Figure Skating

Kaori Sakamoto bests Rika Kihira and Satoko Miyahara to win national title

by Jack Gallagher

Staff Writer

Kaori Sakamoto put on a stunning performance Sunday night, using an incredible combination of power and grace, to win the title at the Japan championships.

The 18-year-old from Kobe was absolutely spectacular in her free skate to “The Piano” and overtook Grand Prix Final champion Rika Kihira to capture the senior title for the first time.

Known for her big jumps and bigger guts, Sakamoto withstood all of the pressure and put on the skate of her life as the last skater of the evening.

The crowd showered Sakamoto with a raucous ovation as she finished and again when her score was announced. Sakamoto’s winning total was 228.01 points.

Kihira took second place with 223.76, with four-time champion Satoko Miyahara settling for third at 223.34.

Mai Mihara, who gave an absolutely fantastic performance, was fourth on 220.80 in a controversial result, while Wakaba Higuchi (197.63) came in fifth.

Mako Yamashita, in her first season as a senior, was sixth with 197.14.

Sakamoto was sublime in victory, landing seven triple jumps and earning level fours on all three spins and her step sequence. The lone blemish on her score sheet came on an edge call on a triple lutz early in her program, but that was just a footnote on a magical night.

Sakamoto, who was sixth at the Pyeongchang Olympics, improved on her second-place finish behind Miyahara at last year’s nationals. The triumph had to feel good after she placed fourth at the GP Final earlier this month.

“I’m happy with the result, but I was aiming for 145 points in the free skate (her total was 152.36),” Sakamoto said. “I was struggling mentally after the Grand Prix Final and I have been having difficulty with my free skate in practice recently, so this victory makes me very pleased.”

Sakamoto indicated that she had trouble in the short program her with the sharpness of her skate blades.

“I got them sharpened twice — once after the short program and again this morning after practice,” Sakamoto noted. “I also made an effort to make eye contact with the judges to improve my scores.”

Kihira skated to “Beautiful Storm” and cleanly landed two triple axels to take the lead as the second skater in the final group, but her struggles in the short program proved costly.

The 16-year-old phenom from nearby Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, won the free skate with eight triples and level fours on her spins and step sequence.

“Just before the free skate I didn’t feel so good because I didn’t have a nap today. I was too excited,” Kihira commented. “But I was able to maintain my stamina until the end out there.”

Kihira had a problem with her right boot in the short program and said she regretted not having it fixed before this competition.

“That is my lone regret because it impacted my score. I will be sure to have it corrected before the next event,” Kihira promised.

Miyahara competed to “Invierno Porteno” and had an uneven outing. She doubled her planned triple flip and under-rotated a double loop on the back end of a three-combo jump. There were a couple of other jumps that appeared very questionable, including a triple lutz.

Miyahara, who came in fourth in the free skate, came on the ice immediately after Mihara had brought the house down. When Miyahara’s score was announced, there was a very noticeable murmur from the crowd, indicating disbelief.

With a fifth straight title, Miyahara would have joined a select group that includes the legendary Etsuko Inada (who skated in the 1936 Olympics at the age of 12), Miwa Fukuhara, Emi Watanabe and Hall of Famer Midori Ito as the only women to accomplish the feat.

“I was better than in the Grand Prix Final. I felt like I had power in my legs tonight,” Miyahara remarked. “I tried to be relaxed and perform like I do in practice. It is always a battle with myself in competitions to overcome the pressure. If I could do a good performance I was not worried about the result.”

Mihara was elegant and enchanting in her performance to “Gabriel’s Oboe” and appeared to have clinched a spot on the podium and a possible berth on the team for the world championships in Saitama in March, but it wasn’t meant to be.

The 19-year-old from Kobe, who trains with Sakamoto under Sonoko Nakano and Mitsuko Graham, received positive grades of execution on every element from all nine judges. Her spins were all scored as level fours, however, her step sequence was only given a level three.

“I really appreciated the support from the audience and I wanted to pay them back,” Mihara stated before knowing the final results. “I was happy with the score of 220 points, but more than that I want to thank my supporters, family, coach and everyone who has backed me. If I go to the worlds, I need to brush up on my skating so I can compete with the top skaters.”

There is certain to be considerable debate over Mihara’s placement in the coming days. After just missing out on the making the GP Final, it looks like she will draw the short straw again when it comes to selections for the worlds team on Monday night.

Marin Honda finished 15th after another poor showing. The 17-year-old struggled mightily again, committing numerous errors, including under-rotating three jumps and singling a planned double axel.

“I was able to enjoy the competition better than last year (when she finished seventh), although I could not land my jumps cleanly,” Honda said. “I really feel that I need more time.”

The men’s free skate is set for Monday night, with Shoma Uno going for his third straight national title as he holds a commanding lead over Daisuke Takahashi.