Sakamoto Kaori takes early advantage at Japan nationals

PyeongChang 2018 Olympian in pole position for one of three women's tickets to Beijing 2022, but Takahashi Daisuke looks up against it in historic ice dance bid.

By Shintaro Kano
Picture by Kentaro Aragaki/Olympic Channel

Sakamoto Kaori put one foot through the door to her second Olympic Winter Games on Thursday (23 December) at the Japanese Figure Skating Championships in Saitama.

The 21-year-old unleashed an opening double Axel followed by a triple Lutz before locking up top spot with a triple flip-triple toe loop combination.

She scored 79.23 for her short program, just over a point higher than her ISU personal best, to take the lead in the final qualifying event for Beijing 2022.

Sakamoto was 4.67 points ahead of Higuchi Wakaba (74.66) and almost five up on rising star Kawabe Mana (74.27).

Since winning her first national title three years ago, Sakamoto has finished runner-up twice in the competition.

Another podium finish would see her clinch one of three berths in Beijing with the team announced on Sunday following the end of competition.

"I'm pretty happy with the performance today. The thing that hasn't changed in four years is I still have to go out and execute a clean skate", said a clearly delighted Sakamoto.

"But this time, I want to win it outright and then qualify for the Olympics. That's the difference from four years ago.

"I need to stay locked in throughout the free. My coaches say I'm like a Ferrari. It takes a while to get the engine running but, once I'm revving, I cook." - Sakamoto Kaori

Seventeen-year-old Kawabe Mana is unmistakably in the hunt for a place at Beijing 2022.
Picture by Kentaro Aragaki/Olympic Channel

Sakamoto had far from an ideal build-up after illness left her bed-ridden following her win at last month's NHK Trophy.

That was followed by the cancellation of the Grand Prix Final which sapped the motivation out of her. It was only around last week that the Kobe native got her groove back.

So much for recovery timetables.

"I was unusually nervous a week before this competition, way more than I was for the NHK," said Sakamoto, who was still in high school when she placed sixth at PyeongChang 2018.

"But once I got here, I started to settle. Doing things like having a laugh with Wakaba helped as well.

"When I've done well at the nationals, my scores tend to improve at internationals the following year. That's given me a lot of confidence. I'm really happy with the personal best."

Her biggest threat could come from the triple axel-wielding 17-year-old Kawabe, who is proving her silver medal at NHK Trophy was no fluke.

"I performed in front of a crowd at the NHK and the experience has helped. It's given me a lift", she said.

Muramoto Kana/Takahashi Daisuke did not have a great day at the office in the rhythm dance.
Picture by Kentaro Aragaki/Olympic Channel

Komatsubaras lead after rhythm dance

In the showdown for the one Olympic spot in ice dance, Komatsubara Misato and Komatsubara Takeru gained an advantage on Muramoto Kana and Takahashi Daisuke although neither were happy with their performances on the day.

The Komatsubaras, the three-time reigning champions, lead by less than five points - 68.16 to 63.35 - over Muramoto/Takahashi who won last month's NHK Trophy in the couples' previous encounter.

Misato lost her balance in the opening twizzle, but Muramoto/Takahashi made a worse error for a fall on their second element for which they were docked nearly 3.5 points.

Keen for payback from the NHK Trophy, Misato pinned the error down to being over-eager.

"I was really fired up and ready to leave it all out there but I over did it," she said. "From that point on, I was just angry which in the end helped me finish strong."

Takahashi, who is bidding to become the first skater ever to qualify for the Games in both the men's singles and ice dance, said he and Muramoto never fall on a step sequence as they did to gasps from the crowd at Saitama Super Arena.

Their score on Thursday was actually lower than at last year's nationals having set a Japanese record of 190.16 in Warsaw a month ago.

"We don't even fall like that in practice so it's frustrating, there are no two ways about it," said the 35-year-old Vancouver 2010 bronze medallist. "But we have nothing to lose now and we need to be aggressive in the free. I have to admit, I was pretty nervous today."

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