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[ICE TIME] Japan Contingent at Challenge Cup Led by Kaori Sakamoto

Sakamoto and Yuna Aoki will represent Japan in women's singles at the Challenge Cup, with Kazuki Tomono and Tatsuya Tsuboi set to skate in the men's event.

In a final tune-up before she embarks on her bid to become the first woman in 56 years to win three straight world titles, Kaori Sakamoto will take the ice at the Challenge Cup in Tilburg, the Netherlands, on the weekend of February 23-25. 

Sakamoto led a Japan sweep of the podium in the women's event in 2023 and will be favored to take home the gold again this time.

The 23-year-old Sakamoto, who will attempt to equal American Peggy Fleming's three straight world titles from 1966-68 when she competes at the World Figure Skating Championships (March 18-24) in Montreal, will be joined by compatriot Yuna Aoki for the trip to the northern European city. 

At the Challenge Cup, the women's short program is set for Saturday, February 24.

Sakamoto and Aoki's prime competition is likely to come from Belgium's Nina Pinzarrone, who medaled at both of her Grand Prix events in the 2023-24 season and finished fourth at the GP Final.

Kazuki Tomono and Tatsuya Tsuboi are entered in the men's competition that will begin on Friday and could both emerge with medals. The Japanese duo should see their biggest challenge come from Kazakhstan's Mikhail Shaidorov, who came in third at the Cup of China in November.

Kazuki Tomono (KYODO)

Miura, Kihara to Skip the Challenge Cup

Pairs world champions Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara, who were second at the Four Continents Championships in Shanghai in early February after their delayed start to the season, were favored to top the podium in Tilburg. But the Japan Skating Federation announced on Wednesday that they have withdrawn from the Challenge Cup to focus on training for the world championships.

With the Japanese duo sidelined, top contenders should include Italy's Sara Conti and Niccolo Macii, who took the bronze medal at the 2023 world championships.

Yuna Nagaoka and Sumitada Moriguchi, who placed fourth at the Bavarian Open in Oberstdorf, Germany, in their international pairs debut in early February, are also in the field.

Challenge Cuup
Challenge Cup women's winner Kaori Sakamoto (right) and runner-up Mai Mihara display their medals in Tilburg, Netherlands, on February 26, 2023. (KYODO)

A Look Back at the 2023 Challenge Cup

Japan took home 10 medals (including four golds) in 2023 at the Challenge Cup, with Sakamoto, Mai Mihara and Mana Kawabe sweeping women's medals, while Shun Sato and Sota Yamamoto grabbed the gold and silver in the men's battle.

The Hinomaru swept the women's juniors last year as well, with Ayumi Shibayama, Ikura Kushida and Yurina Okuno taking the honors. However, the JSF has elected not to dispatch any juniors to the competition in 2024.

Yuzuru Hanyu performs at Pisa Arena MM in Yokohama (© Sankei by Yukuto Hagiwara)
It's just a shoe!

Hanyu Speaks After Conclusion of First Solo Tour

Two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu concluded his first solo ice show tour in Yokohama on Monday, February 19. He gave his thoughts afterward in an interview posted on Web Sportiva and translated into English on fs-gossips.com.

"In this tour, with each performance, I found various challenges, achieved things, and found areas where I need to evolve," Hanyu was quoted as saying. "So, in a way, especially in the first half, I was constantly thinking about how to overcome my past self as a competitor, how to become stronger, and I think the Yokohama performance was one where I really pushed myself relentlessly and practiced with discipline."

Hanyu also discussed his routine each day in the run-up to the tour.

"I would wake up in the morning and spend an hour stretching and training," Hanyu commented. "Then I would go to the rink for three hours of training and skating, come back and train for another hour and a half. And before going to bed, I would spend another hour doing mental imagery training. I repeated days like that over and over."

Marin Honda speaks at a news conference on January 11, 2024 in Tokyo. (ⒸSANKEI)

Honda Hired as TV Reporter for Worlds

Marin Honda, the 2016 world junior champion, who announced her retirement from competition in January, has been hired as a reporter by Fuji TV for the upcoming world championships, it was revealed on February 1. 

Honda, who comes from an entertainment family that includes sisters Miyu and Sara, should slide smoothly into the role after being in the limelight for so many years.

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Author: Jack Gallagher
The author is a veteran sports journalist and one of the world's foremost figure skating experts. Find articles and podcasts by Jack on his author page, and find him on X (formerly Twitter) @sportsjapan.

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