Home Figure Skating News Kaori Sakamoto defends World title

Kaori Sakamoto defends World title

by Paula Slater
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Kaori Sakamoto defends world title

Kaori Sakamoto of Japan performs her Free Skate at the 2023 World Figure Skating Championships in Saitama, Japan.

2023 World Figure Skating Championships
Women’s Free Skate

Kaori Sakamoto of Japan defended her title at the 2023 World Figure Skating Championships on home ice in Saitama. Haein Lee of South Korea maintained second for the silver in her third appearance at this event, while Loena Hendrickx pocketed the bronze.

Kaori Sakamoto

Sakamoto singled the flip in her triple toe combination, but was otherwise solid. The 2022 Olympic bronze medalist landed a total of six triple jumps, and earned a level four on two spins and her footwork. She was awarded many positive grades of execution (GOE), particularly on the triple Lutz, triple Salchow, and footwork. The three-time national champ scored 145.37 for second place for her heartfelt routine, but her stellar short program kept her on top of the podium with an overall score of 224.61.

“The moment I popped the flip, I thought ‘I need to do the triple toe! I can’t make a mistake from here anymore,'” she said. “Instantly I told myself to forget about that mistake and refocused.”

“I really felt support from so many people,” said Sakamoto. “I was a little nervous because of that, but that gradually changed my energy and I wanted to do my best, so I really want to thank everyone for the support.”

The skater said her biggest challenge she had to overcome this season was the pressure after winning Olympic bronze and the World title.

“Unfortunately, at the beginning of the season, I couldn’t overcome that pressure,” explained Sakamoto. “I had many disappointing experiences. But now that I think of it, that was part of a good experience for me when I overcame that at Japanese Nationals.”

“My strength for this season was my experience up until today,” she summed up. “Before the Grand Prix Final, I struggled a lot. But the week into Nationals, I was able to bring my condition back up because of the experiences I had before. I remembered how to overcome that, so I was able to do that. Today in my free skate, I was nervous, but I was able to minimize my mistakes because of all the struggles and tough experiences I had.”

Haein Lee

Lee placed first in the free skate with a new personal best of 147.32. The 2023 Four Continents champion landed seven triple jumps, however, the backend of the triple Lutz-triple toe was slightly underrotated. She picked up high GOEs for her level-four footwork and change combination spin in her charismatic routine to Phantom of the Opera, and edged out Sakamoto by 1.9 points in the free skate. Here total score was 220.94, and she maintained second overall in her third appearance at this event.

Lee said that the first half of the season was “very rough” for her, but she tried not let that pull her back.

“I had a lot of troubles, especially in my condition,” shared the 17-year-old. “I was not very good. But going through that hardship, I learned how to control myself even though I feel, like, under the weather or having many troubles. I also learned how to pull myself together even though the results of the competition were not what I expected. So the tenacity and the courage to overcome my hardships were the biggest assets that I learned through this season.”

The national bronze medalist plans to “go for” the triple Axel next season.

Loena Hendrickx

With the exception of one mistake, Hendrickx delivered a tremendous performance to “Heaven” and “Fallen Angel” by Karl Hugo. She fell on a triple Lutz, but otherwise landed a triple Lutz-triple toe and three more solid triple jumps. All spins where graded a level four, earning high GOEs, and the 2022 World silver medalist finished fourth (138.48) in the the free skate and third (210.42) overall.

“It was a stupid mistake on the Lutz because I slipped off my arm,” explained the skater. “Usually, I jump with two arms up, but this time I didn’t grip my wrists good enough and I think that that was the cause for the fall. Despite the fall, I think I had a real strong program and I’m satisfied with it. And to earn a second world medal for Belgium and myself is just an amazing feeling. I’m really happy to be competing in Japan again. I really enjoyed the audience and the atmosphere here.”

The 2022-23 Grand Prix Final bronze medalist said she worked hard to overcome the pressure coming in as the defending world silver medalist.

“I know the competitions in the first half weren’t super good, but I kept working hard,” she said. “For me to overcome this was to enjoy competing more and believing in myself. That’s what I want to take with me to next season.”

Hendrickx plans to do shows during the summer and hopes there will time to take a small vacation in a sunny place.

Isabeau Levito

USA’s Isabeau Levito fell on her first jump, a triple Lutz, but quickly recovered to land five clean triple jumps, including a triple Lutz-Euler-triple Salchow. The 2022 World Junior champion, who withdrew unexpectedly from Four Continents, appeared strong. She picked up positive GOEs for all other elements, including three level-four spins and footwork. Her routine to “Dulsea Si Tandra Mea Fiara” was rewarded with 134.62 points for fifth place, but her total score of 207.65 kept her in fourth overall.

“I am severely disappointed, because I’ve been nailing my Lutz-loop for a really long time and this is the first time I’ve messed it up in a while,” said the national champion. “And of course, it had to be when it actually counted. But I’m pretty happy with myself for just trying to move past it and focus on making the most out of the rest of the program.”

Levito feels that this season she learned how to “control her emotions and suppress nerves and feelings” that were in the way.

“I got a great experience in the senior level,” she summed up. “It’s definitely a different vibe and atmosphere, walking into the rink, and I feel as though I really learned how to adjust to that during the season.”

