Interviews, short stories, photos featuring Kaori Sakamoto, Charlène Guignard and Marco Fabbri, Adam Siao Him Fa, Matteo Rizzo, Ekaterina Kurakova, Amber Glenn, Wakaba Higuchi, Nikolaj Memola, Allison Reed and Saulius Ambrulevicius in Bergamo. Plus: the surprise-winner of the women’s event, Rinka Watanabe, and the impressive Taschlers.
by Florentina Tone/Bergamo
From September 16 to 18, eyes of the skating world were on this charming city in northern Italy, Bergamo, because that’s where a lot of top skaters started their season – and not just the season, but the first year of this brand new Olympic cycle ending in Milano-Cortina, in February 2026.
A palpable sense of anticipation, and joy, and curiosity, and even pride was felt inside and outside IceLab, the slick and elegant arena hosting the event – because it’s not a small thing to have Kaori Sakamoto, the current World champion and Olympic bronze medalist, unveil her programs in Lombardia Trophy, show them for the first time in a competitive environment.
And it’s not a small thing either to have a strong Japanese women team on spot – Kaori Sakamoto, Wakaba Higuchi, Rinka Watanabe – but also strong competitors in the men’s event, such as Italy’s Matteo Rizzo and Nikolaj Memola, France’s Adam Siao Him Fa, Japan’s Koshiro Shimada. Or, in the ice dancing event, Europe’s highest ranked team at the moment, Charlène Guignard and Marco Fabbri, aspiring to podium in many, if not all competitions they enter this season.
Of course, for Matteo, Nikolaj, Charlène and Marco, IceLab is their home, their training place – but, during the three days of Lombardia Trophy, also the place where they wanted to shine more than in their daily practices, skate as well as their current stamina and preparation allow it, and also get the much-needed feedback on the programs from both the judges and the audience.
KAORI SAKAMOTO: “THIS IS JUST MY FIRST COMPETITION – I KNOW I CAN DO MORE”
Last time she was in Bergamo, in September 2018, Kaori Sakamoto introduced her (now trademark) “Piano” masterpiece of a free skate to the world.
She was still a rookie on the senior circuit back then, and she struggled in Bergamo, finishing outside the podium, behind Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, Sofia Samodurova and teammate Mako Yamashita.
There were no serious struggles this time around for Kaori – just the obvious feeling that, after a long and energy-consuming Olympic season, she is still growing into her new programs, into the competitive form expected from a World champion, into the competitive form that Kaori knows she can attain.
Finishing second in Bergamo, behind teammate Rinka Watanabe, the World champion welcomed the result with a smile – as if the glorious medals she got last season made for a noble patina and surrounded her with a brand new layer of confidence.
As if Kaori doesn’t doubt herself, and her qualities anymore.
Minutes later in the mixed zone, it’s the same feeling that we get from her: Kaori looks relaxed, she looks serene, unworried – sure she’s on the right track, that she’ll only grow from here (205.33 points in Lombardia Trophy). And she has a fantastic impromptu translator to share her thoughts: her teammate, the gold medalist Rinka Watanabe.
As a matter of fact, Kaori and Rinka met the few journalists in Bergamo smiling and giggling, continuing thus the heartwarming scenes during the medals’ ceremony, where both of them surely felt joy, felt pride for different, but also for common reasons. For starting the season on a positive note, in a competition that has a homey feeling about it, for being there for one another, as if Kaori were a master introducing Rinka to the world, and being genuinely happy for her.
And since Rinka is very proficient in English, she offers to translate Kaori’s answers post-event. And in between bursts of laughter – most likely, this is Rinka’s first time as a translator for a high-profile teammate – we get this: “She [Kaori] says that she missed some of the elements, she lost some levels – but this is her first competition. For her it’s important to get good points when she first competes. So she knows she can get more than this – she knows she can do more”.
Not to forget this is also a season of novelty for the World champion Kaori Sakamoto: after having 7 out of the 9 senior programs so far choreographed by Benoît Richaud, Kaori tries something completely different at the beginning of this Olympic cycle. She has worked with choreographers she had never worked before – with Rohene Ward, for her short program to music by Janet Jackson (“Rock With You” and “Feedback”), and with Marie-France Dubreuil from Ice Academy of Montreal, for the free skate to music by Sia (“Elastic Heart”).
