Bruno Marcotte on Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara: “What really sets them apart is the lightning that happens when they skate together”

We’re talking to Bruno Marcotte literally 15 minutes after his students, Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara, had been crowned Grand Prix Final champions in Olympic Palavela in Torino, Italy.

Little after their relieved reaction in the Kiss and Cry seeing their scores and realizing that they won, little after Bruno’s emotional tears watching them skate, watching them win, and then, students and coach, head to head, sharing an embrace and a small talk in the semi-shadow of the arena.

And, for a moment, we wish we were a butterfly on Riku’s shoulder, to share with them that tiny moment that felt so precious.

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With the students in the next room, already answering their first questions as Grand Prix Final champions, coach Bruno Marcotte does an assessment of his own – and we also travel into the journey of this very special partnership, right from the start.

And the start is not in August 2019, as you would expect.

The start is when Riku was 12 years old and she was skating as a single skater at one of Bruno’s seminars in Japan – and then becoming a pair skater, alongside Shoya Ichihashi, and travelling to Canada, for two weeks, for three weeks at a time, to be trained by Bruno.

And the start is also in Ryuichi Kihara, a former single skater learning to be a pair skater alongside 2012 World bronze medalist Narumi Tahakashi, then skating with Miu Suzaki for a couple of seasons – until trying out with Riku, more like a fortunate stroke of serendipity, at Bruno’s request, in May 2019.

“They skated an hour, and I was like: Oh, My God!

And Bruno is the first to recognize the importance of those previous layers of experience, of the skaters’ determination to carry on, to keep on dreaming – and we acknowledge it with joy: without so many moments of Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara’s separate careers, without their efforts and their journeys, there wouldn’t be now the Riku & Ryuichi as we know it, and their “amazing chemistry”, the coach says, and the level of performing “always ON”, as the skaters themselves describe it.

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One thing you’ll notice for yourselves: this interview with Bruno Marcotte feels so raw, so genuine – and it’s exactly that.

No wonder: the coach has barely had the time to gather his thoughts, his emotions in one place – what follows are his immediate reactions to his students’ success in Torino and their historical Grand Prix Final gold for Japanese pairs skating.

And you will hear many “we” in this recount of a career – they are indeed a team: “We’re here, how can we get there?”, “We lost levels in the short program yesterday”, “We’re gonna go home and we’re gonna fix a few things” – but also a lot of “they” and “them”, and utter amazement at Riku and Ryuichi’s ability to create magic.

“They take us into their own little world. That there’s nothing else around, there’s no judges, there’s nobody – but it’s just their little magical moment”.

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Unexpectedly, this conversation with Bruno Marcotte, right at the end of the pairs’ final in Torino, touches some of the other finalists as well: Niccolò, Filippo, Rebecca, Maxime, Deanna. Some have connections with Bruno’s pair seminars in the past, some have not, but all have a thing in common, just like Riku and Ryuichi: they never stopped believing and dreaming.

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But first and foremost, this interview is about Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara, the Japanese pair that, only in their fourth international season, has been really making waves – emotional waves – in the skating world at the moment.

Hearing him talk, you’ll understand: Bruno Marcotte is in awe with his team.

We all are.

Riku and Ryuichi, triumphant in Torino. Photo © International Skating Union

Interview by Florentina Tone / Torino

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Bruno, you must be a very proud coach right now, with Riku and Ryuichi winning the Grand Prix Final title here in Torino – we’re literally just minutes away from the victory ceremony. And, if you allow me, and if our collective ears can hear it too, what did you tell your students at the end of the ceremony?

[Bruno is smiling]: First of all, they need to understand that they don’t have to be perfect to be good.

Because they’re the kind of team that trains quite well. They’re the kind of team that usually does at competition what they do in practice. We say: You practice like you compete – you compete like you practice. You know? You wanna do the same.

