[ICE TIME] Kaori Sakamoto, Shun Sato Triumph at Winter National Sports Festival

Sakamoto and Sato deliver strong performances in their free skate routines to win the Winter National Sports Festival women's and men's events, respectively.

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World champion Kaori Sakamoto won the women's crown at the Winter National Sports Festival figure skating competition in Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture, on Tuesday, January 31. 

The 22-year-old had a sublime free skate that gave her a 30-point margin of victory over Rinka Watanabe in the annual competition open to university and high school students.

Sakamoto's winning total score was 238.63. She landed five clean triple jumps and registered level fours on her spins and step sequence in her skate to "Elastic Heart."

Watanabe tallied 208.63, with Grand Prix Final titlist Mai Mihara taking third on 207.11. Mako Yamashita came in fourth at 193.19.

Shun Sato won the men's title in Hachinohe with 253.12 on Monday. Sato, who will turn 19 next week, rallied from fourth place after the short program to top the podium. He hit three clean quads and five triples in his performance to "Red Violin."

Sota Yamamoto came in second at 234.20, while Tatsuya Tsuboi finished third on 228.13. Kazuki Tomono was fourth with 220.39.

Mone Chiba took the high school women's event with 191.86, with Yo Takagi (172.25) coming in second and Rino Matsuike (169.90) placing third.

Tsudoi Suto won the high school men's title with 198.42, while Shunsuke Nakamura (190.03) finished second and Ryoga Morimoto (177.34) took third.

Ilia Malinin skates in the men's short program at the US Figure Skating Championships on January 27 in San Jose, California. (Kyle Terada/USA TODAY SPORTS)

Malinin Wins US Title Despite Struggles in Free Skate

Ilia Malinin captured his first senior US title with a decisive victory on Sunday, January 29 in San Jose, California. The 18-year-old, whose parents were both Olympic skaters for Uzbekistan, fell on his planned quadruple axel in his free skate but still won by more than 10 points over Jason Brown.

Malinin, whose winning total score was 287.74, landed three clean quads and earned level fours on his spins. But he also popped two jumps late in his skate to "Euphoria" at the US Figure Skating Championships.

The brash Malinin ― who refers to himself as the "Quad God" ― displayed his self-confidence in comments after his triumph when he was asked if the "Ilia Malinin era has arrived?"

"I think it is here, it will be here for a long time," Malinin replied.

Brown, who skipped the Grand Prix season, showed he still has the goods at 28 with a free skate to "The Impossible Dream" that brought fans their feet at its conclusion. This silver was his eighth career medal at the US Championships.

Brown, who maintains a significant fan base in Japan, was able to secure the result despite not attempting a quad. He did land seven clean triples and notched level fours on his spins and step sequence to finish at 277.31.

"I love performing, I love competing. And I hope it showed today," Brown stated.

US Men's Representatives for World Championships

Malinin, Brown and Andrew Torgashev, who finished third, will represent the US in the men's competition at the World Figure Skating Championships in Saitama in March.

Tomoki Hiwatashi fashioned a solid short program that put him in third place with a shot at making the US team for the worlds. But he came undone in his free skate and tumbled all the way to finish 10th.


Isabeau Levito competes in the women's free skate at the US Championships on January 27. (Josie Lepe/AP)

Levito Claims Women's Crown While Tennell Dazzles

Last season's world junior champion Isabeau Levito won the women's title at the US Championships on Friday, January 27. The 15-year-old from New Jersey hit seven clean triples and registered level fours on her spins and step sequence in her free skate to "Dulsea Si Tandra Mea Fiara." Her winning total score was 223.33.

As impressive as Levito's skating was, Bradie Tennell was the story of the event. She finished second with 213.12 after landing five clean triples in her free skate.

"I'm a new and improved Bradie," Tennell commented.

She added, "I don't put a limit on myself."

Plagued by an injury to her foot last season that caused her to miss a chance at skating in the Beijing Olympics, it looked like the two-time US champion's career was in serious trouble. But Tennell made a major decision last summer that changed everything. She moved to France and made her choreographer Benoit Richaud her full-time coach.

Richaud has quickly shown that he is more than a magical choreographer, as Tennell's results have been consistently improving this season as she worked her way back into competitive form. She was 12th at her first GP event this season, eighth at her second, then came in second at the Golden Spin in Zagreb in December.

Insights on Tennell's Performance

"Her skating had a greater maturity and finesse, with striking flow and attention to details of hand movement and body position," NBC's Phil Hersh wrote after Tennell's free skate to "Four Seasons Medley" in San Jose.

Richaud made it clear that he feels Tennell has returned to top form.

"People can see the job we did, see the improvement," Richaud was quoted as saying by Hersh. "Clearly the message tonight is Bradie is one of the best skaters in the world."

The US women's team for the worlds will be Levito, Tennell and Amber Glenn, who was third at the US Championships.

Italy's Daniel Grassl glides across the ice in the men's short program at the European Figure Skating Championships on January 25 in Espoo, Finland. (Antti Aimo-Koivisto/LEHTIKUVA/via REUTERS)

Grassl Admits Working with Russian Coach Tutberidze Created Anger

Italy's Daniel Grassl, who recently spent three weeks in Moscow training with controversial coach Eteri Tutberidze and her team, was the subject of booing and criticism for the move at the European Championships last week in Espoo, Finland.

The 20-year-old Grassl finished sixth in the final standings on Friday, January 27 after a rough short program and admitted it was a difficult week for him.

"This is probably the most difficult competition in my life," Grassl remarked in comments published by sports.ru that were translated into English and posted on fs-gossips.com. "I did not know how the public would react."

He continued by saying, "I was very afraid of the reaction of the audience. But you know, it's easy to judge and condemn when you don't know anything about an athlete, what drives them and what's inside them."

Grassl is scheduled to travel to Japan twice in the coming months for competitions.

"I am glad that today (in the free skate) I found the strength to fight," Grassl said on Friday. "The road to the Olympics is long; I try to think about it all the time. I am already thinking about the new season. There are still the world championships and the World Team Trophy ahead, but my path is a long distance. I look to the future."

Grassl Says Future Plans Undecided

Grassl was uncertain when confronted with the question of whether he would continue his association with Tutberidze.

"Where will I continue to train? Honestly, I don't know yet what I'll decide," Grassl stated. "But I'm definitely very happy that I decided to change something in my life. This is the right decision for my career. I want to progress and move forward. For me, it was an invaluable, amazing experience. Of course, it is difficult to achieve any visible changes and improvements in three weeks. More time is needed."

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 Twitter @sportsjapan.

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