Kaori Sakamoto for 2019 World Champion. Fight me.Embed from Getty Images
When everyone in the final flight of the Ladies event at Japan Nationals has the skill to win a World title, just making it to the podium is a terrific accomplishment. And on the podium is exactly where most sensible pundits would have placed Kaori Sakamoto before this competition. Not the top spot, surely, but a fighting chance for silver or bronze.
Instead, she won, and we were all #blessed with one of the best K&C reactions in ages:
One of my pet figure skating peeves is how quickly people dismiss Sakamoto as a good technician with weak presentation. Her skating does not hew to the hyper-extended, ballet-inspired standard of “good” female figure skating. She has a softer line and more relaxed deportment than many of her peers that I think is misread as casual. And so her charm is lost or downplayed in favour of her more approachable technical gifts.
But there is grandeur in every stroke she skates and nowhere is that more evident than in this year’s free program to The Piano. She skated it brilliantly at Nationals, and I think it’s the best long program in the discipline this season. Yes, better than Satoko Miyahara (and I love Satoko). Other programs may have more intricate choreography or complicated footwork, but no one else channels such beautiful power and quiet confidence. It’s a strong enough to launch Sakamoto to the top of the World podium.
TL; DR: The last minute and a half of Sakamoto’s free program slays me every time.
Keiji Tanaka Lives to Skate Another World ChampionshipsEmbed from Getty Images
Keiji Tanaka received two early Christmas presents at nationals: a bronze medal and a spot on Japan’s world team. The first is inadvertently courtesy of Yuzuru Hanyu–all things being equal, Hanyu would have bumped Tanaka out of podium position were he able to compete this year. The second is a gift from Daisuke Takahashi: he declined a place on the world team, opening up a place for Tanaka.
Consider the plight of a male skater in Japan not named Uno or Hanyu: barring absolute disaster, you’re constantly scrapping for a national bronze medal, The Third Spot, the bubble position. Tanaka has managed to squeak into that spot for the third year running, but inconsistency will hamper any bid to rank higher, domestically or internationally. Until he puts together training, technique, and temperament, he’ll have to keep scrapping–but at least he has a killer vest to wear to the fight.
I Want Nice Things for Wakaba HiguchiEmbed from Getty Images
If you haven’t already seen Higuchi’s short program, go watch and then come back. It’s just the right blend of kicky and fun, and it injects much needed sparkle into a sea of shopworn classical programs. Higuchi’s overall performance a nationals was a little short on that magic. A fifth place finish means Higuchi will not defend her World silver medal–Sakamoto, Miyahara, and Kihira were named to the world team instead.
It’s moments like this where I want to offer up Canada’s world team spots to Japan, even Russia, to allow skaters like Higuchi to compete at Worlds. What business do we have sending Alaine Chartrand or Whatever Random Kid from Quebec Places Third to Worlds when Higuchi (and Mai Mihara, Evgenia Medvedeva, and Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, to name but a few) are stuck at home? Seriously, give the spots to Japan. They’ll make far better use of them!