Two-time world champion Kaori Sakamoto clinched a berth in the Grand Prix Final with an easy victory at the Grand Prix Espoo in Finland on Saturday, November 18. She outscored compatriot Rion Sumiyoshi by some 15 points to take the title.
With wins in both of her GP assignments this season, the 23-year-old Sakamoto will go into the GP Final, an event she has never medaled in, as the favorite.
Sakamoto's winning total score in Espoo was 205.21 points, ahead of Sumiyoshi, who was second with 190.21. Amber Glenn of the United States came in third at 185.39.
Kaori Sakamoto Achieves Goal
Sakamoto prevailed despite not having a strong free skate to "Wild Is The Wing" and "Feeling Good." She had an edge call on a triple lutz, under-rotated a triple salchow, and was a quarter rotation sort on a triple loop.
Sumiyoshi did land four clean triple jumps and earned level fours on all of her spins and step sequence, which was helped by her strong program component scores.
"This competition determines who goes to the [Grand Prix] Final," Sakamoto stated. "My goal was to win two first places and proceed to the final. I wanted to skate without major mistakes and to win and I was able to do that."
Added Sakamoto, "Hopefully it will lead to another first place in the Grand Prix Final. I will be working hard towards that."
Sumiyoshi Plagued by Jump Issues
The 18-year-old Sumiyoshi, who finished third at the Grand Prix de France in early November, will have to wait for the outcome of this week's NHK Trophy to see if she will be joining Sakamoto at the GP Final (December 7-10 in Beijing).
Sumiyoshi was plagued by jump issues in her free skate to "Enchantress by Two Steps from Hell." After landing a quadruple toe loop in France, Sumiyoshi under-rotated a total of three jumps (quad toe loop, triple lutz, triple toe loop) and fell on a triple loop. She was able to medal despite hitting only three clean triples.
"After the short program, I felt if I do everything clean, I can maybe win this," Sumiyoshi commented. "Maybe this gave me a little less concentration."
Sumiyoshi Admits She's 'Disappointed' with Performance
Sumiyoshi acknowledged that her fate in making the GP Final is out of her control. She is on the cusp of qualifying with 24 points. The only two skaters who could possibly edge her out are Belgium's Nina Pinzarrone and world silver medalist Haein Lee of South Korea, who are both competing in the NHK Trophy.
"I still have the chance to go to the Final, but I am a little disappointed about my performance today," Sumiyoshi remarked. "If I qualify for the Grand Prix Final this will be my next competition or the Japanese nationals. I want to show a perfect short and free program, including the quad."
She noted, "I will be working hard."
Beijing Olympian Mana Kawabe (161.00) struggled to a ninth-place finish in the final results after coming in last in the short program.
Miura, Sato Impress with 1-2 Finish in Finland
Miura clinched a spot in the GP Final with two excellent skates and triumphed with a score of 274.56, just over a point ahead of Sato, who was second with a personal best of 273.34. France's Kevin Aymoz took third on 250.03.
The 18-year-old Miura led after the short program but had to post a season-best score of 181.02 in his free skate to the "Attack On Titan" soundtrack to edge Sato. Miura landed three quads and six triples and was able to top the podium despite trouble with his spins, getting just a level one on the first and a level two on the second.
"I was able to show what I can do today, but my spins were not very good," Miura said. "When I go home, I will work on my spins.
"I think I made it to the Grand Prix Final, so I will work towards that and then we will have the Japanese nationals," Miura stated. "Last year I had a little disappointment at nationals and this time I want to make sure I'm performing well."
Additional Insights from Miura
Miura admitted that he was feeling pressure after Sato's fantastic free skate.
"The jump that I fell on in the warmup was the quad loop, the most difficult element I perform," Miura noted. "This competition is important for me to win, and after seeing how Shun performed, I dropped the loop to do the maximum to win."
Sato Rises to the Occasion
The 19-year-old Sato put out the best skate of his career in his performance to "Four Seasons." Opening with a titanic quad lutz, he landed two more quads and hit five clean triples in the stirring showing. He also recorded level fours on two of his spins.
"I was not nervous today," Sato commented before adding. "I am happy to give a good performance for my fans and I hope to keep the momentum. Next month we are going to have the Japanese nationals (December 20-24). This is an important competition for me and I want to condition myself for that."
Koshiro Shimada finished sixth in Espoo with 218.44, after being in fourth place following the short program.
NHK Trophy Up Next in Osaka
The GP circuit will travel to Ractab Dome in Kadoma, Osaka Prefecture, this week for the NHK Trophy (November 24-26), the last stop of the six-event campaign.
Headlining the men's competition is two-time world champion Shoma Uno and his fellow Beijing Olympic medalist Yuma Kagiyama, who are both striving to secure spots in the GP Final. Tatsuya Tsuboi will be the third Japanese man in the field
Mai Mihara, the 2022-23 season GP Final champion who missed the Grand Prix de France with an ankle injury, will headline the women's battle that will include Wakaba Higuchi and Yuna Aoki. The Japanese trio's primary competition will likely come from Pinzarrone and Lee.
Winter Youth Olympics Team Announced
The Japan Skating Federation revealed the selections for the 2024 Winter Youth Olympics (January 19–February 1) in South Korea on Sunday night following the conclusion of the Japan Junior Championships in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture.
World junior champion Mao Shimada, who won her record-equaling third straight junior title Sunday, will lead the Hinomaru squad for the Youth Olympics. The 15-year-old star will be joined by Yo Takagi in the women's competition. Ikura Kushida and Ayumi Shibayama were named the alternates in case of injury or illness.
Rio Nakata, who finished second at the Japan Junior Championships behind Shunsuke Nakamura on Sunday, will be the top man headed to South Korea, where Haru Kakiuchi will also compete. The alternates are Tsudoi Suto and Taiga Nishino.
Renowned Choreographer Richaud Gives His Views on Japanese Skating
Veteran choreographer Benoit Richaud, who has worked with many Japanese skaters in his career, provided his analysis on the state of Japanese skating in a recent interview with web Sportiva that was translated into English and posted on fs-gossips.com.
In answer to a question about the emergence of Japan's women skaters last season, Richaud stated, "It was indeed a season where the performances of Japanese skaters stood out. However, Japanese male skaters have been at a level leading the world for some time. Regarding the recent leap of Japanese female skaters, I think the absence of Russian skaters from competitions played a significant role.
"Objectively speaking, it's inevitable," Richaud continued. "Rather than saying, 'a new generation of skaters has emerged,' it's more like Japanese skaters have fit well into the vacuum created by the absence of the 'figure skating powerhouse' that has led the world for the past decade.
"Therefore, if Russian skaters return to international competitions, the sustainability of the current position of Japanese female skaters remains uncertain, in my opinion."
More Thoughts from Richaud
Richaud had some specific thoughts when questioned on what Japanese skaters could do to elevate their level going forward.
"I want to support young generation skaters to the best of my ability," Richaud commented. "When I watch junior Japanese skaters, I sometimes feel that, even in aspects other than skating, such as dress selection and hairstyle, they might be fitting into molds too much.
"However, I still sense untapped potential for them to expand their individuality. I genuinely look forward to their future growth and success."
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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.