It is quite a departure from what we’ve come to know and expect from Kaori Sakamoto, from what Kaori herself knew and expected, from a familiar environment and working style. She now takes a journey of discoveries, hoping, at the end of the road, to know more about herself – and we can’t wait to see where the journey takes her.
Plus: no better season to try yourself onto new challenges than the first season of the Olympic cycle.
Face to face with this particular detail – that ice dance coach and choreographer Marie-France Dubreuil only does a program per season for a singles skater, and “this season, that skater is you” – Kaori smiles to the ears; she knows. Translating this piece of information, and the question itself, the one who looks more stunned is Rinka, and both skaters laugh and have their hands on their cheeks in amazement. Rinka gathers herself: “That’s the first time when she (Kaori) worked with Marie-France – it was something new for her. And she didn’t know at first about that – one singles skater per season – but when she had the program choreographed, she found out about it, and she was like: «Aaaaah!»”
RINKA WATANABE: “MY GOAL WAS GETTING OVER 200 POINTS – THAT’S ALL I WANTED”
Remember this name: Rinka Watanabe, 20 years old, from Chiba, Japan. She is the surprise winner of 2022 Lombardia Trophy – and her only previous international (senior) assignment has been 2022 Coupe du Printemps, in Kockelscheuer, Luxembourg, in March, where she also finished first.
And she now has a win over World champion Kaori Sakamoto in her curriculum.
But Rinka didn’t come to Bergamo with the thought of winning – though she did have a particular goal on mind. And when she saw her free skate scores, and overall, while sitting in the Kiss and Cry, one could hear a scream, a mixture of shock, bewilderment and utter joy. It was Rinka – the goal had been attained.
And now that, in addition, she has won the women’s event in Lombardia Trophy, Rinka Watanabe can barely retain her enthusiasm. Smiles to the ears, she laughs, and talks, and laughs again – that’s how this short interview with the winner goes. In short, Rinka is ecstatic – how could she not be?
“I am so proud, and so shocked! I did a good triple Axel, my last triple Lutz was not that good, but my goal was getting over 200 points, and when I saw the scores, I was so in shock that I screamed! Yeah, I was like: Whaaaaat?”
Has the thought of winning in Bergamo ever crossed her mind?
“Noooo! My goal was just getting over 200 points, that’s all that I wanted. My best score was in Japanese Nationals, and it was like 199… So coming here I was like: Go over 200 points. And I’m having both the gold medal and 213 points, so I can’t think of anything right now!”
Laughing still: “Just, yeah, I’m really happy. I almost cried when I saw that I won!”
And for this season – whose debut has been so successful – Rinka has a short program to the famous “El Tango de Roxanne”, from “Moulin Rouge” soundtrack, a program choreographed by Kenji Miyamoto. And a free skate to particular music, from the soundtrack of the Japanese television drama series “Jin”, choreographed by Cathy Reed.
“Cathy Reed choreographed the long program – and Japanese people will maybe understand it better. It’s kind of hard for me to explain right now, but it’s more like a story of past time: one guy is a doctor and he travels in time; it’s almost like with Covid: everyone is sick, and he is trying to help people”.
In the TV drama series, a brain surgeon named Jin Minakata is knocked unconscious by a panicking patient at the hospital and awakens to find himself transported back in time to the Edo period.
And Rinka adds layers after layers while skating this beautiful, emotional long program in Bergamo, while also including a thrilling triple Axel, perfectly executed – and since, as the skater explains, the program is likely to be more appreciated at its value by a Japanese audience, we ask Rinka the obvious question: Is she hoping to skate this program at 2023 Worlds in Saitama, Japan?
Hands on her head in disbelief, you have your answer. And her words in between smiles: “Yeaaaaaaah…! Yeah, I would love to. I mean, Japanese people know this music – so this would be… But this music is used for the first time in ISU competitions, and the PCS for me are pretty good already – so I think, after all, that everyone, not just the Japanese people will get to know it and enjoy it”.
On this note we leave Rinka and Kaori go to the official bus – Wakaba Higuchi, surrounded by her little fans, had waited for them – and then maybe celebrate the end of the event with pasta and many cups of gelato. All three of them had tried the famous Italian gelato before the free skate in Bergamo; the following morning they were scheduled to leave for Japan.
