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Figure Skating

Kaori Sakamoto Takes Big Lead in Short Program at Japan Championships

Sakamoto executed all of her elements with excellent technique and flair at the Japan Championships on a night that saw errors by many of her competitors.

Two-time world champion Kaori Sakamoto took a commanding lead with a fine short program at the Japan Championships on Friday night, December 22 at Big Hat Ice Arena in Nagano. 

The Beijing Olympic bronze medalist was in a class by herself and will take a nearly nine-point advantage into Sunday's free skate.

Sakamoto, who won the Grand Prix Final earlier this month, is in first place with 78.78 points, with Mako Yamashita a surprise in second at 69.82. Mone Chiba stands in third on 68.02.

Mai Mihara, the 2022-23 season's Grand Prix Final champion, is fourth with 67.70, while Beijing Olympian Mana Kawabe is fifth at 67.25.

World junior champion Mao Shimada fell on her combination jump and is seventh at 65.23. Looked upon as the most likely challenger to Sakamoto entering the competition, she will now just try to make the podium.

World team hopefuls Hana Yoshida and Rion Sumiyoshi are far back in the standings and in danger of missing out on the tickets for Montreal. Yoshida is in ninth with 62.73, while Sumiyoshi is way out of medal contention in 17th on 56.70.

Japan Championships
Kaori Sakamoto (ⒸSANKEI)

Sakamoto Shines in Rendition of 'Baby, God Bless You' at Japan Championships

Sakamoto's elite level shone through in her skate to "Baby, God Bless You." The 23-year-old star executed all of her elements with excellent technique and flair on a night that saw errors by many of her competitors.

She opened with a double axel and followed it with a triple lutz. Then, the Kobe native went on to land a huge triple flip/triple toe loop combination jump. Sakamoto earned level fours on all of her spins and step sequence.

"Of course, I want to win three times in a row, but for me, it's not only about winning but to show a good performance until the end," Sakamoto stated. "The lutz worked especially well today. I'm glad it paid off and I had my best short program of the season here."

Added Sakamoto, "My physical condition was better than when I arrived, and I was able to return to my usual self and take on the short program."

Japan Championships
Mako Yamashita skates to "She's Like the Swallow" in her short program. (KYODO)

Yamashita Returns to Prominence After a Long Slump

Yamashita, who has struggled with results the past few seasons, turned back the clock with her performance to "She's Like the Swallow." The 20-year-old started with a nice double axel, then hit a solid triple lutz/triple toe loop combo. She received an edge call on her triple flip, but other than that had a clean sheet with level fours on all of her spins and step sequence.

To illustrate just how far Yamashita has come back, she finished 16th at last season's nationals and has been out of the top 10 the previous four years. Once one of Japan's top juniors, the Nagoya native has kept on skating while studying at Chukyo University, and a podium finish on Sunday could make selections for the worlds team very interesting.

"Today I wasn't nervous at all," Yamashita commented. "I really enjoyed the six-minute warmup and was so happy that many people came to see us and I was so blessed that I could show my short program in front of many people."

Japan Championships
Mone Chiba (KYODO)

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Chiba Gives Strong Showing on Big Stage

After struggling during the Grand Prix season, Chiba had an encouraging outing in her skate to "Lex Yeux Noirs." The 18-year-old from Sendai began with a triple flip/triple toe loop combo, followed it with a double axel, and hit a nice triple lutz. She notched level fours on two of her spins and step sequence.

"Since the France Grand Prix [in early November], I felt a little unwell, but I tried to recover to come here and I had very good training," Chiba remarked. "This program is a new genre and I feel that with my current skating skills, I'm only able to express half of the emotions. However, I did everything I was capable of."

Japan Championships
Mai Mihara performs to "To Love You More." (ⒸSANKEI)

Mihara in Medal Picture Despite Jump Issues

Mihara competed to "To Love You More" and was judged a quarter rotation short on both ends of her triple lutz/triple toe loop combo. She was also hit with an edge call on her triple flip, but recorded level fours on all of her spins and step sequence.

"After the NHK Trophy I was very disappointed and I have trained a lot," Mihara noted. "I gave it my all and tried to stay calm with every element I executed."

Japan Championships
Mao Shimada is a two-time Junior Grand Prix Final champion. (ⒸSANKEI)

Shimada's Chance at Title Gone with Combo Miscue

Shimada skated to "Americano" and "Composition" and started out with a bang by hitting a triple axel, then landed a triple flip. And she appeared on her way to a big score. However, she fell on the front end of her triple lutz/triple toe loop combo and did not attempt the second jump.

The 15-year-old star, who won her second straight Junior GP Final earlier this month, registered level fours on all of her spins and a level three on her step sequence, but the damage was done.

"I have mixed feelings, I'm both happy and disappointed," Shimada declared. "This time I was nervous as well. Last year I wasn't nervous at all before the short program, but going into the free skate, I was so nervous. Now the short program is over and I want to be more relaxed before the free skate."

The Japan Championships will continue with the men's free skate on Saturday as two-time world champion Shoma Uno attempts to win the title for a sixth time.

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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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