Figure skating: Sakamoto reigns supreme at Japan national championships

Two-time defending women’s world champion Kaori Sakamoto earned a spot at March’s worlds by winning her third straight Japan national title Sunday.

Sakamoto, who entered the nationals fresh off her first Grand Prix Final title this month, took an 8.86-point lead into her free skate at Nagano Big Hat from Friday’s short program.

She brought the house down with a flawless, energetic performance that earned her 154.34 points, surpassing her international season’s best score of 151.00. Sakamoto’s 233.12 total clinched her fourth career national championship, although she admitted having doubts about her free routine.

“I kept wondering how this free skate could be a fit for me personally, but somehow I was able to execute it without any mistakes, so I’m relieved,” Sakamoto said.

“Now I want to switch my focus from aiming for a third-straight national championship to the worlds without any letup in concentration. Put this behind me and go on to the next thing.”

The worlds will be in Montreal for four days from March 20.

Mone Chiba reached her first national championships podium by finishing second, 23.85 back of Sakamoto on 209.27.

Fifteen-year-old triple axel specialist and junior world champion Mao Shimada took the bronze medal for the second straight year with a final total of 202.18.

Thirteen-year-old Rena Uezono was fourth with 200.69.

“I was surprised because my focus wasn’t on my score,” she said. “I could perform all the things I’m currently able to.”

By Muhammad Hussain