Sakamoto wins women’s title at depleted world championships

Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto celebrates winning the women’s free skating with her gold medal in Montpellier, France, on Friday.

MONTPELLIER, France (Reuters) — Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto claimed her maiden figure skating world title when she prevailed in the women’s singles event in a depleted competition at which Russia’s invasion of Ukraine still loomed large on Friday.

Sakamoto, a bronze medalist at the Beijing Olympics, finished ahead of Belgium’s Loena Hendrickx and American Alysa Liu, who were second and third respectively.

In the absence of Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova, the Beijing Games gold and silver medalists, after Russian skaters were banned from competing following Russia’s military action in Ukraine, Sakamoto delivered.

She improved her personal best in the free skate to 155.77 for a total of 236.09 for a deserved victory.

“Four years ago, I didn’t compete at the worlds after the Olympic Games because I felt burned out. It wasn’t easy to get ready for this just a month after the Games, but I’m glad I did. It was all worth it,” she said.

“It’s difficult to find one person to thank. I want to thank all my coaches because without them it wouldn’t be possible. I like to think I managed to repay them with this.”

Earlier on Friday, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, the only Beijing Olympic gold medalists at the world championships, beat their world record to lead the ice dance after the short program with 92.73.

Emotions ran high again as Ukrainian skaters took the ice.

Oleksandra Nazarova and Maxim Nikitin wore a blue and yellow t-shirt respectively as they danced to the tune of 1944 by Jamala, a song written after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

The song concerns the deportation of the Crimean Tatars by the Soviet Union in the 1940s.

“This song is helping people in Ukraine at the moment,” said Nikitin, who explained he and his partner needed more than a week to make it to France.

“It was very complicated to leave Ukraine, it took us eight days by car to drive 600 kilometers and arrive in Poland,” he said.

The competitions at the world championships end on Saturday with the free dance.