Sakamoto wins gold at World Championships; Liu claims first U.S. medal in six years

By Scott Mammoser, Team FSO contributing writer
Photos by Robin Ritoss

After winning the Olympic bronze medal, Kaori Sakamoto left little doubt in establishing herself as one of the world’s elite skaters. She further cemented her legacy, winning the gold medal at the World Championships in Montpellier, France, on Friday with 236.09 points.

Yes, the competition was without Olympic gold medalist and reigning World champion Anna Shcherbakova, as well as her Russian compatriots. Still, Sakamoto executed the highest score ever recorded at Worlds and the sixth-best all time. She also elevated her personal best from Beijing by three points.

The 21-year-old from Kobe, Japan, opened with a double Axel and triple Lutz. Showing remarkable speed around the rink, she nailed three other jumping combinations and one final triple loop.

“The training I did for Worlds was probably the hardest I ever had to do because I was experiencing fatigue from the Olympics,” Sakamoto said. “I was anxious and worried before coming to Worlds, but I think all of the training I had done in the past tied me over in this world competition. I am so happy I had confidence in myself.”

The two-time reigning NHK Trophy champion mentioned that when she made her Olympic debut at PyeongChang in 2018, she was the youngest on the Japanese team. Due to this, she had no pressure, gave it her all and finished in sixth place. She said she felt no growth in the 2019-20 season, and during the pandemic trained vigorously off the ice.

“If I trained really hard on the land off the ice,” she said, “I could probably get better than my competition. I realize now, that you can only come up after you are so low, and that is the biggest lesson for me the past four years.”

Sakamoto joins Midori Ito, Yuka Sato, Shizuka Arakawa, two-time winner Miki Ando, and three-time winner Mao Asada as Japanese women’s world champions. The most-recent victory was Asada’s at Saitama in 2014.

“Thinking back to 2014, I believe I was in my second year of junior high,” Sakamoto added, “and I had no idea of the real world. I didn’t have a lot experience, looked up to skaters like Mao Asada and Miki Ando, and I had no idea what it took to compete at the world stage. Thank you to them because they gave us the opportunity to skate like we do, and I feel like I am helping to carry on that tradition.”

Loena Hendrickx of Belgium won the silver medal with 217.70 points. A triple flip-double toe loop-double loop combination, followed with a triple Salchow locked in her spot on the podium.

It is Belgium’s first-ever singles medal at the event and first total since Micheline Lannoy and Pierre Baugniet won the pairs gold in 1948. Hendrickx and six-time medalist Carolina Kostner of Italy are now the only two Western European women to reach the world podium this century.

“I am speechless,” Hendrickx said. “I am super happy. All of my hard work paid off, to stand here and win a silver medal is unbelievable that I can do this for myself and for Belgium.”

The 22-year-old was eighth at the Beijing Olympics and fifth at last year’s Stockholm World Championships. She just missed the podium in fourth after January’s European Championships. The Grand Prix Torino bronze medalist said she did not train for one week in between Beijing and Worlds due to a groin tear and also suffered a twisted ankle.

“I never gave up,” Hendrickx said. “I never knew where I would be at the end. I hoped I would have the same level I had before. I matured, and I am so happy for myself. I know the free was not perfect, but I am really glad that I stood here and performed. I showed everybody that I am a strong person.”

Two-time U.S. Champion Alysa Liu, who finished in seventh place at the Beijing Olympics, climbed from fifth after the short program to win the bronze medal with 211.19 total points. She began with a triple Axel, followed with a triple loop and triple flip. She is the first American woman to medal at the World Championships since Ashley Wagner won silver at Boston in 2016.

“I came into this competition not thinking about medals,” the 16-year-old said. “I just wanted to do a good competition for myself. When I saw I medaled, I could not believe it, and I still am in shock. I didn’t think I could do better than the Olympics, but it’s so crazy!”

Mariah Bell, who won a small medal for her third-place short program, just missed the podium in fourth place with 208.66 points. The 25-year-old U.S. Champion lost half of a point on a triple Lutz-double toe loop, then just hung on to land one final triple Lutz that almost resulted with her hand on the ice.

“I could have been any place below fourth,” Bell said, keeping a positive attitude. “I am really happy for Alysa and that there is an American on the podium. She’s young but really mature, and that has really contributed on the ice this year.”

Young You of Korea fell on her final jump, the triple flip, and finished in fifth place. Georgia’s Anastasiia Gubanova moved from 14th after the short program to sixth with the fifth-best free skate. Haein Lee of Korea, Karen Chen of the U.S., Ekaterina Ryabova of Azerbaijan, and Nicole Schott of Germany rounded out the top 10 skaters. Schott was sixth after the short program, but her final jumping pass was downgraded.  

Former world silver medalist Wakaba Higuchi of Japan was 11th and Madeline Schizas of Canada 12th.