Kaori Sakamoto is latest Japanese skating world champ; Alysa Liu puts U.S. back on podium

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Kaori Sakamoto became the first Japanese woman in eight years to win the World Figure Skating Championships after a women’s free skate that was full of emotion on Friday.

The other nations joining her on the podium — Belgium and the United States — had plenty of reason to celebrate as well.

In her one Olympic and two world championship appearances before this season, the 21-year-old Sakamoto had finished no higher than fifth; she now owns an Olympic bronze medal and worlds gold medal.

Sakamoto is the sixth woman from Japan to win the women’s singles world total, following in the footsteps of skating royalty Midori ItoYuka SatoShizuka ArakawaMiki AndoMao Asada. Ito, Arakawa and Asada are also Olympic medalists.

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Sakamoto set personal best scores across the board in Montpellier, France with 80.32 points for her short program, 155.77 in the free and a 236.09-point total.

“Four years ago, and this year, I did everything for the Olympic Games, but it was well worth it,” Sakamoto said.

With Russia banned from sending skaters to worlds, it made way for a trio of first-time medalists.

Loena Hendrickx is the first Belgian women’s skater ever to medal at worlds and first Belgian to medal in any discipline in more than seven decades. She remained consistent from Wednesday’s short program, second both days, and took silver with 217.70 points.

Sakamoto won with the highest margin of victory (18.39 points) in the women’s event in nine years, since two-time Olympic medalist Kim Yuna won her second world title.

Meanwhile, Alysa Liu jumped from fifth in the short program to third overall on the merit of one of the best free skate performances of her life. At her first senior-level worlds, Liu earned the first U.S. women’s world medal in six years with a 211.19 total. Ashley Wagner‘s 2016 silver was the last for an American woman and the only other one since 2006.

“I’m speechless,” Liu said. “When I saw that I medaled, I was like, ‘What?!’ I’m still in shock.”

After enduring a roller-coaster span of less than three months that included testing positive for Covid and having to withdraw halfway through the U.S. Championships, making her long-awaited Olympic debut at age 16, facing public scrutiny after it was revealed last week that Chinese men had stalked and harassed her father allegedly on behalf of the Chinese government, then making her senior worlds debut, Liu ended her impressive free skate with tears and a clear release of emotions and heavy life experiences.

“I’m so tired,” she said as she left the ice.

U.S. Olympic teammate Mariah Bell finished fourth, falling from third in the short program.

She was still all smiles at the end of her mostly clean “Hallelujah” program in which she fought for every element and helped ensure the U.S. will send the maximum three women to worlds in 2023.

“I’m proud that I got fourth,” Bell said. “I could’ve been any place below fourth. Obviously I was close to a medal and I had the potential to do it, I just got a little tentative on the last few jumps, but I’m really happy for Alysa and that we got an American woman on the podium; I think that’s awesome.”

Competing for Georgia, Anastasia Gubanova had the most impressive second-day result, vaulting from 14th in the short program to sixth overall after getting the fifth-highest free skate score.

Two-time Olympian Karen Chen was eighth. She, too, finished her free skate with tears of joy and relief. Chen, an experienced skater who was fourth at both of her previous worlds appearances, said she had never been so terrified to take the ice after being unable to put out clean performances at last month’s Olympics.

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LA 2028, Delta unveil first-of-its-kind emblems for Olympics, Paralympics

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Emblems for the 2028 Los Angeles Games that include logos of Delta Air Lines is the first integration of its kind in Olympic and Paralympic history.

Organizers released the latest set of emblems for the LA 2028 Olympics and Paralympics on Thursday, each with a Delta symbol occupying the “A” spot in LA 28.

Two years ago, the LA 2028 logo concept was unveiled with an ever-changing “A” that allowed for infinite possibilities. Many athletes already created their own logos, as has NBC.

“You can make your own,” LA28 chairperson Casey Wasserman said in 2020. “There’s not one way to represent Los Angeles, and there is strength in our diverse cultures. We have to represent the creativity and imagination of Los Angeles, the diversity of our community and the big dreams the Olympic and Paralympic Games provide.”

Also in 2020, Delta was announced as LA 2028’s inaugural founding partner. Becoming the first partner to have an integrated LA 2028 emblem was “extremely important for us,” said Emmakate Young, Delta’s managing director, brand marketing and sponsorships.

“It is a symbol of our partnership with LA, our commitment to the people there, as well as those who come through LA, and a commitment to the Olympics,” she said.

The ever-changing emblem succeeds an angelic bid logo unveiled in February 2016 when the city was going for the 2024 Games, along with the slogan, “Follow the Sun.” In July 2017, the IOC made a historic double awarding of the Olympics and Paralympics — to Paris for 2024 and Los Angeles for 2028.

