Home Figure Skating News Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto reclaims national title

Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto reclaims national title

by Maria-Laura Mitsuoka
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Kaori Sakamoto

Kaori Sakamoto performs her Free Skate at the 2022-23 Japanese National Championships.

2022-23 Japanese Nationals: Women’s Recap

World Champion Kaori Sakamoto reclaimed the throne at the 91st National Championships (第91回全日本フィギュアスケート選手権大会) on Saturday. The competition was held from December 22-25 at the Towa Pharmaceutical RACTAB Dome, a centrally located arena in the metropolitan city of Osaka. Mai Mihara maintained second place throughout the event, while Mao Shimada rose from fourth to capture the bronze.

Sakamoto, who had already set the rink on fire with a masterful short program to “Rock With U/Feedback” (77.79), went all guns blazing in her free skate. She opened her routine to “Elastic Heart” with an excellent double Axel, but the triple Lutz received an edge call. However, she went on to nail the rest of her jumps, six triples total, with ease. Furthermore, she stole the audience’s breath with level-four spins and an emotional step sequence, scoring a well-deserved 155.26 for first place in the free skate and overall (233.05).

“I finally nailed all the jumps!” Sakamoto exclaimed. “This was the maximum of what I can give at the moment, but I’m sure that I can reach much higher goals. I scored higher than anticipated, as I was expecting that I wouldn’t get more than 150. I was so surprised!”

Sakamoto, along with several of the other skaters, only had a week of preparation after coming off the Grand Prix Final.

“But I had good training and was able to change my mindset,” said Sakamoto. “I had a very fulfilling training and I was able to draw success from this. I’m very relieved, the competition was good!”

The 22-year-old from Kobe was asked what led to her different hair style and makeup.

“I haven’t decided by myself, I have asked my friends for advice,” said Sakamoto. “Before nationals, I got some highlights done and for the cut, I asked my friends’ opinions. 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.”

When asked about her expressions during her performance, she responded: “I was already told that I had an intimidating expression for the last three competitions. I tried to work on that. I think I make this face when I’m focused.”

“Ten years ago, I was in their place,” said Sakamoto on her opinion of the younger skaters. “Now I’m 22. I started to understand the pressure that the older generation feels when the younger ones start to keep up with us. Not only as an Olympic and world champion, but also because this is the first time I’ve been in this situation. I’ve gotten a sense of what it’s like to feel this kind of pressure.”

Mihara sat in second after her emotional routine to music from Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence in which she earned 74.70 points. In her free skate to “El Amor Brujo,” she swept into the passionate role of a Spanish dancer. She missed the combination on the second jump (triple Lutz), and tried to tack it on later with a triple Lutz, but it was a quarter underrotated. In all, she landed six triple jumps, while displaying level four spins and footwork throughout. She scored 145.25 for second place in the free skate and overall (219.93).

“This season, I wanted to aim higher and believe in myself,” said the 2022 Four Continents Champion. “I was able to overcome many painful experiences. Compared to last year, I made big progress and went one step forward.”

“I worked on every small detail I wanted to improve since the Grand Prix Final, step by step, as I wanted to have a perfect performance,” Mihara added. “I’m glad that my legs, my body was able to keep up with Kaori!”

Sakamoto and Mihara were how they would describe each other’s strengths.

“I’ve known Mai since we both competing in the novice category and I’m always impressed by her ability to focus,” said Sakamoto. “She’s able to get into concentration mode within a few seconds and when she slips into her own world, no one and nothing can bring her out of the concentration.”

“When I’m competing with Kaori, I always feel safe,” said Mihara. “She pushes me from the beginning to the end and always reassures me. I’m so happy that we can compete together. I receive a lot of power from her.”

Mihara went on to say how “amazing” the up-and-coming junior skaters are when asked of her opinion on the younger generation.

“They’re able to land very difficult jumps very easily and I wish I could jump them as easily, too,” she said. “I thought the same when we were training together this morning. There are more and more days my body feels stiff and wouldn’t move. The juniors are as we were back then. They are very nervous to compete on such a big stage and they make a lot of experience. That is very nostalgic, and at the same time, I’m always impressed!”