Mai Mihara

Japan’s Mai Mihara struggled a bit in her routine to “El Amor Brujo,” placing sixth (132.24) in the free skate The 2023 Four Continents champion landed a triple flip on the quarter, as well as the backed of a double Axel-triple toe. She also two-footed and stepped out of an underrotated triple Lutz, but landed a clean triple Lutz and triple Salchow. Her three spins and footwork work graded a level four, and she earned positive GOEs throughout, particularly on the final spin. However, with a total score of 205.70, she slipped off the podium to fifth place overall.

“It’s a pity that the last part got weaker,” said Mihara. “I once again thought that I wanted to become stronger and stronger. I wasn’t able to change my mind much after I made a mistake in the jump. I was relieved that I was able to skate to the end.

Her coach, Sonoko Nakano, told her to be “strong,” but the skater said she couldn’t “make it in the second half” and that she “needed more practice.”

“After my jump mistake, I thought I’d switch with my steps,” the 2022-23 Grand Prix Final champion added. “In terms of feeling, I felt that I wanted to skate with more emotion. I will practice hard so that I can come back stronger.”

Chaeyeon Kim

Chaeyeon Kim of South Korea gave a brilliant performance, landing a total of seven solid triple jumps, including a triple Lutz-triple toe. The 2022-23 Junior Grand Prix Final bronze medalist produced level-four spins and footwork throughout her  routine to “Poeta En El Viento,” finished third in the free skate with 139.45 points. With a total score of 203.51, she catapulted from 12th to sixth place overall in her debut at this event.

“I was really happy that everything went according to my plan,” said the 16-year-old. “Performing in front of many people did not make me very nervous. I was just learning about the atmosphere and getting a good experience.”

The diminutive skater would like to work on a triple Axel or quad in the future.

Nicole Schott

Germany’s Nicole Schott delivered a beautiful routine to “Bohemian Rhapsody” performed by Daisy Gray in what was best short program of her career thus far. The two-time Olympian landed six clean triple jumps, including a triple flip-double toe-double loop and solo triple flip. Despite a one-point time deduction, she scored a new personal best of 130.47 for a ninth-place finish in the free skate, and finished seventh overall (197.76).

“I had a flow, and it worked from element to element, and I already felt good during training,” said Schott. “I’ve never done two clean programs. To be able to pull something like this off at a certain age and to show others that, as long you continue, you can reach many things… Last year I was tenth for the first time at Worlds, now in the worst case I’m eighth. That’s the best result I’ve ever achieved in my career.”

The “future is open” for the seven-time national champion.

“We need to see how the situation will develop,” said the 26-year-old. “I think everyone noticed that the situation is not great in terms of finances (in the German Federation) and we have to see what kind of solutions we have. Otherwise, it’s just a very expensive hobby.”

Rounding out the top 10

Kimmy Repond of Switzerland finished eighth overall (194.09), followed by Niina Petrokina of Estonia (193.49) and Japan’s Rinka Watanabe (192.81).

Repond said she felt “great” but was a little nervous going into the second triple flip.

“I wanted to do it perfectly,” said the skater, who earned a new personal best. “Then I just did as I always do, and being a little nervous is actually helping me to get a little more energy. I was extremely pleased.”

The Swiss skater plans to move up to the senior level next season and is hoping to be assigned to Grand Prix events.

Watanabe thrived on the energy in the arena and said she felt “satisfied” overall.

“There are parts I am not satisfied, with but even after the fall on the triple Axel, I was able to land all my other jumps,” said the 20-year-old from Chiba. “I did put my hand down on my triple flip, but this was my first experience at such a big competition. It was a great experience for me and I was able to end with a smile, so I feel good.”

While Watanabe doesn’t know when she will retire, she wants to be able to look back and have “no regrets.”

“That includes challenging myself to the limit,” she said. “I am very grateful for everyone that helped me be here, and I really want to be back next year. ”

Petrokina was extremely happy to make the top ten as this resulted in securing a second spot for Estonia.

“This was my minimum goal here,” she said. “I’m glad that I didn’t mess up anything, that was the most important for me. The errors I made came because of nerves, but I’ll work on it. This was only my second World Championship. I hope it will be better in the future, but the main thing was that I went for everything. I learned that I need to prepare even more mentally than physically for major competitions.”

Not their night

2023 European Champion Anastasiia Gubanova of Georgia and 2023 Four Continents silver medalist Yelim Kim of South Korea both struggled at this event. They finished 14th and 18th, respectively.

“I somehow did not feel well starting this morning,” confessed Gubanova. “I don’t know why, maybe just the tiredness of the whole season came together. I tried to pull myself together and it worked in the first half of the program, but not in the second half. I’ll get a little rest, then we’ll start all over again. However, maybe we  go to the World Team Trophy and then I’ll get ready for that first.”

“I don’t know what happened,” said Kim. “My practice this morning went well. I didn’t feel tired ahead of the event, but now I feel very tired. After my skate, I was very disappointed, but when I heard the cheers from the fans, it really cheered me up!”

Kim said the highlight of the season for her were the Challenger and Grand Prix series. The 20-year-old won both of her Challenger events earlier in the season before taking silver at the Grand Prix event in France and gold at NHK Trophy.

“I reached my main goal for the season, reaching the Grand Prix Final,” she said. “So, I am overall pleased. I hope to maybe compete at World Team Trophy, but after that, I want to take a break. I will get two new programs next season, but I have no idea yet about choreographers or music.”

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