Sakamoto Kaori takes Japanese title to punch ticket to Beijing 2022

Sakamoto completes comprehensive win to book her return to the Olympic Winter Games, with an emotional Higuchi Wakaba in second.

By Shintaro Kano
Picture by Kentaro Aragki/Olympic Channel

Sakamoto Kaori is bound for the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games after capturing her second title at the Japanese Figure Skating Championships in Saitama on Saturday (25 December).

The 21-year-old gave herself the perfect Christmas present with the best free skate score of the day, 154.83, after winning Thursday's short program.

Her total of 234.06 was over 12 points clear of the pack and guaranteed her selection for Beijing.

Higuchi Wakaba should be joining her in China after a career-best skate left her in a clear second place with 221.78.

The 20-year-old fan favourite was in floods of tears after her superb free skate, knowing that she had almost certainly qualified for her first Olympic Games.

Third place went to Kawabe Mana (209.65) with the 17-year-old having to wait until Sunday when the Japanese Skating Federation (JSF) announces the squad for Beijing.

Sakamoto, who finished sixth at PyeongChang 2018, said afterwards, "The joy I'm feeling right now is like no other. I'm full of happiness.

"I said I wanted to qualify and I did it. I feel liberated. I can't begin to describe how I felt when the score flashed on the board."

Four years ago in the race for PyeongChang, it came down to her and Higuchi for the second slot. After plenty of debate as to who was more worthy, Sakamoto got the nod but it was a difficult process.

She was determined to qualify for Beijing outright, and succeeded.

"This time, I know right away that I made it to the OIympics. At PyeongChang four years ago, I made some mistakes both individually and in the team competition so I want to skate clean in both.

"I know the Russians can do all kinds of things, jump quads and what not. But my skating is all about execution.

"I know I don't have any big jumps but I'm not going to worry about them. I'm sticking to my guns." - Sakamoto Kaori

Japan national women's podium (L-R): Higuchi Wakaba, Sakamoto Kaori, Kawabe Mana.
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Higuchi will need to wait for official confirmation, but all but secured her place in Beijing with a strong performance to the Lion King soundtrack.

She went into the nationals four years ago with a right ankle injury, finishing out of the medals in fourth which cost her a place at PyeongChang.

Saturday could not have been more different - hakuna matata, one might say.

"I came through when it mattered. I feel much stronger mentally now," said Wakaba, who has armed herself with a triple Axel this season although she was unable to stick the landing this time.

"I was aiming for 140 and I topped that. I had a personal best. At the Olympics, I'm going to do what I want to do and show everyone what I'm capable of, hopefully."

While Sakamoto was in the driver's seat with a near five-point advantage from the short program, just 2.35 points separated the next five skaters.

Mihara Mai was fourth with 206.86 ahead of Miyahara Satoko (206.51) who looks unlikely to make a return to the Games after her fourth place at PyeongChang.

Watanabe Rinka (199.15) rounded out the top six.

Higuchi Wakaba after her free skate secured her second place at the Japan nationals in Saitama
Picture by Kentaro Aragaki/Olympic Channel

Komatsubaras hold on for ice dance victory, selection too close to call

Despite finishing second in the free dance, the Komatsubaras - Misato and husband Takeru (also known as Tim Koleto) - took overall victory from Muramoto Kana and Takahashi Daisuke.

Muramoto/Takahashi scored an impressive 112.96 on Saturday, earning them a standing ovation and putting them in the lead on 176.31 with just the rhythm dance leaders to go.

The Komatsubaras put together a strong skate, also received rapturously by the crowd, and scored 110.01 for a winning total of 178.17 and a fourth consecutive Japanese title.

It remains to be which duo will take the one ice dance ticket for Beijing with the JSF making their decision, to be announced on Sunday, based on the result of this competition, the ISU world rankings, this season's ranking and score.

There is nothing to choose between them at present with the Komatsubaras higher in the world rankings, but Muramoto/Takahashi boasting the superior season ranking and score.

"Who knows, it’s anyone’s guess until tomorrow," said Takahashi, who is hoping to become the first skater to appear at the Olympic Winter Games in both the men's singles and ice dance.

"We can only wait and see. For now, I just want to enjoy Christmas now that the work is finally out of the way. We’ll stay positive."

Muramoto/Takahashi lamented their fall in Thursday's rhythm dance which cost them almost 3.5 points. The Komatsubaras won the title by less than two points.

Takahashi, still going strong at 35, added, "Overall, I thought we performed well today. We just regret the fall in the rhythm dance. That's really eating at us right now.

"We finished second just like last year but it’s a completely different second place. Our program, the performance, everything - we are much improved. And this is only our sixth competition together."

Muramoto Kana and Takahashi Daisuke will find out their fate for Beijing on Sunday.
Picture by Kentaro Aragaki/Olympic Channel

The Komatsubaras, on the other hand, felt like they gave it everything they had.

The champions' free dance score was three points off the pace, but it was higher than anything they had achieved in international competition so far this season.

Komatsubara Misato was grateful for the rivalry with Muramoto/Takahashi as she and her husband await judgment day.

"I'm so happy people have taken such an interest in ice dance," she said. "As skaters, we've done everything we can and now it's up to the people who are in charge of making the decisions.

"When I felt like I had enough or couldn't go anymore in practice, I'd see them and keep going. So I'm thankful for that."

Komatsubara Misato and Komatsubara Takeru captured their fourth consecutive ice dance title.
Picture by Kentaro Aragaki/Olympic Channel

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