And they’re two people with amazing chemistry, and very strong mentally – but when Riku came out of the ice at Worlds in France last year, she said to me: I’m not angry about the mistake, I’m angry about my mindset. After the mistake, I did not think good – I was thinking about the mistake, instead of just forget and carry on. This is why we say: Short term memory – you have to forget and be in the moment.

And so, minutes ago, I told her: Today you showed such strong mental strength. After her mistake here, in Torino, she showed she’s learned from Worlds – and I was extremely proud of her.

And I also told Ryuichi: Don’t be so hard on yourself! And I said: Please, enjoy this moment, because you worked so hard for it.

Because Ryuichi is usually hard on himself?

Always. They both are hard on themselves.

Not in a bad way – but I told them: Please, enjoy this moment because you worked hard and you deserve it. And then, after that, we will chat and we’ll go over and make adjustments for next time.

But for now: You deserve this, please enjoy it.

Pouring emotions realizing that they won – December 2022, Grand Prix Final, Torino. Photo © International Skating Union

Riku did say in the press conference here, in Torino, after the short program, that she was very nervous right before the performance – and she might have carried that nervousness for the free skate as well… And maybe they were both nervous under these new circumstances, entering the free skate as favorites to win the Grand Prix Final gold…

She was more or less the same, but he was definitely more serious than he usually is.

I mean, he usually makes a few jokes before… – today, not much jokes.

And, as a coach, when that happens, you analyze it and, sometimes you step in, sometimes you don’t… I mean, even for me as a coach, every competition I learn about them – and so one thing is for sure: the next time I will see him a little bit less chatty, I will definitely make him chat [laughing].

“THEY TAKE US INTO THEIR OWN LITTLE WORLD”

Because you talked about the chemistry they have, I have to ask you that: what do you feel when you watch them skate? Because to us, watching them is always an emotional experience – but how is it for you? Is it a combination of stress, the coach’s stress, and utter joy… how is it?

Yeah, stress, for sure, because I want so much the best for them – they deserve it and they’re such great people.

But if I let go of and just focus on them – which I was able to do yesterday, in the short, a little bit; today, not so much [smiling] – they take us into their own little world. That there’s nothing else around, there’s no judges, there’s nobody – but it’s just their little magical moment.

[and Bruno almost whispers the answer, as if he didn’t want to disturb the magic of the moment that he recreated in his mind].

But how do they do that? How are they able to create that? Because they’re such a young team compared to so many others teams out there, they’re only in their fourth season together…

They’re a young team, yes – but I think it’s just that: chemistry.

It’s like: you match.

It’s like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones… Like: I don’t think Mick Jagger is the best singer, Keith Richards is maybe not the best guitar, they’re great, no doubt – but together they make it the best.

And sometimes, as a pair coach, you put together an amazing girl with an amazing boy, and they just don’t match.

With them, with Riku and Ryuichi, their personalities – they match.

They have the same commitment, the same goals, but also the same philosophy on how to get there.

And they also buy into my philosophy on how to do things, and what kind of mindset I expect, you know?

I think to be able to create magic in competition we need to be able to create that same magic at home also.

So we do work on that. And I demand – I mean, I don’t demand the magic [smiling], but I demand this connection that they need to try to constantly work on.

Because everybody’s got something special, you know? Eric and Meagan had the throw quad and the triple Lutz side by side. With some other team, it’s their lines…

With Riku and Ryuichi, it’s their passion.

Technically, they’re extremely fast, and there’s so many things they have – but what really sets them apart is the lightning that happens when they skate together.

“THEY SKATED AN HOUR, AND I WAS LIKE: OH, MY GOD!”

But how did this partnership start? Let’s have a journey into memories – no better time like the present!

Wow! [Bruno starts laughing – he seems a bit overwhelmed with the question, and the mission to summarize it all]

Not the longest version, but still… You started working with them in August 2019, right?

Yeah, but waaay, way before that, way back in the days, I used to work with Mervin and Narumi.

So that’s when I was lucky enough to start having a relationship with the Japanese Skating Federation.