EKATERINA KURAKOVA: “FOLLOW YOUR DREAM, FOLLOW YOUR HEART – IMPOSSIBLE IS POSSIBLE”
We don’t know about you, but we’re always caught up in Ekaterina Kurakova’s enthusiasm – as if smiles don’t ever leave this optimistic skater, as if she spreads an aura of joy in every space that she enters.
[Remember Brian Orser’s words? He felt the same when he coached her at Toronto Cricket Club for a while: “She brought charm, and she brought enthusiasm, she’s a hard worker”.]
It’s the case with Lombardia Trophy at IceLab, in Bergamo – Ekaterina returned to this particular competition after winning the silver medal last season, and she made the podium again this September, taking the bronze.
But even before having the confirmation that she won a medal, you could see her in the audience, still wearing her bubbly yellow free skate dress, signing autographs, sharing smiles and a lovely chat with dancers Maria Kazakova and Georgy Reviya.
And even later, during the medals’ ceremony and in the mixed zone, Ekaterina was still beaming with joy.
“I am so happy! First competition, first medal – pretty good! I am happy that I won over my stress today, and, again, I did exactly like last season: with the free skate, I went up. I hope one day I will do even a better short [laughing] – but now I am happy with my free skate, and that’s what matters today”.
She had to overcome a tiny bit of an obstacle at the beginning of the skate, when they played a different piece of music in the arena, but, looking back, that really helped her loosen up.
“I think, honestly, that helped me, because I was a bit more chill afterwards. «Ok, something happened, it’s fine, it’s ok, all the bad luck is gone»”.
As for the story of her free skate, listening to Ekaterina, it becomes obvious: the programs seems to be the very embodiment of her skating journey, of all the efforts she made to keep on skating, and the reward, and the accomplishments she gets from it day by day.
“I even have balloons on my [free skate] dress – and that’s because the story is inspired from the cartoon «Up». And the story would be like: Follow your dream – it’s so important to dream. Because dreams can come true, and my dream came true, and it’s so important to continue to dream. Sometimes it’s hard, dreams cannot come true that easily – so you have to work, you have to try. But always follow your dream, follow your heart – and impossible is possible”.
And you can’t help being amazed with her joy and her serenity, knowing that, indeed, for Moscow-born Ekaterina Kurakova – competing for Russia in her junior years, moving to Poland in 2017, becoming a Polish citizen two years later – the road has not been easy.
But she has been stubborn enough to follow the path she has chosen for herself – to find a way to continue to skate, and skate internationally – and now she reaps a rich harvest, as they say.
Her plans for this season?
“I want to enjoy it, that’s it. Now it’s much less pressure [than last season] – because, you know, last season was the Olympic one and it was so hard. But this season I don’t have any pressure – from my parents dreaming, or my federation dreaming, or me dreaming… Now I’m just really happy with what I’m doing, I really enjoy it.
I also know that some skaters already finished their careers, and I was thinking about what I want – and I was like: This is my life, and I want to continue, because I really enjoy it – I enjoy coming to the practice, I enjoy being tired, these feelings that I did a good work, I did everything that I could, and I am now tired… These are good feelings: I enjoy coming to the rink and I have this possibility to show myself – and, today, before the program, I even said: God, thank you for the fact that I can do what I like! [smiling to the ears]”
And Ekaterina has an additional reason to be happy this autumn: she has been invited to take part in Japan Open [October 8, Saitama, Japan], a dream of hers, as a part of Team Europe.
And this story is also told while glowing with excitement.
“I was crying when I heard I would go! Because Daniel Grassl came to me, in May or June, and he told me they invited him, and I was like: It’s so, so cool. And I knew they would choose two girls from Europe, and the first one was Loena [Hendrickx], and they were trying to find the second girl. And it was almost August, and there was no information – so I was like: Ok, they didn’t invite me. And I just asked Lorenzo [Magri], my coach, about it: «Do you know something?», because there was this possibility, and he was like: «No».
And I left from the coffee shop, I was at the rink, and two minutes I hear, «Katia, Katia, Lorenzo is calling you!», and he was: «Kurakova, come here!», and I was: «Oh, if he’s saying Kurakova, that means is something bad», and I was: «Yeaaaaah…», «Come here!», and I’m like: «Ok, what I did wrong?», and he said: «Watch!», and he showed me the message, they had invited me to Japan Open!
