Kaori Sakamoto comes from behind to win third-straight world title

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

Kaori Sakamoto entered the free skate at the World Championships in fourth place. To end it, she permanently etched her name in the history books following a near-perfect performance Friday night in Montreal.

Skating to “Wild Is The Wing” and “Feeling Good,” the 23-year-old from Japan opened with a double Axel-triple Lutz-triple Salchow combination. A flawless triple flip-double toeloop and triple flip-triple toeloop would follow. Right down to the energetic way she stretched her hand on center ice to conclude and the rapid teddy bear shaking in the kiss-and-cry area, you could tell she was fully charged for tonight. Sakamoto posted a 149.67 long program and 222.96 total score to cement her third-consecutive gold medal.

“I felt a bit anxious before my short program,” the Olympic bronze medalist Sakamoto told the ISU media. “Unfortunately, that manifested in my performance. Although I experienced a range of emotions before my free program, I’m happy that I maintained my composure and completed my skate. Despite the excitement that arose from the audience’s enthusiasm after the triple combo, I made sure I didn’t get carried away and skated with composure.”

The three consecutive world championships are the first in women’s singles since Peggy Fleming won from 1966 through 1968. Since then, six others have won two in succession, including Katarina Witt twice. The victory also continues a trend of Japanese women winning 10 years apart, beginning with Yuka Sato in 1994, Shizuka Arakawa in 2004 and Mao Asada in 2014.

Isabeau Levito was slightly behind Sakamoto with the silver medal. The 17-year-old American scored a 138.43 free skate and 212.16 combined score. Skating to “The White Crow,” Levito executed a triple Lutz-triple toeloop combination and landed another brilliant triple loop later. She became the first U.S. woman to place silver at Worlds since Ashley Wagner in 2016, and the win secures three U.S. spots to next year’s Worlds in Boston.

“At the end of the program,” Levito said, “I threw my arms out and hopped on the ice. I was in a state of shock that I did that. I had two goals coming into this world championship: getting on the podium and securing the third spot for the American women next year. I did both. It was extremely satisfying, I worked so hard for this moment, it took everything of me and I did it!”

Chaeyeon Kim of Korea won the bronze medal with 203.59 points and 136.68 in the free skate to climb from sixth after the short. The 17 year old improved from her sixth-place debut last season.

“I was a little less nervous today than the short program,” Kim said. “I made a little bit of a mistake, but overall I’m pretty happy with my performance.”

Loena Hendrickx, the Belgian who led after the short program, under-rotated her opening combination and spiraled out of control from there. She finished eighth in the free skate and fourth overall.

“I know I can do better,” said Hendrickx, who medaled at the last two Worlds. “I wasn’t confident enough since I haven’t completed a full run of my free program since Europeans due to injuries. It was nerve wracking going into the free program as lead. The goal for next season is to skate without pressure.”

Kimmy Repond of Switzerland – 12th after the short program – ended in fifth. Haein Lee of Korea, the reigning silver medalist who was third after the short, finished in sixth. Four Continents champion Mone Chiba was seventh, and her Japanese teammate Hana Yoshida was eighth –with the triple Axel in her arsenal. U.S. champion Amber Glenn also recorded a triple Axel and triple flip-triple toeloop, and placed in 10th.

“My biggest take away is to have confidence in myself when I’m performing,” Glenn said. “I will be re-evaluating my layout and look forward to putting forth a new layout for the next season. For me, figure skating represents everything to me, including freedom, creativity, and expression.”