Narumi Takahashi and Mervin Tran, the bronze medalists at Worlds in France in 2012…

Yes, exactly.

And, from that moment, I started to do some camps in Japan, to try to promote pairs skating.

And I got to meet Riku when she was 12 years old.

She was a single skater back then – and, at some point, I put her with a boy, not Ryuichi, and they would come to see me, I would go and work with them in Japan… When she was 14, they would come to Canada for two weeks, three weeks…

This was Riku and her previous partner, Shoya Ichihashi…

Yes, and they did Junior Grand Prix together, they did Junior Worlds [Riku Miura and Shoya Ichihashi competed at three editions of the Junior Worlds, in 2017-2019 – editor’s note] – but, you see, that team did not have the chemistry. They were both good skaters, but the chemistry was not there.

And I had also been knowing Ryuichi for a while. I had never worked with him before – but he took part in one of my camps also, when he was younger.

And, in May 2019, I was in Japan – and it happened that… Ryuichi was there, Riku was there, I was there, so I asked them if they could skate an hour together.

And they skated an hour, and I was like: Oh, My God!

It was obvious they matched!

Yeah! I was like: That could be good!

But, technically, Riku was not broken up with her previous partner yet, while Ryuichi was trying to figure out if he was going to retire or not.

They were both trying to find their way.

And not so long after, I got a message that Riku’s partnership ended – I asked her what was happening and she said: Well, my English is not very good, can you call Takeshi?

Takeshi Honda has been their coach, and me and Takeshi, we’ve known each other for so many years – so I said: No problem! And I called Takeshi, we started talking, and Takeshi was like: Do you think it’s a good idea for Riku and Ryuichi to skate together? I said: I think so!

Two weeks later, they moved full time to train with me in Canada!

“AT 2021 WORLDS IN STOCKHOLM, THEY WERE THE TALK!”

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A thing that Riku also mentioned in the press conference here at the Grand Prix Final is that, at the beginning, they had their struggles, their doubts and challenges to overcome. At the same time, the start of their career kind of coincided with everything that happened in the world: they came to you in August 2019, and then, six months later, the world started shutting down because of COVID, competitions were cancelled… Looking back at those early times of Riku and Ryuichi’s career, what do you see?

I have to say that their first year [2019/2020] was OK, for a young team.

Not spectacular, but good – and, at home, you could see that everything was going in the right direction.

But then COVID hit.

And COVID did affect a lot of Canadian skaters. But for them… it did not affect them.

It might have given them some additional time to work on themselves, on their very young partnership…

Yes, for us it was good!

They stayed in Canada – because they knew if they left, they could not reenter. So they stayed, and I think that’s when they got even closer, they had each other and…

True, we had three months with no skating, but we could do off-ice – and, when we started skating, we would maximize what we could do.

And later on, when we went to Worlds in Stockholm, in March 2021, they skated OK, but the practice… they were good! And they were the talk! The talk of the week, you know? [proud, convincing voice]

It happens with the good teams, whose qualities strike you from the start…

Exactly! People were like: Oh, My God! Who are they?

And judges would come to me, and other coaches as well…

It was not their greatest performance overall, but they finished 10th in the world, they qualified for the Olympics – and it was the first time that Ryuichi ever qualified for the long program at Worlds! He’d never qualified for the long before…

[With his previous partners, Ryuichi Kihara went to three editions of the World Championships. His first partner was Narumi Takahashi – and they would finish 17th at 2014 Worlds, and 19th at 2015 Worlds. He then skated with Miu Suzaki – and they finished 2018 Worlds on 24th place and withdrew from 2019 Worlds in Saitama, due to consequences of a concussion that Ryuichi sustained in practice at the time – editor’s note.]

And I think, even though it was not perfect [2021 Worlds] was still a breakthrough for them.

Riku Miura, Ryuichi Kihara and Bruno Marcotte at 2021 Worlds – this very young team made quite an impression in Stockholm. Photo © International Skating Union

After that, they went to Japan, we did a lot of remote [training], and when they came back, they went into the US first, because they could not enter Canada yet.

