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Kaori Sakamoto sublime in Beijing; wins Grand Prix title

Kaori Sakamoto

Kaori Sakamoto of Japan poses with the flag after winning her first Grand Prix title in Beijing, China, on December 9, 2023.

2023-24 Grand Prix Final: Women

Kaori Sakamoto of Japan was sublime in her third appearance at the Grand Prix Final, taking her first title in Beijing, China, on Saturday. Belgium’s Loena Hendrickx pocketed the silver medal, while Japan’s Hana Yoshida took the bronze in her first appearance at this event.

Kaori Sakamoto

Sakamoto gave an extraordinary performance to “Baby, God Bless You” in the short program. Her opening double Axel was sensational, earning +4 grades of execution (GOE) from eight of the judges. The 2022 Olympic bronze medalist went on to land a solid triple Lutz and triple flip-triple toe. Two of the spins and footwork were graded a level four, and all elements were rewarded with no less than +2 GOEs. She placed first with a new season’s best of 77.35 points, just three points shy of personal best.

“Today I’m very satisfied because I think I was able to give my best performance,” said the 23-year-old. “In practice and before Finland, I had confidence and I wanted to connect that confidence with the competition. So, I’m happy that I was able to do that.”

Sakamoto said she wanted to meet the expectation of those around her, as well as her own.

“I was able to do well in the short in the previous Grand Prix Final,” she pointed out. “The real competition starts from here. I think I have to win against myself, so I want to focus and do my best.”

The two-time World champion was near flawless in her sensational free skate to music by Lauryn Hill. The only major error came when she stepped out of triple flip and put a hand down in the first half. The skater landed a total of six solid triple jumps, including a triple flip-triple toe. All spins and footwork were graded a level four, and she earned many high GOEs for all elements except the flip. She placed first in the free skate and overall (148.35/225.70).

“I had quite a lot of strength and ended up making a mistake in my flip and rushed it a bit, but I was able to add a double to my loop,” explained Sakamoto.

The skater was in tears in the Kiss & Cry and explained that she just wanted to “win against” herself.

“It’s the fact that I have some weaknesses which makes me want to work hard,” she pointed out. “I can work hard thanks to that.”

“This year, I had a good start with the Grand Prix,” noted Sakamoto, “so I really wanted to keep it going like that. Being able to get first place everywhere until the Final became a strength for me. So I think it will make me feel confident going forward.”

Loena Hendrickx

Hendrickx turned out her opening triple flip in the short program but was otherwise solid in her high-energy routine. She landed a double Axel and triple Lutz-triple toe and picked up a level four on her steps and flying camel spin. The steps in particular were very strong, earning high GOEs, and the 2023 World bronze medalist finished second with 73.25 points.

“I really fully enjoyed skating today,” said Hendrickx. “I think you could see it on my face. I actually came back from Cup of China very ill. I lost a lot of weight and muscles and had to build everything new again. Two weeks of training also isn’t much going into an event like this.”

“I also injured myself on my back last week while jumping the Lutz,” the 23-year-old added. “I had to leave the ice immediately, but thanks to my physiotherapist, who massages it three times a day, I can skate now.”

Hendrickx added that she felt it was amazing to have two Belgium women in the Final.

“Sometimes young skaters approach me and tell me I inspire them, and it feels great to be able to be such a person for them,” she said. “I am glad to talk to them. I am just a normal person who loves to skate just like they do.”

The 2023 Skate America champion was strong in the first half of her upbeat and fun free skate to “Break My Soul.” She opened with a solid triple Lutz-triple toe, triple flip and two double Axels. In the second half, she stepped out of a doubled Lutz and put a foot down on the last jump of a triple flip-double toe-double loop. The first jump was also landed on the quarter. However, she showed two very good level four spins, and the positive GOEs throughout her program were well rewarded. While she finished fourth (130.11) in the free skate, her total score (203.36) was enough to keep her in second position.

“Today wasn’t really my day,” said Hendrickx. “I forgot some steps before the Lutz and also in the step sequence. I had some kind of a blackout. But it’s probably easier to do the short program after coming back from illness, so I guess it’s kind of normal.”

The skater said it was nice to have a medal but would “rather have a bronze and two clean skates.”

“I will take a few days off now and then I think I have enough time to regain my strength for Europeans,” Hendrickx summed up. “I will run through a lot of free skates in order to improve my stamina.”

Hana Yoshida

Yoshida took two falls in her short program to “Koo Koo Fun,” resulting in a fourth-place finish in that segment (60.65). She went down on her opening triple Axel and the triple Lutz-triple toe. However, the 2023 Cup of China Champion didn’t give up and fought through the rest of her routine. She landed a solid triple loop and all spins and footwork were graded a level four.

“I thought I didn’t have flow a little bit, but it’s not a jump I can’t do,” she said of the triple Axel. “I think I just exposed a weaker side of it. I was able to do my spins and step without giving up until the very end, so I think that was good. Tomorrow, I want to do my best with all my might to make the most of this chance I seized and turn it into something meaningful.”

The 18-year-old said she always makes a comeback in the free skate.

“If I can bring out my own skating tomorrow, I think it will lead into a good result,” said Yoshida. “I want to do my best. But I also feel like I want to become someone who leads from the short program at the top. I still don’t have enough experience, so with this chance I seized on my own, I want to gain experience and become strong like a senior athlete. I want to become consistent, even in pro-competitions.”

Yoshida landed a triple Axel on the quarter in her free skate to “Shakuhachi” and “La Terre Vue Du Ciel.” This was the only mistake in her spectacular routine. She landed a total of seven clean triple jumps while displaying level four spins throughout. All jumps, except for the triple Axel received positive GOEs, and she scored and new personal best of 142.51. With a total score of 203.16, she moved up to the third spot on the podium.