The U.S. will host its first Olympics and Paralympics since 2002 (and first Summer Games since 1996), ending its longest drought between hosting the Games since the 28-year gap between 1932 and 1960.

Delta began an eight-year Olympic partnership in 2021, becoming the official airline of Team USA and the 2028 Los Angeles Games.

Athletes flew to this year’s Winter Games in Beijing on chartered Delta flights and will do so for every Games through at least 2028.

Previously, Delta sponsored the last two Olympics held in the U.S. — the 1996 Atlanta Games and the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games.

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Eliud Kipchoge’s marathon world record was the product of pain, rain

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When Eliud Kipchoge broke the marathon world record in Berlin on Sunday, he began his celebration near the finish line by doing the same thing he did upon breaking the record in Berlin four years earlier.

He hugged longtime coach Patrick Sang.

The embrace was brief. Not much was said. They shook hands, Kipchoge appeared to stop his watch and Sang wiped his pupil’s sweaty face off with a towel. Kipchoge continued on his congratulatory tour.

“It felt good,” Sang said by phone from his native Kenya on Thursday. “I told him, ‘I’m proud of you and what you have achieved today.'”

Later, they met again and reflected together on the 2:01:09 performance, chopping 30 seconds off his world record in 2018 in the German capital.

“I mentioned to him that probably it was slightly a little bit too fast in the beginning, in the first half,” Sang said of Kipchoge going out in 59 minutes, 51 seconds for the first 13.1 miles (a sub-two-hour pace he did not maintain in the final miles). “But he said he felt good.

“Besides that, I think it was just to appreciate the effort that he put in in training. Sometimes, if you don’t acknowledge that, then it looks like you’re only looking at the performance. We looked at the sacrifice.”

Sang thought about the abnormally wet season in southwestern Kenya, where Kipchoge logs his daily miles more than a mile above sea level.

“Sometimes he had to run in the rain,” said Sang, the 1992 Olympic 3000m steeplechase silver medalist. “Those are small things you reflect and say, it’s worth sacrificing sometimes. Taking the pain training, and it pays off.”

When Sang analyzes his athletes, he looks beyond times. He studies their faces.

The way Kipchoge carried himself in the months leading into Berlin — running at 6 a.m. “rain or shine,” Sang said — reminded the coach of the runner’s sunny disposition in the summer of 2019. On Oct. 12 of that year, Kipchoge clocked 1:59:40 in the Austrian capital in a non-record-eligible event (rather than a traditional race) to become the first person to cover 26.2 miles on foot in less than two hours.

Sang said he does not discuss time goals with his students — “Putting specific targets puts pressure on the athlete, and you can easily go the wrong direction,” he said.

In looking back on the race, there is some wonder whether Kipchoge’s plan was to see how long he could keep a pace of sub-two hours. Sang refused to speculate, but he was not surprised to see Kipchoge hit the halfway point 61 seconds faster than the pacers’ prescribed 60:50 at 13.1 miles.

“Having gone two hours in Monza [2:00:25 in a sub-two-hour attempt in 2017], having run the unofficial 1:59 and so many times 2:01, 2:02, 2:03, the potential was written all over,” Sang said. “So I mean, to think any differently would be really under underrating the potential. Of course, then adding on top of that the aspect of the mental strength. He has a unique one.”

Kipchoge slowed in the second half, but not significantly. He started out averaging about 2 minutes, 50 seconds per kilometer (equivalent to 13.2 miles per hour). He came down to 2:57 per kilometer near the end.

Regret is not in Kipchoge’s nature. We may never know the extent of his sub-two thoughts on Sunday. Sang noted that Kipchoge, whose marathon career began a decade ago after he failed to make the London Olympic team on the track, does not dwell on the past.

“If you talk to him now, he probably is telling you about tomorrow,” Sang joked.

The future is what is intriguing about Kipchoge. Approaching 38 years old, he continues to improve beyond peak age for almost every elite marathoner. Can Kipchoge go even faster? It would likely require a return next year to Berlin, whose pancake-flat roads produced the last eight men’s marathon world records. But Kipchoge also wants to run, and win, another prestigious fall marathon in New York City.

Sang can see the appeal of both options in 2023 and leaves the decision to Kipchoge and his management team.

‘If we can find the motivation for him, or he finds it within himself, that he believes he can still run for some time, for a cause, for a reason … I think the guy can still even do better than what he did in Berlin,” Sang said. “We are learning a lot about the possibilities of good performance at an advanced age. It’s an inspiration and should be an inspiration for anybody at any level.”

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