So I went to the US to work with them, and my friend Bobby Martin helped me out – and then, as soon as the border opened, they came in.

Surely, that wasn’t easy for any of you – but did they ever become unmotivated in this whole journey? Training alone in Japan, trying to get back in Canada? How did you manage to keep them afloat?

The fact that they were training alone for a while, that was indeed a challenge. While they were in Japan, they did not lose [their skills], but they did not progress either – they maintained.

And their biggest fear back then was to lose their skills – sometimes, I would spend an hour just talking to them. Not coaching, just talking about relationship, talking about everything else, looking at the future.

But it was hard, right? Back then, during the COVID, to think there would be hope…

And when they finally returned to Canada, they were so happy to be back, they were so grateful!

And then we went to [2021] Skate America and then… Oh, My God! You know?

But I knew! I knew that one day they could be where they are!

2021/2022 SEASON – COUNTING (HISTORICAL) MEDALS. THEIR TIME HAD COME

»» Gold at 2021 CS Autumn Classic International
»» Silver at 2021 Skate America: the first medal for Japan in the pairs’ event on the Grand Prix circuit since 2011
»» Bronze at 2021 NHK Trophy
»» Bronze in the team event at 2022 Olympics in Beijing: the first time Japan won a medal in the team event
»» Silver at 2022 Worlds: second Japanese team to win a World medal and the first one to take the World silver

Flying high at 2021 Skate America in Las Vegas, Nevada

Thrilled Riku and Ryuichi at the end of their free skate at 2021 Skate America

One for all, and all for one. Ecstatic team winning historical silver at 2021 Skate America. Photos © International Skating Union

Skating as if they were home – and they were indeed home: Riku and Ryuichi at 2021 NHK Trophy in Tokyo

Reacting to their bronze medal at 2021 NHK Trophy in Japan. Photos © International Skating Union

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Hands in the air, celebrating Team Japan’s bronze medal at 2022 Olympics

Bursting with joy, with enthusiasm while skating their short program in Montpellier, at 2022 Worlds

Riku and Ryuichi – they’re one of the big teams now: silver medalists at 2022 Worlds

The world is surely more sparkling if you look at it through silver lens. Photos © International Skating Union

FROM HIGHEST HIGH TO LOWEST LOW: RIKU’S SHOULDER INJURY

Looking at 2021/2022 season, one can say it was equally their breakthrough season, but also their confirmation season already, and they finished it with a silver medal at Worlds in Montpellier. At the end of it – and preparing the next season, this one – did you feel you had additional responsibility towards them? In making the programs, in working with them, in keeping them motivated?

Well, the responsibility is: you always want to push yourself! You always want to come up with something new, you want to up the technical skills, you want all of these!

So when they came back from Worlds and from their tour, things were really amazing!

We were working on new elements, new lift, new jumps – so I really felt… [exhaling with relief] not the pressure, but I really felt: OK, we’re working!

Because when you start, it’s easy to grow – but then you have to work really hard for a little growth.

And then…

It was end of June, early July 2022, I will never forget it [Bruno’s voice is really telling], I’m at a competition, they went to do Stars on Ice in Japan for two weeks – and I get a phone call from Ryuichi: Riku just hurt herself, we’ll find out more tomorrow.

And there was a tear in the ligament of the shoulder.

So that was probably the lowest they ever got, because things were going so well, they were such in their groove – and then we did not know if we’re gonna be ready for the first Grand Prix.

I was pretty confident for [2022] NHK Trophy, but not so much for the first one.

They only started working on elements in September 2022, if I read that right…

Skate Canada was our fourth run-through!

And we’re still young, you know? Like: honestly!

And, right from the get go, I said: You know? The focus is not the Grand Prix Final – the focus is Worlds. And so we need to make sure we’re not going too fast – if you’re not ready for Skate Canada, it is what it is.

And elements came back quite fast, but to restart the program, that was a process.

