Figure Skating

Kaori Sakamoto ends Rika Kihira's winning streak in Japan nationals

With the final skate of the competition, Four Continents champ Sakamoto denied Kihira another incredible comeback win.

By Rory Jiwani ·

Kaori Sakamoto is the new Japanese ladies' singles figure skating champion.

The 18-year-old defending Four Continents champion was the only skater who could deny Rika Kihira her first national title after the Grand Prix Final winner produced a mesmerising free skate.

Sakamoto needed 148.12 to win, more than five points higher than her personal best.

And she came up with the performance of her life, scoring 152.36 to take a surprise overall victory in Osaka.

Sakamoto steals the show

Kihira comeback

Before then, it looked like Rika Kihira would retain her unbeaten record in her first season in the senior ranks.

The 16-year-old prodigy beat Olympic champion Alina Zagitova in the Grand Prix Final in Vancouver earlier this month.

She was fifth after the short program, the same position she occupied before winning November's NHK Trophy.

Kihira gave notice of something special by starting with a triple Axel-triple toeloop combination followed by a triple Axel, showing no fear after falling attempting a triple Axel in Friday's short program.

And she moved into the lead with a personal best free skate score of 155.01.

Rika Kihira during her free skate at the Japan Figure Skating Championships in Osaka

Neither short program leader and defending champion Satoko Miyahara nor Mai Mihara, third overnight, could match Kihira's total of 223.76.

Career highlight

But Sakamoto had not read the script.

She started with a triple flip-triple toeloop combination followed by a double Axel and a less-than-certain triple Lutz.

But she quickly regained her composure, executing a triple Salchow followed by two tough combinations - double Axel-triple toe-double toe and triple flip-double toe - and finally a triple loop.

After a nervous wait the score came up as 152.36, almost 10 points better than her previous best, for a winning total of 228.01.

Sakamoto also set a personal best of 75.65 in her short program on a weekend where she proved she is a genuine contender for gold at March's World Championships on home ice in Saitama.

2019 Japan Figure Skating Championships (top five):

1. Kaori Sakamoto 228.01

2. Rika Kihira 223.76

3. Satoko Miyahara 223.34

4. Mai Mihara 220.80

5. Wakaba Higuchi 197.63

2019 Japan Figure Skating Championships podium (L-R): runner-up Rika Kihira, winner Kaori Sakamoto, third-placed Satoko Miyahara

Podium reshuffle

The ladies' singles at last year's Japan Figure Skating Championships featured the same three skaters on the podium but in a different order.

Twelve months ago in Tokyo, Miyahara was the victor ahead of Sakamoto with Kihira, then still a junior, third.

All three look set for February's Four Continents Championships in Anaheim, California, with Sakamoto defending her title.

2018 Japan Figure Skating Championships podium: Sakamoto (second), Miyahara (first), Kihira (third)

Japan v Russia

Sakamoto's victory was the second surprise of the weekend in ladies' figure skating.

The first was a real shock as Anna Shcherbakova headed an all-junior podium sweep of the Russian nationals with Olympic champion Alina Zagitova fifth, and PyeongChang silver medallist Evgenia Medvedeva seventh.

Shcherbakova's score of 229.78, just 0.07 better than runner-up and fellow 14-year-old Alexandra Trusova, was higher than Sakamoto's winning total of 228.01.

But with the top three from the Russian nationals too young to compete at the World Championships, it looks like Japanese skaters will fight it out for gold unless Zagitova returns to her best.

Shcherbakova, Trusova and 15-year-old Alena Kostornaia will join the senior ranks next year and the prospect of them taking on Japan's best is a mouthwatering one.

World junior champion Alexandra Trusova with coach Eteri Tutberidze at the Junior Grand Prix Final in Vancouver

Evolution or revolution?

The top two in the Russian nationals both landed clean quad Lutz jumps in Saransk which made a big difference to their Technical Element Score (TES).

Comparing TES component scores this weekend, Trusova's 90.22 and Shcherbakova's 89.35 give them a big advantage over Kihira's 82.95 and Sakamoto's 79.11.

It appears that quad jumps are the future, and Kihira - who finished eighth in last March's world juniors behind Trusova - says she may implement them next year having landed a quad Salchow in practice.

Right now, the three young Russians coached by Moscow-based Eteri Tutberidze, who also trains Zagitova, look to be leading the way.

Can the rest of the world catch up?

And will the Russian girls be able to retain that explosive athleticism and avoid injury as they advance past puberty?

Those questions will be answered in the coming months and years.