And I started to cry, because I have been dreaming about it for so long, and I just remembered how Evgenia Medvedeva was coming there, and she was like: «Ah, that’s so amazing!» And it felt like something impossible to go there from Europe, and they chose me, and I was like: «Probably I am already someone, if they did [invite me]» [laughing], so that’s super cool. I’m really grateful about this competition – really, I’m speechless”.
AMBER GLENN: “I SPENT THE LAST TWO YEARS CONSUMED BY OLYMPIC DREAMS – NOW I AM TRYING TO ENJOY THE MOMENT”
Amber Glenn finished outside the podium in Bergamo, at 2022 Lombardia Trophy – but watching her skate her long program to meaningful music, “Without You” by Ursine Vulpine & Annaca, choreography by Misha Ge, you feel she really puts herself out there, you feel this is not just a program to her.
Minutes later, in the mixed zone, she says exactly that.
“It’s something that’s very dear to me. I have people in my life that I know that I wouldn’t be where I am without, that they’ve gotten me out of dark times, they’ve gotten me out of some depression, out of some rough times in my life – and I just think about them, and I think about my passion and love for them. And how thankful I am to have their support.
And I can almost feel that going through me when I skate – I can feel it lifting me up. And it’s very emotional for me, and I feel that when I’m emotionally attached to a music or a program, I tend to have a better time on the ice – and I had a good time out there today”.
She chose the music herself, “I did, I did, and I had Misha choreographing it, and he cut the music – and I know I am gonna have a talk with him afterwards, because I didn’t do all the choreography correctly this time [smiling]. I was a bit fast, I was a bit early on the music, I could be a bit calmer, but… I think the program has so much room to grow, and it can be something great”.
Knowing there are things that can definitely be improved, Amber also highlights the good parts of the program – and we feel the need to also highlight this particular detail: Lombardia Trophy 2022 was the first time that Amber tried the triple Axel in her free program, and going into her Grand Prix assignment this season, Skate America, she says she might even try the jump in both programs.
“It was a good start here. I went for the Axel, it wasn’t backwards, but it was a good attempt – and this is the first time that I had ever tried it in a free program, so it was a first for me, and now I feel really good about going into Grand Prix, possibly trying it in both [programs]. And… just being able to get out there more, in front of a crowd, to be able to perform towards an audience – hopefully, it will improve throughout the season”.
As for her goals this season, Amber has a precise one in mind – “I really want to land that triple Axel clean, I really want to do that!” – but on the long-term, she know what she wants from her, from her skating, and her answer is really emotional.
“I want to get out there and perform the best that I can for the audience and just have a good time, and enjoy skating. I spent the last two years consumed by Olympic dreams, and now that that has passed, I am taking it season by season, competition by competition, I am trying to enjoy what I’ve accomplished and enjoy the moment”.
WAKABA HIGUCHI: THE POWER, THE POTENTIAL HER PROGRAMS HAVE
It was not the best start of the season for Japan’s Wakaba Higuchi – while in Bergamo, the 21-year-old, silver World medalist in 2018, talked about her lack of readiness, about not being in competitive form yet and, because of that, doubting her actual performance.
And it was just that at Lombardia Trophy, where Wakaba finished only 9th, with scores that were below her abilities and talent – but what we could all see while watching her skate is what we see every time she’s on the ice: no matter what, Wakaba Higuchi fully enters the character of her programs, she goes all in, performs them to the fingertips.
And the programs that she choreographed with Shae-Lynn Bourne – SP to “Never Tear Us Apart”, FS to “Talk to Her” and “Le di a la caza alcance” – strike you with their boldness, their emotional charge, the openness, variety of movement. And she will definitely make them hers.
On October 5th, three weeks after Lombardia Trophy, we have an answer to those struggles: dealing with a stress fracture since April, Wakaba Higuchi announced she would take the whole season off, and focus on her recovery.
Her competition in Bergamo proved to be the first and the last of the season – but what this competition brought us – and Wakaba as well, we think – is a great deal of confidence in the set of programs choreographed by Shae-Lynn Bourne. Hopefully, she will keep them.
NEXT PAGE: Adam Siao Him Fa, Koshiro Shimada, Nikolaj Memola, Matteo Rizzo