A Talent From Tokyo: The Fumio Igarashi Story

He was nailed triple Lutzes and flips in competition at a time when many got by with Salchows and toe-loops. He was the first man from Japan to claim gold at the NHK Trophy, Skate Canada International and the Nebelhorn Trophy. At one point or another during his career, he defeated Olympic medallists Scott Hamilton, Brian OrserToller Cranston and Charlie Tickner. Yet decades later, the name Fumio Igarashi has been all but forgotten outside of his native Japan.

Born November 6, 1958 in Tokyo, Japan, Fumio was the son of an import-export executive. He first took to the ice in 1966 at the age of eight in a bustling rink in Japan's capital . Skating, suggested his family doctor, would help 'alleviate' a weight problem. He soon began taking lessons from Utaka Higuchi.

By 1974, Fumio had passed his gold test and competed in his first National Championships in Kyoto, where he placed an impressive fourth. He found success internationally in his early years as a senior competitor, competing thrice at Moscow Skate and winning the silver medal at the Coupe des Alpes in St. Gervais, France and the gold at the Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, West Germany. However, year after year at the Japanese Championships he found himself just narrowly missing a spot on the World team. "Four years in a row is a really long time... I wanted to move up," he told Libby Slater in an interview in the Fall 1979 issue of the "Canadian Skater" magazine. The icing on the cake came in 1977. After a superb free skate at that year's Japanese Championships in Tokyo, the judges yet again had him in third behind Minoru Sano and Mitsuru Matsumura. It was the third year in a row and the sting of losing the opportunity to represent his country in his home city at the World Championships that year was bitter.

In the end, there was a silver lining. At the 1977 World Championships, U.S. Assistant World Team Leader George Yonokura introduced Fumio to legendary American coach Frank Carroll. In no time flat, he put his schooling at the Keio University in Minato on hiatus and headed to Los Angeles, California to train alongside World Champion Linda Fratianne. In 1979, Carroll explained, "He needed a little bit of refinement. He's a very artistic skater anyway, and I don't think he'd ever had a teacher who's danced or done a lot of show business things before - movement, visual things. I think what he needed was that refinement; taking elements and making them not just artistic, but right. He also needed better choreography. The program he had when he came to me was hokey and unsophisticated." Under Carroll's expert tutelage, Fumio trained six hours a day in the mornings, five days a week. He didn't do off-ice training, instead spending his afternoons shopping, taking flying lessons, roller skating and like Toller Cranston (one of his idols) painting.

The move paid off in dividends. He won his first Japanese title in Kyoto in 1978, landing triple Lutzes in both programs. His win finally assured him a spot on the World team. At the 1978 World Championships in Ottawa he placed an impressive seventh, receiving scores in the free skate that were higher than Vladimir Kovalev, the reigning Olympic Silver Medallist. The following year, he won back-to-back gold medals at the Rotary Watches International and Skate Canada ahead of Americans David Santee and Charlie Tickner, both times coming from behind after the school figures with free skating performances jam packed with difficult triple jumps.

Without a doubt, figures were consistently Fumio's downfall. Frank Carroll intimated that the issue came down to focus: "He can do figures quite well but we have a little problem with consistency: when the time comes he doesn't perform them as well. He really has to work on a self-hypnotic kind of concentration - narrowing his mind down to concentrate on just what he's supposed to do, cutting out all distractions. He does that for free skating. He goes off into a trance and he goes out there and skates very well."

Fumio's fifteen minutes of fame seemed to be up quickly when, at the 1979 Japanese Championships in Tokyo, he lost his Japanese title in a close battle with Matsumura. "It was strange, but at the time I felt like I'd really won. Maybe it's because I had confidence in my skating," said a frustrated Fumio that year. After a disappointing performance in the school figures at the 1979 World Championships, he rallied back with an exceptional free skate to move up to sixth, a placement higher than his effort the year before. His effort was so well received by the usually reserved Viennese crowd that they audibly booed his low scores. Upon his return to North America, he headed to Canada to skate alongside Brian Pockar, Janet Morrissey, Lorna Wighton and John Dowding in the Minto Follies. His cowboy exhibition program was one of the biggest hits of the show.

After finishing second ahead of David Santee and Scott Hamilton at the 1979 NHK Trophy at the Mekomandi Ice Arena in Sapporo, Fumio reclaimed his National title in 1980. In doing so, he earned a coveted spot on the 1980 Japanese Olympic team. Unfortunately, in Lake Placid, he placed an unlucky thirteenth in the school figures, all but eliminating any chance of competing with the top tier of skaters. The exact same thing happened at the World Championships in Dortmund, West Germany. Again, unlucky thirteenth in the figures, he finished out of the top five at both events.

Fumio seriously contemplated quitting but driven by a passion for competition, he began working with Italian coach Carlo Fassi. In the autumn of 1980, he finished third behind Brian Pockar and Scott Hamilton at St. Ivel in England (beating Hamilton in the free skate) and first at the NHK Trophy in Sapporo ahead of Robert Wagenhoffer and Allen Schramm. After defending his Japanese title in Tokyo, he headed to the 1981 World Championships in Hartford, Connecticut, where he finished second in the short program, but dropped to fourth overall after taking two tumbles in the free skate.

Despite winning a second NHK title in the autumn of 1981 and his fourth and final Japanese title in early 1982, Fumio's swan song from the amateur ranks was unfortunately a disappointing one. After placing ahead of Brian Orser, Jozef Sabovčík and Alexandr Fadeev in the school figures at the World Championships in Copenhagen, he turned in two disappointing performances in the short program and free skate to end the event in a dismal ninth place.

Photo courtesy Radiko Co.

Fumio promptly turned professional, making his debut in the Labatt's ProSkate series in Canada, defeating his idol Toller Cranston in events held in both Edmonton and Vancouver that spring. "I was kind of lucky. I didn't expect to be first, with so many good show skaters against me," he modestly admitted in an interview with Carole Stafford in "Canadian Skater" magazine. Fumio's professional career would be short lived. He returned to Japan, finished his four-year business and accounting program at the Keio University and worked for an advertising agency. He moonlighted as a skating commentator for NHK, covering several Winter Olympic Games and World Championships for the same television station who sponsored the popular international competition he won twice back-to-back during his competitive career. In 1998, he penned a 'behind the scenes' book about the sport. He retired from commentary work around the time that the IJS system was gaining steam and was appointed as the NHK Trophy's competition chair for a time. He now runs an owl cafe in Tokyo, proving that the ambition to try new things never leaves you, whether you're skating or not.

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