I would say: five days before Skate Canada, that’s when the confidence was coming back, the confidence to be competitive.

Five days?

I know!

Five days before a Grand Prix, one (like me) starts packing already.

Yeah, it was close.

But, again, I was like: You know? You can let go.

You can’t have expectations – you gotta be the best that you can be at this moment, now! That’s all you can worry about.

And Skate Canada went quite well, they came back – and, at this point [December 2022], the injury is getting better every day.

A photo to frame: Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara won the gold medal at 2022 Skate Canada – their first Grand Prix gold – and the first Japanese pair ever to do so in the history of the discipline

“THE QUIETNESS OF THE TEAM, WHILE ALSO PRODUCING POWER AND SPEED”

There’s something that I want to ask you for a while now – every season, and this season in particular, their programs feel so them. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” in the short, “Two” in the free – they seem to really talk about connection, about partnership, about being two, travelling in two. It was planned to be like that, right?

Yes, definitely – their programs were meant to talk about them, and maximize their strengths.

The short program was my idea, the long program was my sister’s idea. And it’s important to do a different style, I agree – but it’s also important to find a style that we know that they’re gonna be confident with. This is the number one thing.

And I know this style works for them, and because Worlds are in Japan this season, it was really important to have something that they love, and it’s truly them.

Next year, we’ll see – probably change a little bit, maybe be more risky, but I think, when my sister and I decide with them, when we try to come up with the concept, the number one thing is to choose something that they gonna love.

Because it’s their thing – it’s their story.

And my idea of the short… the music is very soft at the beginning – and it was on purpose!

Because I find that, when you watch them skate, they’re so quiet – and that was the strategy behind the quiet music: so people can really appreciate the quietness of the team, while also producing power and speed.

“MY PERSONALITY AND MY STYLE WORK WITH THEIR PERSONALITY AND THEIR STYLE”

Bruno, how do you work with them? Are they easy going, are they stubborn – how are they? In the Kiss and Cry, in the press conferences, they feel very strong-minded, very determined…

Of course, of course! But I am too! [laughing]

But again, it’s the same thing: you can be the best coach in the world, but you don’t necessarily are the best coach for everybody.

Everybody’s got personality that matches with a different coach.

And I think my personality and my style work with their personality and their style.

And I am a firm believer of creating a routine. No surprises – like: every day they know what to expect.

And especially Ryuichi, he loves to follow the routine, he loves that it’s the same, you know? That they come to the rink at the same time, that every Monday is more or less the same…

Some people, I see them for a session, some people, I see them in the second session – but with them, I see them at the same time every day, I work with them at the same time every day. And I think they do enjoy that.

Of course, we’ll adjust things, the level of the intensity will change – but their big picture is that continuity in what they do.

And I also think that for us it’s a lot of respect, a lot of trust, and a lot of love.

Fast-forward to a photo from 2023 Four Continents, this February, that says exactly that: respect, trust, love, the very essence of this partnership. Photo © International Skating Union

“THE FOCUS IS ALWAYS ABOUT BEING THE BEST VERSION OF THEMSELVES.
AND IF THE BEST VERSION OF THEMSELVES MEANS WORLD CHAMPIONS, THEN GREAT!”

If you travel to their beginnings as a team, do you see any changes, even subtle changes, there? I guess what I wanna ask is: how are they now compared to the Riku and Ryuichi that you started working full time in August 2019?

[Bruno is smiling]: I mean, there’s more trust, there’s more love, everything I said more – and I think it keeps growing, which is great.

I think for us, my biggest challenge – because they’re getting quite popular in Japan – would be to…

…To keep them grounded.

Exactly.

And that I stay honest with them, I think it’s important. And they let me be honest with them.

And, as long as this happens, they will keep improving – and I think they will.

Where are they now, in terms of potential, possibilities? What do you see in their future?

There’s more, there’s so much more! Like: potential is great, but I think there are things they can do at home that we don’t even try here.

There’s a lot more that they can do, for sure.

