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Figure skating: Kihira's hot streak cooled on worlds ice

Rika Kihira of Japan performs in the women's free program at the world figure skating championships at Saitama Super Arena, near Tokyo, on March 22, 2019. (Kyodo)

SAITAMA, Japan (Kyodo) -- Japanese teenager Rika Kihira was unable to keep alive her winning streak at international competitions when she fell short of the podium's top step at the World Figure Skating Championships on Friday.

Kihira, who finished fourth in the women's individual competition in her world championship debut, said suffering her first loss against a very-strong field of skaters from around the world is something she will not cry over.

"My coach told me to skate with appreciation to everybody who supported me along the way. And that's what I did," she said. "I have no regrets."

She missed a spot on the podium by 0.61 point as Pyeongchang Olympic gold medalist Alina Zagitova skated to her maiden championship.

Kihira, one of a handful of women with the triple axel in her repertoire, entered this tournament having written her name alongside the sport's best in her debut season on the senior international circuit.

She has dominated headlines at home as she won gold in every international competition in which she skated coming into the world championships.

The 16-year-old said before the competition got underway on home ice at Saitama Super Arena that she believed she could win a maiden world title if she keeps her performances blemish-free. Unfortunately for her, she could not.

Kihira, who came into this competition as one of the favorites, opened her short program with a mistake she "can't help but keep looking back on," singling her signature triple axel to leave herself languishing in seventh, 11.18 points behind Russia's reigning Olympic champion Zagitova after the short program.

For Kihira, the mistake took her to familiar territory. She's had trouble nailing her opening triple axel, forcing her to come from behind in four of her six victories this season.

The only time she successfully landed the triple axel in competition was at December's Grand Prix Finals, when she posted a world record short program score, becoming the third Japanese to do so since the judging system was revised before the current season.

She went on to become the first woman since Mao Asada in 2005 to win the Grand Prix Final in her debut season.

"There have been many times during my training when my triple axel didn't click," she said. "I didn't know whether I should keep practicing my triple axel or not and felt like I didn't have enough time."

"Doing the triple axel makes things more difficult," she said. "But I'm glad I believed in myself. I know that I need to keep doing better."

In September, Kihira won the Ondrej Nepala Trophy. She followed up the ISU Challenger Series competition win with another victory at the NHK Trophy, in her senior Grand Prix debut. The third win came at the Internationaux de France Grand Prix.

She also won last month's Four Continents championships and Challenge Cup.

Last season, Kihira competed on the junior circuit and was winless in major international competitions. She placed eighth in the world junior championships in March, just months before the start of her breakout season.

With Asada as her role model, Kihira showed her potential early, landing her first triple axel as a junior high school freshman.

Too young to qualify for last year's Pyeongchang Olympics, she has said her goal is to land a quad jump at the next Winter Games in Beijing.

"I have bigger goals (than the world championships)," Kihira said. "I want to have three consistent seasons and compete at the next Olympics."

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