Zagitova leads after ladies' short program at the World Champs in Saitama

After a year of ups and downs, the Olympic champion delivered on the world stage

The year after the Olympics hasn't been easy for Russia's Alina Zagitova.

But on Wednesday (20th March), the 16-year-old put the ups and downs of the season behind her, scoring a massive 82.08 to the lead the field at the 2019 ISU Figure Skating World Championships in Saitama, Japan.

"During this season, I actually experienced many mistakes during practice and that made me more nervous," Zagitova told media at her post competition press conference. "But thanks to tremendous support from my coaches, I was able to overcome those mistakes and errors and really get prepared mentally which was what I needed to do for this competition."

Kaori Sakamoto of Japan is second (76.86), followed by Kazakstan's Elizabet Tursynbaeva (75.96).

The 2015 and 2016 World champion Evgenia Medvedeva of Russia and South Korea's Eunsoo Lim round out the top five.

Alina Zagitova in action during the Ladies Short Program.
Alina Zagitova in action during the Ladies Short Program.Alina Zagitova in action during the Ladies Short Program.

Russian redemption

Zagitova, the 2018 Olympic champ, has struggled in her most recent competitions with lacklustre free skates at both the Russian and European Championships keeping her from the top step of the podium.

In Saitama, the only thing keeping her down seemed to be the ceiling inside the Super Arena as she launched into a massive triple Lutz, triple loop combination to open her Phantom of the Opera-themed program. Before it was all said and done, the Russian had amassed a season-best score and the second highest short program total in the 2018-19 season.

"I'm basically quite satisfied," Zagitova said plainly at the press conference.

Adding of her hopes for Friday, "I want to make sure I can do the very best possible from my own perspective."

World Champs leader Zagitova thanks coaches

World Champs leader Zagitova thanks coaches "for putting up with me"

Likewise, compatriot Medvedeva also came to Japan with something to prove.

A year after winning two silver medals at the PyeongChang Olympics, almost everything is different in Medvedeva’s life. The 19-year-old uprooted herself last year as she moved to Toronto to train with Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson.

This season has seen mixed results, from a bronze medal at Skate Canada, to a seventh place finish at Russian nationals.

But she told Olympic Channel’s Meryl Davis that her confidence has been growing day-by-day.

“Every moment, I feel much more confident in myself,” Medvedeva said Tuesday after practice.

That confidence was on full display during her re-tooled short program set to the music of 'Tosca.'

Like Zagitova, Medvedeva also earned a season's best on Wednesday night by posting a 74.23.

Evgenia Medvedeva during the Ladies Short Program in Saitama
Evgenia Medvedeva during the Ladies Short Program in SaitamaEvgenia Medvedeva during the Ladies Short Program in Saitama

Can Kihira come back again?

Hometown hero Rika Kihira has dealt with nerves throughout her debut senior season and did so again Wednesday, finishing in seventh place.

She told media on Monday that victory would follow clean performances, but that her main focus was eliminating errors in the short program that have plagued her. The 16-year-old has had to stage comebacks to win at the NHK Trophy, the Grand Prix Final, and Four Continents.

“I want to make sure I don’t make any mistakes in the short program," Kihira told media earlier this week, "and I really want to land a successful triple Axel in the free program.”

However, after three clean triple Axels in the warm up, Kihira popped her attempt moments into her short program. Because skaters are required to perform at least a double Axel in the short program, the Japanese phenom received zero points for her attempt. She went on to execute a nervy triple flip, triple toe, and a triple lutz.

A favorite coming in, if she hopes to become Japan’s first female World champion since 2014, she’ll have to do it from the penultimate group on Friday evening.

"I really have to do it, that’s the feeling I have," Kihira said when asked about another come-from-behind win. "Whether I can or I can’t, it’s not about that now. I have to do it; I have no choice."

Rika Kihira performing in Saitama
Rika Kihira performing in SaitamaRika Kihira performing in Saitama

Under the radar

While all eyes were seemingly on Kihira, it's reigning Japanese national champion, Sakamoto, who carries the hopes of the host nation. She was the first of the three hometown favorites to skate and didn't disappoint.

Her program, set to From My First Moment by Charlotte Church, opened with an easy triple flip, triple toe combination. She went on to complete a nearly flawless program, seeming to float above the ice with ease. Sakamoto ticked off her double Axel and triple loop effortlessly, bringing the crowd to their feet

Her 76.84 is not only a season's best score by more than three points but also the fourth highest score by any woman in the short program in the 2018-19 season.

Kaori Sakamoto in action
Kaori Sakamoto in actionKaori Sakamoto in action

Quad-watch

Tursynbaeva skated to Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. Her 75.96 left the Kazakstan skater in third, just tenths of a point behind Sakamoto.

In the free program, she plans to attempt a quadruple Salchow. Two juniors - Russia's Alexandra Trusova and Anna Shcherbakova, who share Tursynbaeva's coach Eteri Tutberidze - have landed quadruple jumps in competition. But if she cleanly lands the jump on Friday, she will become the first senior lady to do so.

It's a big risk - with a possible big reward: her first world medal. Tursynbaeva told media after the short program that the jump is getting “more consistent” and she’s having lots of fun doing it.

Re-live the action as it happened on the Olympic Channel live blog for Wednesday at #WorldFigure by clicking here.

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