Because we won Skate Canada, we won NHK, and we came back and we asked ourselves: How can we be better? How can this be better? How can we fix this?

And, you know, we lost levels in the short program yesterday [at the Grand Prix Final], so when we come back, that’s the first thing we’re gonna address. We’re not gonna talk about the fact that they won, you know?

Oh, that’s a good strategy, actually! Maybe let them enjoy a bit and then…

[Laughing] Yes, now!

But when we come back, this is over.

The focus is always… It’s not about being the best in the world – it’s about being the best version of themselves. And that’s it. And if the best version of themselves means World champions, then great!

Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara, 2022 Grand Prix Final champions, alongside Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier (silver) and Sara Conti and Niccolò Macii (bronze). Photo © International Skating Union

ON THE POWER OF DREAMS. “IT’S ALL PEOPLE THAT HAVE STUCK TOGETHER!”

Is 2026 Milano-Cortina somewhere at the back of your mind? Or are you just taking it step by step, season by season?

I mean, Milano becomes more about… Me and my sister we’ll talk about it for concept, because you want the ultimate concept for the Olympics, right?

But I think for us it’s always been the short term, medium short term [goals].

It’s like: OK, we’re here – how can we get there? From there – there.

When they used to score like 60 points, we never said: OK, let’s score 75! No, we said: How can we get from 60 to 65? Then: How can we get from 65 to 70?

The focus has always been on us.

And, don’t get me wrong, I’m aware of all the other teams, and what they can do – and today [free skate day at 2022 Grand Prix Final in Torino] was great! With all these teams that I respect so much, coaches that I respect so much.

The thing that’s been amazing this week is that most of these people have a lot of things in common.

It’s all people that have… stuck together!

You know, Niccolò [Macii], I remember he used to come to my seminars in Berlin – and I remember him from the Junior Grand Prix, and then he disappeared!

Not disappeared, but we didn’t see him internationally, because he couldn’t find a partner, and then, all of a sudden, boom!

And he’s here because he never stopped believing and dreaming! And this is beautiful!

And same thing with Rebecca [Ghilardi] and Filippo [Ambrosini] – I mean, Rebecca came to Montreal, in my school, when she was a single skater, a long time ago. Filippo, again, he would come to my seminars, he went to train in Boston – and then boom! He’s here, they’re here, and this is amazing!

Same thing with Max and Deanna – they all have such amazing stories!

Apart from Brandon and Alexa, all teams were in a position that they’ve never been before, hence the nerves in today’s free skates…

And Ryuichi, same thing! He had two partners, never accomplished his potential – and now that he is skating with Riku…

About that, I remember Narumi Takahashi jokingly saying at some point, while congratulating Ryuichi, that he was never that good when he was skating with her [both smiling here]. Narumi was great with Mervin Tran, on the other hand!

It’s funny, because Narumi was great, Mervin was great, Mervin and Narumi were special! – but then Mervin with other people… not the same! And Narumi, the same thing.

But that’s OK – and everything happens for a reason. Because without Narumi skating with Ryuichi, there’s no Ryuichi [smiling].

Leaving Torino, what’s next for Riku and Ryuichi?

We’re gonna come home, we’re gonna fix a few things, they’re going to do Japanese Nationals – and then we’re gonna get ready for Four Continents and the beginning of the second season, like we say.

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MORE PHOTOS FROM TORINO

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In the meantime, Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara travelled to Japan, for Nationals, in December, but ended up not competing, their luggage being lost on the way.

This February, they entered 2023 Four Continents in Colorado Springs as heavy favorites to win the gold medal and did just that – another historical first for a Japanese pair.

On March 22nd, in Saitama, Japan, they’ll take the ice for their short program at 2023 Worlds, their third Worlds together and their first major event on home ground.

Up until now, their season is golden.

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[Interview by Florentina Tone © Inside Skating
Photos by Alberto Ponti, C. Nguyen
Other photos by International Skating Union
Homepage photo by Alberto Ponti
Featured photo © International Skating Union]