Figure Skating

Inspired Sakamoto takes lead over Honda at Japan Junior Championships

by Jack Gallagher

Staff Writer

Kaori Sakamoto grabbed the lead ahead of reigning world junior champion Marin Honda on the first day of the Japan Junior Championships at Tsukisamu Gymnasium on Saturday night with a sublime short program.

Sakamoto gave a polished performance to “The Artist” and earned a score of 67.45 points. She began with a triple loop, and went on to execute a triple flip/triple toe loop combination jump, before landing a flawless double axel.

The 16-year-old from Kobe, who has qualified for this season’s Junior Grand Prix Final along with Honda, displayed good line and edge throughout her skate and received a rousing ovation from the crowd after finishing it.

Honda was smooth in her routine to “Smile” and stands second with 64.86 heading into Sunday’s free skate.

“I was inspired by the performance of my training partner Mai Mihara at the Cup of China on Friday night (where she was third after the short program) after watching the news on TV this morning,” Sakamoto commented. “I wanted to score big points like she did. My mental motivation was strong.”

Sakamoto and Maihara are coached by Sonoko Nakano and Mitsuko Graham.

“This is an important competition because I can get the automatic ticket to the world junior championships by winning here,” Sakamoto noted. “I wasn’t really nervous today, but my legs were a bit shaky. My heart was calm, though. Tomorrow I’m going for it with big elements.”

Knowing she needed to put up a solid number to stay in contention for the title, Honda rose to the occasion. Her performance to “Smile” was excellent. She began with a triple flip/triple toe combo and went on to land a triple loop and double axel with no problems.

Honda displayed her championship pedigree throughout her skate.

“I was a bit nervous, but my coach (Mie Hamada) told me to use it in a positive way,” commented Honda. “I’m not so focused on winning and my placement here. I just want to concentrate on my performance. I can still make the world juniors via selection if I don’t win here.”

The 15-year-old from Kyoto has struggled with her triple/triple combo during the JGP season, but pulled it off this night.

“I tried to take the jumps one at a time, because the triple loop is a tough jump for me,” Honda said. “It’s good for my technique to approach them as separate jumps even though it is a combination.”

Honda said the rink condition also caused her to adjust her approach.

“The ice is very hard at this rink, so I had to slow my speed a bit,” Honda stated. “If I skate too fast on it, I won’t be able to make my jumps.”

Yuna Shiraiwa (59.16) is in third place. She was second at this event last season behind Wakaba Higuchi.

Shiraiwa, Honda’s training partner, was solid for the most part to “I Got Rhythm” but had a bit of trouble with the transition on her opening triple lutz/triple toe combo.

Rika Kihira (58.86) drew the short straw and had to skate first out of the 30 skaters, but sits in fourth place. She landed her opening double axel, but had a shaky landing on the back end of her triple lutz/triple toe combo before hitting a triple loop to “Tzigane.”

Mako Yamashita, who took third in her two JGPs this season struggled through a disappointing program to “Nocturne” and tallied just 42.28. She is in a shocking 22nd place.

Kazuki Tomono, the silver medalist here last season, skated a splendid program to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and is in first place in men’s singles with 71.77.

Tomono, an 18-year-old from Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, was Japan’s top scorer in the Junior Grand Prix campaign, placing 10th overall.

He began with a nice triple flip/triple toe combo, before landing a triple loop and a triple axel to build a commanding lead.

“I enjoyed my performance today, but it’s too early to think about victory,” said Tomono. “I will try a quadruple jump in the free skate.”

Koshiro Shimada is second on 66.19. He opened with a triple lutz/triple toe combo, then hit a triple loop and a double axel. He was fourth at last season’s junior nationals.

Mitsuki Sumoto, who earned the bronze medal at the Junior Grand Prix in Dresden, Germany, last month, is third at 63.60.

Sumoto landed a double axel at the outset of his program, but stumbled on the landing of his triple loop, before executing a triple lutz/triple toe combo.

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