“Although my Axel was underrotated, but I went for it with the feeling of definitely landing it,” said the skater. “I am a little frustrated about the ‘q,’ but I think I did all I can right now. Today’s performance felt really good, so I’m happy that I was able to win a medal with today’s performance. I was able to deliver what I’ve been practicing, so I think I improved in terms of my program.”

“It was a dream for me to compete on this stage,” Yoshida summed up. “I’m really happy even just by skating here. Today, second by second, I skated with that feeling of happiness. I think believing in myself is to my benefit, so I did it by just believing in myself today.”

Nina Pinzarrone

Nina Pinzarrone of Belgium put out a beautiful skate to “Charms” from the W.E. soundtrack which featured a double Axel and triple loop. She landed a triple Lutz-triple toe, but the first jump was landed on the quarter. All three spins were graded a level four, and the layback spin was rewarded with many +4 GOEs. The 2023 Grand Prix de France silver medalist placed third in the short with a new personal best of 66.72.

“I am really happy about what I showed today and that I made it here,” said the 17-year-old. “I actually felt calm today, not many nerves. I just wanted to enjoy the opportunity.”

“The last weeks were actually really tiring,” she added. “Last week I felt very exhausted, not only physically, but also mentally. But my coached helped me a lot. They told me it was normal, and indeed, it got better after just a few days and now I am really happy to be here!”

The 2023 NHK Trophy bronze medalist missed her opening triple combination in the free skate, landing a triple Lutz on the quarter and not completing the next jump. She also underrotated the back end of a triple Lutz-triple toe, but the rest of her routine to Spartacus was solid. She landed a total of five clean triple jumps and earned a level four on all spins. The layback spin in particular received many +4 GOEs.

“This is my first Grand Prix season, and I am so happy and relieved about how it went,” said Pinzarrone. “I am proud to be here! After the first jump, I didn’t feel secure enough to risk the combination, but as this happens some time in training as well, I knew how to deal with it. “I will take a few days off now, but not too much because Europeans will come very soon.”

Isabeau Levito

USAs Isabeau Levito struggled on her jumps in the short program. The 2023 Skate America silver medalist doubled a Lutz which also received an edge call, and then stepped out of a double Axel. She landed the first jump of a triple flip-double toe on the quarter. While she showed two level-four spins, the mistakes were costly, and she was sixth (56.53) going into the free skate.

“It was just a bad skate, I guess,” said the distraught 16-year-old. “It is not an excuse, but I am a little bit sick right now, but in general nothing is really wrong. Tomorrow is another day, and we will see how that goes.”

Levito was very thankful to the fans for the toys saying that they “cheered” her up a bit.

The national champion had a redemptive free skate, landing a total of seven triple jumps, including a triple Lutz-triple Salchow. The only errors were an edge call on a triple flip, landing the back end of a triple Lutz-triple toe on the quarter, as well as on a triple loop. Two spins were graded a level four in her delicate routine to The White Crow, and she was clearly happy at the end. The 2023 Grand Prix de France champion placed third (135.33) in the free skate and moved up to fifth overall (191.86).

“I felt kind of disbelieve after my program,” said Levito. “Despite usually being consistent in competition, I feel like recently I kept making little mistakes. After my skate yesterday, I felt no hope in my head. I feel so happy to think I was able to come back from that. I wanted to just skate for myself, to leave China with a happy feeling, and I did that today.”

The young skater said she loves listening to Nicki Minaj before she skates, because she is a “Girl Boss.”

“It pumps me up!” said Levito. “She released her new album yesterday, but I could only find it today. So today I listened to her new album before my skate, so thank you, Nicki! ”

The teen said that she loved her old dress but found it a bit “too much for skating” and that it didn’t fit her physique.

“So I got this new one, which feels a little lighter,” she said

Rion Sumiyoshi

Japan’s Rion Sumiyoshi was off to a good start in her short program to “Blood in the Water,” opening with a strong double Axel. She followed up with a triple flip-triple toe, but the latter jump was landed on the quarter. She then popped an intended triple Lutz which proved costly. Two of her spins were graded a level four and the 2023 Grand Prix de France bronze medalist placed fifth with 58.63 points.

“I think today’s mistakes were because I might have been too nervous and felt overwhelmed,” admitted the 20-year-old.

Sumiyoshi said that the surface of the ice felt “soft” and that if one is not conscious of it, it could lead to a mistake.

“The condition of my body isn’t bad, and emotionally I’m also in a good condition,” she said. “I want to revise today’s Lutz and give my all to the toeloop. I think I’ll be able to adjust my Lutz in the morning practice tomorrow.”

Fueled by her free skate music to “Enchantress,” the 2023 Grand Prix Espoo silver medalist opened with a solid double Axel-triple toe. She underrotated and two-footed an intended quad toe but landed a solid triple Lutz and triple toe. Unfortunately, she received no value for the latter jump as it was counted as a third triple toe. The back end of a triple flip-triple toe was also underrotated. The skater also landed the back end of a triple Salchow-double toe-double loop and triple flip on the quarter, but the spins and footwork were graded a level four. She placed sixth in the free skate and overall (121.76/180.39).

“I first have to think about what happened with my toeloop,” said Sumiyoshi. “Aside from that, there were underrotation calls. So even if I thought I landed it, I was surprised that they were underrotated. I want to work on fixing it.”

“I think it was a competition with a lot of learning opportunities,” the skater summed up. “It was my first (Grand Prix) Final, so I was able to experience what a Final is like. So, I think it was a competition that raised my level of experience a lot, leading to Nationals and also next year and onward as well.”

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