious, earnest, and enthusiastic and he is chasing a big dream. Here’s your chance to get to know him:
Personal story and moving to Canada
How is your injury now?
It’s all right. I will go back to Toronto soon and start full-scale practice as soon as my coaches, who are in Pyeongchang for the Olympics, will return to Toronto. Until then, I train focusing on skating without jumps.
Talk about yourself and how you got started in figure skating!
It’s a funny story. My father suggested that my family would go to an ice rink for a lesson, and we went. After that lesson, my first coach, Masahiro Kawagoe, asked me to do figure. In Japan, many people say only figure when they talk about figure skating, but I thought we would play with figures like robots or cars. So I willingly said “yes”! To my surprise, when I went to see him I found out he meant figure skating. But I was growing more and more fond of it as I learned. I was six years old at the time.
Do you have any siblings?
Yes, I have a sister who is a freshman at the university. I count on her very much especially to help with my schoolwork. I chose a correspondence high school, Hinode Gakuen, which is very supportive of me. But I am not fond of schoolwork. I am comfortable with my favorite subject history, both Japanese and world history, but, oh, I am totally bad at math!
What made you choose Hinode Gakuen?
My friend, ice dancer Aru Tateno who is training in Montreal, told me this school is very helpful. He had started training in Canada before I went there, and I trusted his advice.
Still you need to go back to Japan several times for school matters?
Yes, about three times a year for tests and other things. But it doesn’t interrupt my training much; the school helps me in many ways. I am grateful and don’t have any complaints. And while I am in Japan I get to train at the Jingu skating rink with Yutaka Higuchi.
You trained with him before going to the Cricket club. How did you decide to go there?
Mr. Higuchi suggested to me that I go. He and Brian are friends and I had been to the Cricket club summer camps since I started to train under Mr. Higuchi. I knew what it was like and of course was longing to train there in the future.
How did your family react to you moving to Canada?
At first they were not so positive, but Mr. Higuchi detailed the excellent training environment and how well it gives attention to training. He tried to convince them and finally my parents let me go. This was last January.
I noticed your mother always came to competitions with you; she must miss you a lot!
You stay with a host family, how did you find them?
When I first came to Toronto, I stayed with the family that was acquainted with Mr. Higuchi, but later I moved in with a Japanese family. I feel very comfortable there because they are taking good care of me, especially with my dietary balance. I recognize the importance of good meals after I moved to Canada. Of course, it is also very convenient for me that we speak Japanese. But I know I need to improve my English, so I will find another way to do that.
Did you fly to Canada alone?
Yes. It confirmed my resolution to work hard because my parents made such a big decision to send me off to Canada. But to tell you the truth, I missed my family a lot in the beginning, especially right after I arrived in Canada. Even now I sometimes feel that way. But I recovered very soon, perhaps in a week.
In a week! Quick recovery, wasn’t it?
Maybe because I felt like there’s no choice but to go on.
Have you made friends at the Cricket club or in Canada?
It is not easy to make friends. I would like to be friends with Junhwan [Cha, from Korea – ed], but since it’s an Olympic season he has been really concentrated on the Games. So I will try to get to know him this year. We share training sessions. Of course he’s much better than me, and I get inspired watching him. For example, when he does triple Axels, I am like, “Oh, that’s how he does it; I will try it like that too”.
Are there any other Japanese skaters at the club?
Only Yuzuru Hanyu and me, I think. Well, there are some who live in Canada, but few are on a competitive level.
Coaches, training and inspiration
Has Brian been your coach from the beginning?
Yes, Mr. Higuchi asked him to take good care of me, so he began teaching me as soon as I got there. But Tracy Wilson also works hard on my skating skills and I spend a lot of time with her. And coach Ghislain Briand teaches me jumping. And my spin coach came to Junior Nationals to take care about me.
You have a special coach for spins! How many coaches are teaching you!
