Kaori Sakamoto overcame a late error in her free skate to become the first Japanese figure skater to win back-to-back world titles and the oldest women’s world champion since 2014.
Sakamoto, 22, totaled 224.61 points on home ice in Saitama to prevail by 3.67 over Lee Hae-In of South Korea in the closest women’s finish at worlds since 2011.
Belgium’s Loena Hendrickx took bronze, edging 16-year-old American Isabeau Levito for a medal by 2.77 points.
Sakamoto is the oldest women’s singles world champion since Mao Asada (2014), who is now the only Japanese skater with more world titles than Sakamoto.
She appeared en route to an easier victory until singling a planned triple flip late in her free skate, which put the gold in doubt. She can be thankful for pulling off the second jump of that planned combination — a triple toe loop — and her 5.62-point lead from Wednesday’s short program.
“I feel so pathetic and thought, what was all that hard work I put into my training?” Sakamoto said of her mistake, according to the International Skating Union (ISU). “But I was able to refocus and do my best till the end.
“Because I have this feeling of regret at the biggest event of the season, I want to make sure I don’t have this feeling next season. So I want to practice even harder, and I want to make sure to do clean, perfect performances at every competition.”
Lee, who had the top free skate, became the second South Korean to win a world medal in any discipline after six-time medalist Yuna Kim.
Hendrickx followed her silver from last year, when she became the first Belgian women’s singles skater to win a world medal.
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Levito, last year’s world junior champion, had a chance to become the youngest senior world medalist since 2014.
After a solid short program, she fell on her opening triple Lutz in the free skate and left points on the table by performing two jump combinations rather than three. The Lutz was planned to be the first half of a combination with a triple loop.
“I am severely disappointed because I’ve been nailing my Lutz-loop for a really long time, and this is the first time I’ve messed it up in a while, and of course it had to be when it actually counted,” Levito said, according to the ISU. “But I’m pretty happy with myself for just trying to move past it and focusing on making the most out of the rest of the program.”
Levito entered worlds ranked fourth in the field by best score this season. She matched the best finish for a U.S. woman in her senior global championships debut (Olympics and worlds) since Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan took silver and bronze at the 1991 Worlds. Sasha Cohen, to whom Levito is often compared, also placed fourth in her Olympic and world debuts in 2002.
“I feel very proud for myself and grateful for my coaching team for helping me get this far so far in my skating career, and I’m just very proud to be where I am,” Levito said on USA Network.
American Amber Glenn was 12th in her world debut. Two-time U.S. champion Bradie Tennell was 15th. They had been 10th and eighth, respectively, in the short program.
The U.S. qualified two women’s spots for next year’s worlds rather than the maximum three because the top two Americans’ results added up to more than 13 (Levito’s fourth plus Glenn’s 12th equaled 16). The U.S. was in position to qualify three spots after the short program.
Glenn said after the short program that she had a very difficult two weeks before worlds, including “out-of-nowhere accidents and coincidences that could have prevented me from being here,” and boot problems that affected her triple Axel. She attempted a triple Axel in the free skate, spinning out of an under-rotated, two-footed landing.
Tennell, who went 19 months between competitions due to foot and ankle injuries in 2021 and 2022, had several jumping errors in the free skate.
“This season has been like one thing after another,” said the 25-year-old Tennell, who plans to compete through the 2026 Winter Games. “I’m really excited to get back and work on some stuff for the new season.”
Earlier, Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates topped the rhythm dance, starting their bid for a first world title in their 12th season together and after three prior world silver or bronze medals.
“We skated as best we possibly could today,” Bates said, according to the ISU, after they tallied the world’s top score this season.
Meryl Davis and Charlie White are the lone U.S. ice dancers to win a world title, doing so in 2011 and 2013.
Worlds continue Friday night (U.S. time) with the free dance, followed Saturday morning with the men’s free skate, live on Peacock and USA Network.
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