Home Figure Skating News Kaori Sakamoto flies to fourth national title

Kaori Sakamoto flies to fourth national title

by Chloé Di Sanzio
Akiko Ichimori

Kaori Sakamoto wins fourth national title

Kaori Sakamoto (middle) took her fourth national title at the 2023-24 Japanese Figure Skating Championships in Nagano on December 24, 2023. Mone Chiba (left) and Mao Shimada (right) won the silver and bronze, respectively.

2023-24 Japanese Nationals: Women

Recently crowned Grand Prix Final champion Kaori Sakamoto defended her title at the 2023-24 Japanese National Championships, claiming her fourth gold medal at this event. New hope Mone Chiba finished second while Mao Shimada repeated for the bronze.

Kaori Sakamoto

Sakamoto dominated the Women’s event on Sunday, winning both the short and free segments with a huge total score of 233.12 points. She enchanted the audience with her charming short program to “Baby, God Bless You,” scoring a whopping 78.78 points. Her performance included a flowy triple flip-triple toe combination in the second half, which received +2.04 grades of execution (GOE). She went into the free skate with over an eight-point lead.

“My coach told me that I should aim for 80 points, and my score was close to that,” explained Sakamoto. “I think this score will connect to my future results. I did not feel pressured, it motivated me.”

The 2022 Olympic bronze medalist landed all seven of her jumping passes in her free skate to “Wild Is the Wind” and “Feeling Good,” choreographed by Marie-France Dubreuil. She punched her fists into the air several times at the end of her performance under thunderous applause from the crowd. She easily finished first in the free skate and overall with huge scores (154.34/233.12).

“This season, I follow the goal to win both the national championships and the world championships,” said Sakamoto with ambition. “I achieved my goal for nationals, so I am very relieved.”

The two-time World champion said she was relaxed prior to the free skate after meeting and talking to friends and taking a walk with her trainer.

“I relieved myself of stress through talking, so after that, I was able to switch,” the 23-year-old explained. “While I was performing, I didn’t think about anything. I started noticing my skating when I was already sliding in my choreo sequence. I think it was good not to have thought too much.”

Teammates Chiba and Shimada both look up to Sakamoto.

“When Kaori is off the ice, she is always very relaxed and has a very bright personality,” said Chiba with a smile. “However, when she is on the ice, she shows so much strength!”S

“Kaori has won nationals three times in a row (consecutively), so I believe she was very nervous,” added Shimada. “But even under these circumstances, she had perfect performances. That shows how strong she is mentally.”

Sakamoto was also supportive of all the other skaters who performed at the event, commenting, “Everyone who competed at nationals wants to do a good job. I think that their hard training paid off in a form of good performance.”

When asked about what kind of mindset is crucial to succeed, Sakamoto replied: “Everyone wants to have a perfect performance, but sometimes it is important to be more relaxed. If you are too (much of a) perfectionist, you push yourself too hard and will not be able to move the way you want. You should not be too strict on yourself. For example, when you usually have a few mistakes in your performance and one day have a flawless skate instead, you should tell yourself that you did a great job.”

Mone Chiba

Chiba delivered two very good performances at this event.

Attentive to detail in her choreography, she showed off her sublime skating skills in her short program to “Les Yeux Noirs (Dark Eyes).” The 2023 Four Continents bronze medalist carefully followed the rhythm of the music as she moved on the ice, landing solid jumps. She placed third in with 68.02 points.

“Since the Grand Prix in France, I felt a little unwell, but I tried to recover to come here and I had a very good training,” she shared. “This program is a new genre and I feel that with my current skating skills, I’m only able to express half of the emotions. However, I did everything I was capable of.”

In the free skate, she captivated the audience with music from The Legend of 1900 in a sparkly blue costume. The 18-year-old received a standing ovation at the end of her performance, which featured five clean triple jumps. Ending her performance with a big smile on her face, Chiba bowed to the audience, showing her appreciation. She placed second in the free skate and overall (141.25/209.27).

“My goal was to be selected for the Four Continents Championships, so I was very surprised to finish second here,” said the delighted two-time Japanese Junior medalist. “I still cannot believe that I finished second. I was able to skate just like in training. I am very relieved.”

She moved her training base to Kyoto at the beginning of the season but struggled with an injury in the first half of the season which heavily impacting her performances on the Grand Prix circuit. However, she proved to be in great form in Nagano.

“Both Grand Prix competitions were not satisfying, so I did not go into nationals with high expectations,” said Chiba, who was surprised by her results. “I was able to prepare well for the national championships, including improving my physical condition, identifying the causes, and fixing them, and raising my spirits”.

Mao Shimada

During her “Americano” short program, Shimada flawlessly landed her opening triple Axel, which received +1.71 GOE. However, she fell on a underrotated triple Lutz intended to be in combination and dropped to seventh place (65.23) after the short.

“When I make a mistake, I am very disappointed,” Shimada reflected. “Also, this time ended on a frustrating note. I failed my Lutz.”

In her free skate to “Benedictus,” the 2023 World Junior champion landed another triple Axel and received encouragements from the public. Her only mistake came when she fell on an underrotated quad toe but executed a perfectly timed spiral and ‘besti’ squat in time with the music with a big smile on her face. She finished third in the free skate and overall (136.95/202.18).

“I wasn’t nervous during the six-minute warm up, but as soon as I got on the ice, I was so nervous,” admitted the 15-year-old. “My heart was pounding; my legs were trembling. Competing together with the senior skaters, I really wanted to get closer to them, maybe that’s why I was nervous.”