There are so many coaches at the Cricket club, I don’t even recognize them all, but I think six coaches work in my team setting. It’s pretty amazing! Like Tracy works with skaters in their skating lesson, then she explains not only to each skater but also to their coaches about for example stroking when many skaters share the ice. So I think all coaches have a common perception and work together.
So basically Brian creates a team around each skater?
I guess so. It’s very convenient because I receive guidance from all directions. And what’s more, when I was injured, the orthopedic surgeon who is tied to the Cricket club immediately examined me and he also talked in depth with my coaches about my further treatment.
Once I heard Tracy say something like all she tries to do is to support Brian, and that they try to balance each other. Do you feel like they are?
Yes, I do. They say almost the same thing even when they are in different places. Tracy watches my skating strictly and gives me lots of advice, like with crossovers. She watched me and said that the way I did it wouldn’t leave me enough energy for the second half of my program. She talked about that a lot! I needed to ease up a little but at the same time use my body more efficiently with the power of my skating.
Did you understand what she meant?
Eh, no. My brain understood what she said, but the most difficult part was to make my body comply. And I still can’t! Yuzuru, Javier Fernandez, or Gabrielle Daleman always do it excellently so I watch them carefully, but it is still very difficult. I know I must aim to skate more like them.
What kind of skater do you want to be? I heard you look up Yuzuru.
Yes, I do, but I don’t want to name any particular skater idols. The skater I want to be is a skater who expresses emotions that overflow from his inner mind. I want to be a skater whose performances the audience wants to see again and again. I’ve watched many wonderful skaters at the Cricket club, in competition, and/or through TV. The skaters who I was really moved by are the ones with powerful expressions. Of course, skaters with gorgeous jumps are very cool and I definitely need to have strong jumps, but expression is the most important part for me.
Are there any skaters you’ve watched recently and felt impressed by?
Jason Brown, he is nothing short of excellent! His style is a bit different than mine but if you ask me who moved me the most, I’d name him first. And Misha Ge at Four Continents, it was fantastic!
What does your training regimen look like?
The club has a Pilates teacher whom I work with. And I spend three hours a day on the ice; one hour in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. In that time Brian takes about 30 to 40 minutes for me, however, even when he works with other skaters, he occasionally turns to me and advices me on how to jump or warns me that I do something wrong. I feel like I am always watched over by him so I can’t lose my concentration. After skating I do off-ice training for another hour.
Programs and expressions
Marin Honda once said about her “Romeo and Juliet” program, that she didn’t read the story nor watch the movie. She knew almost nothing about that famous story, but that it’s about love. All she wanted was to feel the music and display her own love story. Is that how you feel?
Yes, I guess so. I want to emphasize sensitivity. I would also like to use more facial expressions. It used to be easy when I was a novice, but now, I don’t know why but I feel like it’s not easy anymore. What I aim for is being a skater with wonderful expressiveness as well as high skating skills, and I believe I can be that skater. I would like to show beautiful performances with fingertip sensitivity.
You are wonderfully expressive, what do you do to polish your expressiveness for your programs?
Quite frankly, I don’t do anything special. I want to express something that I feel, something from my inside that happens when listening to the music. So I don’t read to deepen my understanding or think about it too much. What I want is to express what comes up from inside of me. Of course, when we choose the music, I try to learn what kind of background it has. If it is a movie soundtrack, I might watch the movie. But I will only do that much. What I want to show is what I feel from the music itself.
Your junior program The Artist from the last two seasons earned you many new fans; I was really impressed! Was it choreographed by Kenji Miyamoto?
It was. It was the kind of music that was easy for me to get into and portray the concept of. I could have been more expressive but I had my focus too much on the jumps. But if you and others liked it, it was thanks to Mr. Miyamoto giving me such intensive training. This was the first time he choreographed for me, before it was Masahiro Kawagoe and Noriko Sato.
Is Mr. Miyamoto harsh?
Well… I felt like he was intimidating, but of course he worked very hard with me, and I
learned many things from him. What I had done before was just aiming for skating without mistakes with some expression. But Kenji-sensei taught me that I should be more conscious about my body; hands and other parts. His step sequence was very intricate. As I worked with him I realized I must pay more attention to my movements if I want to compete at the top.