In particular, the junior skaters Shimada, Ami Nakai and Mone Chiba showed impressive skating skills. Nakai and Chiba took fourth and fifth place, respectively.

Shimada was in fourth (70.28), just behind her rival Chiba (71.06) after the short program, earning more than 70 points for the first time in a national competition. In her free skate to “Passepied,” she was determined to land both first jumps—the triple Axel and quad toe, but underrotated and fell on both. Nevertheless, she was able to recover from her misfortune and finished her program without any major mistakes, landing seven clean triple jumps. With flawless spins and a clean step sequence, she told the story of a little swan child who grows into a beautiful animal. She scored 132.51 for fifth place in the free skate, but her total score of 202.79 points kept her on the podium.

“I really wanted to nail both first jumps, so I’m very disappointed,” said the 2022-23 Junior Grand Prix Final Champion. “I was in the last group for the first time, but I wanted to give everything I had. This was my first time competing in front of a very big audience and I was very nervous. In terms of my free skate, I had a very frustrating performance, but overall, I’m happy with the result.”

“I would never have expected to be selected for both junior and senior nationals,” Shimada added. “I was very surprised. As a junior, I wasn’t able to adjust my jumps, but here, I did adjust both (triple Axel and quad toe) and I made the third place. I’m very happy about the outcome!”

Nakai stood in eighth after her short to “I got Rhythm” (64.07) due to falling on the triple Axel and an edge call on the triple Lutz. However, she was determined to perform at her best in her long program to Miss Saigon. She skated a very challenging program that opened with a triple Axel-triple toe, but the biggest challenge was yet to come as she still had a second triple Axel to go. The landing was a bit shaky, but she pulled through the program without any major mistakes and finished fourth in the free skate (137.42) and overall (201.49).

“I really wanted to jump two triple Axels at the Nationals, so I was very happy that I was able to land them,” said the 14-year-old. “But I forgot to combine my last jump, the Lutz, with the double Axel. I lost about five points, that’s very frustrating.”

Chiba has a strong start after her short to Schindler’s List for third place (71.06). She landed all the jumps and took a level four for step sequence and spins. She had a good chance to make the podium, but lost a considerable amount of points in her long program to “Butterfly” after she crashed her first triple Lutz. She tacked on a triple toe to the double Axel, but it was a quarter underrotated as was the front-end of her triple Lutz-double toe-double loop. However, she showed a stunning performance until the end with beautifully-executed elements. She finished seventh (129.06) in the free skate and slipped to fourth overall (200.12).

“My first mistake was so, so, frustrating!” said Chiba. “I was able to recover and make it until the end, but I still kept asking myself, ‘Why did I fall?'”

Hanna Yoshida stood in 14th (59.49) after a disappointing short program. The triple Axel was a quarter underrotated and she fell on a triple Lutz. However, she was able to impress the judges with her free skate to music from The Planets and Star Wars. While she turned out the landing of her opening triple Axel, the skater remained focused on her performance until the very end, landing a total of seven more triple jumps. Only the triple Salchow (in combination was a double toe-double loop) was a quarter underrotated. She left the ice to thunderous applause and a third-place free skate score of 137.72. With a total score of 197.21, she catapulted to sixth place overall.

“In this competition, my condition wasn’t too good and I showed some weak spots,” said Yoshida. “So I’m happy that I was able to give a strong performance until the end. I wanted to reach a higher score. I had a few mistakes, but I did everything that was in my might.”

Yuna Aoki finished seventh overall (191.89), followed closely by Ikura Kushida (190.58) and Mana Kawabe (190.44).

Yuhana Yokoi, who finished 19th, stated that she will retiring from competitive skating. “I was thinking on focusing on shows, but as I write a lot about skating on twitter and other social media, I want to move into a new direction and show everyone the good sides of skating. No matter how much you go through in your career, it’s always a great feeling to overcome the hurdles. Everything you put into skating, comes back eventually.”

Four-time national silver medalist Wakaba Higuchi did not compete as she has been recovering from a lingering stress fracture to her right shin.

Rinka Watanabe, Chiba, and Yoshida were selected by the Japanese Figure Skating association to compete at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in February. Sakamoto, Mihara, and Watanabe will compete at the 2023 World Figure Skating Championships later in March.

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