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Figure Skating

Kaori Sakamoto Reigns Again at Japan Championships with Huge Score

Kobe native Sakamoto triumphed for the third straight year at the Japan Championships as she exhibited her superior skating skills in the runaway victory.

Two-time world champion Kaori Sakamoto won her fourth national title by a large margin with a solid free skate at the Japan Championships at Big Hat Ice Arena in Nagano on Sunday night, December 24. 

Sakamoto claimed her third straight crown by more than 23 points before a packed house that gave her performance a standing ovation.

The Kobe native's winning total score was 233.12 points, well in front of Mone Chiba, who finished second with 209.27. World junior champion Mao Shimada came in third for the second straight year at 202.18.

Japan Championships
Japan Championships women's champion Kaori Sakamoto (center), silver medalist Mone Chiba (left) and third-place finisher Mao Shimada display their medals after the competition. (KYODO)

Junior Rena Uezono took fourth on 200.69, while Mai Mihara finished fifth at 199.56. Rinka Watanabe was sixth with 194.88, while Hana Yoshida, a strong contender to earn a spot on Japan's team for the 2024 World Figure Skating Championships coming in, ended up seventh on 194.22.

Mako Yamashita, who was second after the short program, wound up eighth at 192.15.

Sakamoto Staves off Stress on Way to Another Win

There was not much drama at the top this night, as the 23-year-old Sakamoto showed off her superior skating skills in a runaway victory. She skated to "Wild Is The Wing" and "Feeling Good" and calmly rattled off the elements of her program like a singer performing the lyrics of their favorite song.

The Beijing Olympic bronze medalist landed six clean triples and earned a level four on her step sequence on the way to the triumph. Sakamoto had a few issues on her spins, but it didn't matter in the end.

Japan Championships
Kaori Sakamoto reacts after a strong performance in her free skate routine. (KYODO)

"I was worried about how I would do in the free skate, but I was relieved that I was able to finish without making any major mistakes," Sakamoto stated. "After having mixed feelings about my (morning) practice, I relaxed, met some friends and talked to them, and took a walk with my trainer.

"I relieved myself of stress through talking, so after that I was able to switch (my feelings)."

Sakamoto said her free skate passed by quickly.

"While I was performing, I didn't think about anything," Sakamoto commented. "I started noticing my skating when I was already skating in my choreo sequence. It was good not to have thought too much."

Japan Championships
Mone Chiba performs her free skate program. (KYODO)

Watershed Moment for Chiba in Glare of Spotlight

Chiba came into her own this evening with a wonderful effort to a selection of music by Ennio Morricone. The 18-year-old, who was third after the short program, moved up a place by hitting five triples and notching level fours on all of her spins. She was judged a quarter rotation short on one of her triple lutzes and received an edge call on the other.

The teen struggled through the 2023-24 Grand Prix season, placing sixth and ninth in her two events, while admitting that she was not prepared to skate on such a big stage. But it was a different story in Nagano, where she put together two fine programs in a pressure-packed competition.

"When I get exhausted during my performance, I have the habit of pulling up my shoulders and that's not beautiful, so I tried to breathe in and out deeply and stay relaxed," Chiba remarked. "I think I was able to achieve this today."

Added Chiba, "The first half of the season was weak, but after the France Grand Prix (in early November) I have focused on the nationals. I didn't get sick, I trained very hard and everything paid off."

Japan Championships
Mao Shimada exhibits her rendition of "Benedictus." (KYODO)

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Shimada Settles for Third Again After Jump Issues

Shimada, considered Sakamoto's biggest challenger coming in, tried her best in her skate to "Benedictus" but was too far back in seventh after the short program. The 15-year-old opened with a fine triple axel but then fell on her quadruple toe loop and singled a triple loop in the second half of her routine.

However, the young star's seven clean triples and level fours on all of her spins vaulted her onto the podium again.

"I don't know why, I wasn't nervous during the six-minute warmup, but as soon as I got on the ice, I was so nervous," Shimada noted. "My heart wasn't pounding, but 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."

Japan Championships
Rena Uezono (KYODO)

Precocious Uezono Brilliant in First Event with Seniors

The 13-year-old Uezono gave a sublime showing to "Pray" and "Mechanisms," landing six triples and recording level fours on all of her spins. She received a level three on her step sequence, and the lone blemish on her scoresheet was an edge call on a triple flip.

Coming in fourth in her first Japan Championships, in her first season as a junior, illustrated just how great Uezono's potential is going forward.

"Skating in the last group was very nerve-wracking, but I was able to skate with the best skaters and that was a good experience," Uezono said. "I want to work hard from now on and I'm so thankful to have skated with so many good skaters, and I have learned a lot from them. In practice, I want to do my best."

Added Uezono, "If I want to continue skating in the last group, I need to work on my mental strength."

Japan Championships
Mai Mihara competes in the free skate. (KYODO)

Mihara Comes up Short Despite Giving It Her All

Mihara hit five triples and registered level fours on two of her spins and step sequence in her skate to "The Planets." 

The 24-year-old, who has been dealing with an ankle injury this season, put forth a valiant effort but was judged a quarter rotation short on two of her jumps.

"In my practices between the NHK Trophy (in mid-November) and nationals, I didn't have many satisfying run-throughs," Mihara remarked. "So I'm very relieved that I made it to the end thanks to my coaches and everyone's support."

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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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