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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