“This year, many wonderful skaters were competing, and I am happy that I took third place,” the skater added. “But I am a little disappointed about my performances.”

This is only Shimada’s second appearance at the senior national championships, but she has medaled both times at just fifteen.

“I am on the podium, so I achieved my goal and that makes me happy,” she said. “However, it ended the same as last year and I also did not have a good performance, which is very disappointing.”

Rena Uezono

Rena Uezono finished in fourth place overall with 200.69 points at her first national championships at just thirteen.

The skater was solid in her short program to “New Moon (The Meadow),” landing all three jumping passes to the tune of 66.22 points.

“It was a big competition, I was very nervous, but I prepared my condition all by myself and it was a good experience,” said the skater after her short program. “The senior skaters are very experienced, and they move their bodies (very smoothly), so I learned a lot from them.”

The 2023–24 ISU Junior Grand Prix Final bronze medalist picked up 134.47 points for fourth after her free skate to “Pray” and “Mechanisms.” The debutant landed a total of six clean triple jumps, including a triple Lutz-triple toe.

“Skating in the last group was very nerve wracking,” Uezono admitted. “But I was able to skate with the best skaters and that was a good experience. I think that my strength is my experience and my speed, and that is what I want to show the audience. I am thankful to have skated with so many good skaters. I want to work hard from now on.”

Mai Mihara

Grand Prix Final champion Mai Mihara finished fifth overall (199.56) at her ninth appearance at this event. She was fourth (67.70) in the short with “q” calls on both jumps of a triple Lutz-triple toe.

The skater, who has been struggling with injury since the beginning of the season, has been very cautious in training.

“I took a lot of nutrition, drank a lot of milk and took calcium and Vitamin D,” she revealed. “I heard a lot of advice, slept a lot and thought about how to improve my condition.”

While she gave a delightful performance to Les Planètes for her free skate, it was riddled with small errors that added up. The two-time Four Continents champion managed two clean triple toes, placing fifth (131.86) in that segment. However, at the end of her performance, she joyfully threw her arms in the air as a sign of victory.

“In my practices between NHK Trophy and nationals, I didn’t have many satisfying run-throughs,” said the 24-year-old. “So, I’m very relieved that I made it to the end thanks to my coaches and everyone’s support. I was much more nervous than before my short program. My legs were trembling, and I thought to myself, ‘Oh, I’m nervous.’ I only had 30 seconds to calm down before getting to the starting position. So, I looked around and noticed how much support I get from the audience.”

Rinka Watanabe

Rinka Watanabe finished in sixth place overall (194.88), greatly improving her beating her 12th place her 12th-place finish last year.

Her short program to Avatar: The Way of the Water featured a flowy double Axel, with great distance. She received a level four on all of her spins and steps and landed her solo triple Lutz cleanly but got a “q” and underrotation call on both parts of her combination.

“The score is not a huge success, but I made some progress,” admitted Watanabe. My coach and my family really supported me. And I have a new trainer since October. I feel that my body has changed a lot since then and that I was able to regain my condition and skate the way I always wanted to. No matter how many times, how many years you skate at the nationals, you’re always nervous. To be honest, I don’t like this competition.”

Her free program “X” symbolizes her skating journey, from her junior days all the way to the senior ranks. After a fall on her opening triple Axel, Watanabe quickly recovered well and was mostly clean for the rest of the program.

“I accepted my mistake and thought about what kind of view I wanted to convey to the audience,” said the 21-year-old regarding her results. “After you make a mistake, it is not possible to go back in time.”

She had been struggling with getting her triple Axel back into shape for competitions, but she also noted the importance of balance in figure skating.

“Of course, I really want to land the triple Axel, but it’s important to nail the other jumps as well, so I want to stay calm in order to have a good performance.” she summed up. “I focused on the six other jumps and since I succeeded at them in practice, I felt confident and believed in myself.”

Hana Yoshida

Hana Yoshida took a fall on her triple Axel in the short and struggled with her combination jump, placing ninth. In her free skate, she popped her opening Axel, but managed five clean triple jumps to finish sixth. With a total score of 194.22, the 18-year-old rose up two spots to seventh overall.

“To be honest, it was a very disappointing result,” said the 2023–24 ISU Grand Prix Final bronze medalist. “But I competed at both the grand prix series and the nationals and I learned a lot from that, so it was a good experience. I didn’t feel too pressured as I’m still in a challenger position. It’s more a fight against myself. I thought that I was strong, but this time I lost to my weakness.”

Rounding out the top 10

Mako Yamashita, who stood in second after the short, finished 12th in the free skate and slipped to eighth overall (192.15).

“I’m not very good at skating the free skate, but I want to be in the last group for the coming year as well, so I want to work on reaching a better result,” said the 2018 World Junior bronze medalist. “Until last year, I lacked stamina when it came to the free skate. Now, I’m getting stronger and stronger. I thought about what to work on and I think I need to improve the timing of the Lutz in the second half.”

Yuna Aoki finished ninth (192.01) ahead of Grand Prix Finalist Rion Sumiyoshi (185.22). World medalist Wakaba Higuchi, who dealt with nerves throughout the event finished 12th (180.67).

The Japanese Skating Federation named Chiba, Mihara and Watanabe to the Four Continents Championships. Sakamoto, Yoshida and Chiba are a green light for Worlds in March.

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