Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto is back
Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto is back after a tough first half of the season, and is now eyeing the podium at the upcoming 2023 World Figure Skating Championships in March. Last week, the reigning World Champion convincingly won her third national title with two strong performances.
Prior to winning her first world title in Montpellier, the 22-year-old from Kobe captured the bronze at the Olympic Games in Beijing in a very deep field of talented women.
“I am simply quite happy for now,” Sakamoto said in Beijing. “Ever since the last Olympics, the last four years have been very challenging, but I could work very hard because of that difficult challenge. My coaches were very helpful and didn’t give up on me. I’d like to thank them and the fact that I finished better than in Pyeongchang.”
“Last season was really the best season for me, I was more happier,” she reflected, adding that she was proud she could be a role model for her training mates. “I think it also made the girls who practice with me think ‘If I work hard, I can be like her.’ I’m glad I worked so hard and accomplished my goals!”
While Sakamoto has achieved a World title and Olympic medal, she has made it clear she is not stopping any time soon.
“There’s the fact that it hasn’t even been a year since I achieved my goal,” she pointed out. “I also want to go to the Olympics 2026 in Milan. Going towards that, I hope to do what I want to and overcome my challenges each season.”
This season, Sakamoto faced the Olympic cycle with a new look, sporting a fresh hairstyle. Additionally, she worked with different choreographers for her new programs.
“I always wanted to cut my hair,” she admitted laughing, “but the timing just didn’t work. During the Olympics, I had a phone call with my friend who said ‘why don’t you cut it after the World Championships?’ So I did. Before nationals, I got some highlights done. If I want to change my appearance, now is the time to do that. In my mind, the ideal adult woman has many different kinds of characteristics: on one hand, she should be cool, on the other voluptuous. I’m not able to pull it off, it’s very difficult, but I’m trying my best while doing it.”
For her short program, Sakamoto worked with Rohene Ward who suggested she skate to “Rock With You” and “Feedback” by Janet Jackson. He created the choreography inspired by a Janet Jackson’s music video, adding in some of her movements. It was the first time she had worked with the choreographer who is known for his work with U.S. skaters such as Jason Brown and Madison Chock/Evan Bates, just to name a few.
“I wanted to do it because it had an image that wasn’t like any song I skated to until now,” said Sakamoto of the music. “The part I like most is where the music changes into the song “Feedback” through the step sequence.”
The program got recognition from the famous singer herself, who posted a video of Sakamoto’s performance on Instagram with praise: “I LUV it Kaori! Congrats on winning the Women’s Skate America 2022! 💘💘💘”
“I couldn’t even imagine that Janet Jackson would even notice me!” Sakamoto exclaimed during the Grand Prix Final. “When I heard about it, I kind of panicked. I was so surprised!”
For her free skate, Sakamoto worked with Marie-France Dubreuil, the renowned coach and choreographer from the Ice Academy of Montreal
“When we were picking the song for my free skate, we first agreed that a song without lyrics would be better,” said Sakamoto. “However, when we couldn’t quite decide on a song, Marie-France later asked me if I liked Sia (Australian singer). That’s how we decided on going with Sia’s “Elastic Heart” and “Lovation” by Karl Hugo. Usually, she choreographs for Ice Dance, but I heard that each season she also does choreography for only one skater from singles. I was really happy to be chosen as that one person. I’m glad that we worked on it together.”
It’s apparent that both Sakamoto’s programs for this season are to songs performed by strong and powerful women. Last season, her free skate to Iman”s “No more fight left in me” and “Tris” by Ellie Golding contained the very catchy line “I love to be a woman!” When asked about the message she wants to present with her program choices, Sakamoto admitted that it was indeed no coincidence.
“I also struggled while worrying and thinking about how I could express my free program last year,” she recalled. “Thanks to Benoit Richaud, who choreographed last year’s program, I was able to bring out my own skating. He said, ‘You can just tell your own story!’ This year is like a sequel to that one, with powerful women. But while last time it was about many women, this year’s program is about only one woman who has a strong will.”
Both programs this season quickly became fan-favorites, but jump-wise, her first competitions of the season brought some unusual challenges. As such, her motto of overcoming challenges every season became important and useful.
Sakamoto started her 2022-23 campaign with a surprising loss to fellow Japanese skater Rinka Watanabe at 2022 Lombardia Trophy. While she took a win at 2022 Skate America, she went on to lose to South Korea’s Yelim Kim at 2022 NHK Trophy.
After struggling to land a clean triple-triple combination in Sapporo, doubts arose for Sakamoto.
“I feel that I’m still far away from last year’s condition,” she admitted in November. “Inside myself, there was an angel and a devil fighting each other. I want to overcome the devil.”
Nevertheless, after the Grand Prix points for the individual events were calculated, Sakamoto easily qualified for the 2022-23 Grand Prix Final in Torino. She seemed to have confronted her demons when she took the lead after the short program with a very convincing skate. But in the free, she slipped to fifth place with a skate that can only be described as a nightmare, landing only two triple jumps.
“I made mistakes at the part I already didn’t succeed in my practice,” she said of her free skate in Torino. “With only six skaters competing, it’s very close and you cannot allow yourself to do mistakes, but I did. That’s very frustrating and led to this result. I have no other choice than to accept the result. But going towards Nationals, I want to face it positively and do better!”
And she did. Sakamoto reclaimed the throne at the 91st National Championships, landing all her jumps in both programs. While the triple Lutz received an edge call in both skates, she successfully landed her triple-triple combinations.
“I had a very fulfilling training and I was able to draw success from this,” Sakamoto said in Osaka. “I’m very relieved, the competition was good.”
Even though the domestic score of 233.05 doesn’t count as an international season’s best, it is a clear sign to her competitors and makes her the heavy-favorite for her home World Championships in Saitama later in March. It will be her fourth appearance at this event, and her goals are clearly set: “Four years ago, when I took part in the World Championships in Saitama, I had failed and missed the podium,” she recalled. “I want revenge.”
While her skating career is the first priority, Sakamoto is also a student of Business Administration at Kobe Gakuin University. As most athletes will admit, balancing education, training and competing is not an easy task.
“I have to make sure that my studies do not interfere with my skating,” noted Sakamoto. “I am in the last half of my senior year, so I am really studying hard. But my coach told me that I have to step back from my studies if they have a negative impact on my skating. I can’t use my studies as an excuse to take time off from skating. I have to wake up early, do a lot of studying and then afterwards have to do a lot of training, as well.”
With this busy schedule, Sakamoto doesn’t have much free time, but when she does, she enjoys watching movies.
“It can happen that I watch like three movies, one after another,” she laughed. “Also, I like to drive around too, since I just bought a new car this year and I really enjoy that!”