Your short program this last season Por Una Cabeza is also amazing.
It was not the music I really wanted to skate to, but once I began to move with it, I found it was spot on. I feel really comfortable skating to it. But I’ve had it for two seasons now so I have to change it. Loving tango so much though, I did chose tango music again for the next season.
How about your free program, Rhapsody on the theme of Paganini?
David Wilson had suggested several music pieces and I chose this one. It was music I’ve wanted to do for a long time; it’s kind of the classic of the classics. But I found it very difficult after I started on it: I had to make up a story by myself and work on the interpretation. And more, I had to deal with David’s difficult choreography! Yes, it is a very challenging program and I love it very much.
Yuzuru also skated to this music as a junior. Was that in the back of your mind?
At first, yes. I was very impressed by his performance, and it would have been very hard not to think about it; I had watched his performance repeatedly. But once I realized that I must find my own Paganini I stopped watching Yuzuru, reviewed my own performance and tried to improve my version.
What music did you choose for your free program for next season?
It's very famous music. David chose it for me and he said even for him it was the first time he created a choreo to this music. I can't divulge which music yet, for both my programs, so please look forward to find out when I show my performance.
Expression versus jumps
When did you have five triple jumps?
I think I was around thirteen, but the jumps weren’t consistent, and still aren’t. One reason is I wasn’t mentally stable yet. And I think another reason is because I was too concentrated on the jumps. I had good results as a novice, but I needed stronger jumps to compete in juniors. I have always thought: jumps, jumps, jumps, but when I do that my body kind of stiffens up. If I could use my speed instead and go into the jumps without overthinking, the success rate would go up. So my conclusion through experiences is that the more I concentrate on expression, the better I will jump.
Mao Asada said Tatiana Tarasova once told her that expression is technique; if you extend your hand three more centimeters it makes a big difference in showing your emotions.
Expression is technique… I have never thought about it like that! But it’s probably true although I don’t feel it yet. Maybe I haven’t reached that level; I have so many things to learn!
What are some of your skating challenges to work on right now?
I have so many issues to compete at the top level. I need to work on my jumps more, and I need to take on the quad someday. But last season I concentrated too much on jumps. As soon as I got to the Cricket club, I thought I had to show something that everyone could recognize. And it could be jumps, so I was kind of obsessed with it. But as I’ve watched so many performances in my spare time, I realized that the most powerful performance for me was by expressive skaters, those who express their emotions and interpret the music nicely. Then I recommitted myself to emphasize my expressiveness more than anything. I know jumps are very, very important, however, I practice jumps because they are necessary and they are my biggest challenge. But I mustn’t be overwhelmed by jumps and miss other important things. What I want to do is to express something through my skating and deliver it to all those who watch it. It is my heart and soul. While accepting this, I need to work on increasing the consistency, but jumps are not my biggest goal.
What do you do in your spare time?
I study about one hour a day after training… and I relax at home. I have more spare time here than in Japan and I can use my time more like I want. I do some stretch training by myself.
Don’t you read or watch movies? Go shopping?
No, none of that. I don’t like shopping that much, I only go if I really need to buy something. I like to sit back and do nothing. And I sleep a lot. I also watch figure skating videos, or go to the Cricket club to watch other skaters practice. There are so many good ones worth watching and when I’m there time passes very quickly.
You also have time to improve your inner expressive world.
Tell me about your goals.
My goal for next season is to compete in Senior Nationals [the top six skaters at Junior Nationals can usually compete at Senior Nationals – ed]. I think it would be the real start for me. But I also hope I can go to the Olympics Games, and before that compete in international top-level competitions like Four Continents and Worlds.
You have many fans already, how do you feel about them?
I am grateful. I really appreciate them supporting skaters like me, and I sincerely wish to respond by not forgetting my heart and soul, but show more enthusiasm in my performances so that every fan will be pleased. And I would like to have some results as well.