Defending champion Kaori Sakamoto of Japan topped the women’s short program at the world figure skating championships, while Americans are in the medal mix in the women’s and pairs’ events going into the free skates.
Sakamoto, trying to become the first Japanese skater to win back-to-back world titles, tallied 79.24 points, taking a significant 5.62-point lead over South Korean Lee Hae-In going into Friday’s free skate in Saitama, Japan. It’s the largest lead after a women’s short program at worlds since 2015.
“Usually, when I go into my short program, there’s some uncertainties and anxiety,” Sakamoto, who skated clean with a triple flip-triple toe loop combination, said through a translator. “But today I was doing very well in practice, and I wasn’t making any mistakes. So I knew that I could just put everything out there, and that’s exactly what I was able to do.”
U.S. champion Isabeau Levito is in fourth (just 59 hundredths out of second), one year after winning the world junior title. Levito, 16, can become the youngest world medalist since 2014.
“I am really happy with my score,” said Levito, who had a negative grade of execution on her triple Lutz-triple toe combination but still had her best score of the season. “Based on this performance, I’m very excited for the long program.”
Fellow Americans Bradie Tennell and Amber Glenn are eighth and 10th, respectively, about in line with their world rankings. The top two American finishes after the free skate must add up to no more than 13 (sixth and seventh, for example) to avoid dropping down to two spots for next year’s worlds.
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Earlier, Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara won the pairs’ short program, distancing defending champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier of the U.S., who placed second despite Frazier’s fall on their side-by-side triple toe loops.
Miura and Kihara, the world’s top-ranked pair this season, can become the first Japanese pair to win a world title, a year after taking silver behind Knierim and Frazier.
Knierim and Frazier, who will likely retire after this season, are trying to become the first U.S. pair to win multiple world titles. They’re skating without their primary coaches, Jenni Meno and Todd Sand, who didn’t travel after Sand had a heart attack three weeks ago.
“Todd’s condition is very serious, so it’s difficult to train when you feel broken inside, when your person is not there,” Knierim said. “However, that person is the one that instilled fight in us, so we’re able to work hard every day to make him proud, and I think we did a good job of that today.”
In fourth place are Canadians Deanna Stellato-Dudek and Maxime Deschamps. Stellato-Dudek, the 2000 World junior silver medalist in singles, came out of a 15-year retirement in 2016 and can become, at 39, the oldest world championships medalist in recent memory.
Worlds continue Wednesday night (U.S. time) with the pairs’ free skate, followed Thursday morning with the men’s short program, live on Peacock and USA Network.
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