We called them (Hi)Stories – because history was made by so many skaters in Saitama, at this year’s edition of the World Championships, and so many athletes, coaches, teams and federations have a reason to say “Domo Arigato” at the end of competition.
But we can also call them Sakura Stories, since it was Sakura season in Japan at the time of World Championships, and some of the performances we witnessed carried so much emotion, beauty, grace, and then they vanished, they flew into eternity – just like a sakura petal falling from the tree and flowing smoothly in the air before reaching the ground.
Looking back to Saitama, there were performances that really felt like that – closing your eyes, what’s the first one that comes to mind?
Here’s one from us: Jason Brown’s ethereal free skate to “The Impossible Dream”.
Jason skating straight into our hearts, leaving them filled with joy.
And so the story that follows brings together (hi)stories and emotions, in a beautiful effort to keep them alive through words, through images, through memories.
Enjoy the journey as it happened: pairs, women, ice dance, men.
Selection and short stories by Florentina Tone
Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara: the first Japanese pair in the history of the discipline to win gold at World Championships, after being the first Japanese pair to win the Grand Prix Final gold and the Four Continents gold. All in one season – Riku and Ryuichi are truly history-makers.
And not just that: they are emotion-makers.
They are the kind of team that keeps you emotionally involved in their performances from the moment they step on the ice to the last glimpse of them in the Kiss and Cry. And even later on, during the medal ceremony, when Riku decides she wants to see the world through gilded lens: their medals.
And don’t forget there’s an Inside Skating interview nearby that will help you get to know them – and their story – better.
Coach Bruno Marcotte: “What really sets them apart is the lightning that happens when they skate together”
Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier: making personal history in Saitama and winning their second Word medal, the silver one, fighting through adversity, through unfortunate circumstances – their coach Todd Sand was in a serious condition at the time of Worlds, after suffering a heart attack at the beginning of March.
This medal was surely for him – he’s the one that “instilled fight in us”, emotional Alexa said in Saitama.
Sara Conti and Niccolò Macii: these two – and their utter joy when realizing the kind of performance they put out in Saitama on the free skate day, when realizing the kind of season they had.
The first (and, to date, only) Italian pair to medal at the World Championships – bronze in Saitama – and earlier this year, in January, to win gold at the European Championships.
Plus: the first Italian pair in the history of the discipline to win a medal at the Grand Prix Final (bronze last December, in Torino). Sara and Niccolò are truly living their best life as a pair team – and they’re a living proof that dreams come true. You only need to dare to dream them.
Deanna Stellato-Dudek and Maxime Deschamps: her journey, their journey have been nothing short of extraordinary.
A former single skater – and one that was extremely successful in her junior years: silver at 2000 Junior Worlds, 1999 Junior Grand Prix Final champion – turned into a pair skater, Deanna and Maxime are now 2023 Four Continents bronze medalists, 2022 Grand Prix France champions, 2022 Skate America silver medalists, also qualifying for the Grand Prix Final last December.
In Saitama, at 2023 Worlds, they finished on the 4th place and established themselves as one of the big teams on the circuit. Having her biggest victories attained in her late 30ties, Deanna is really proving that age is just a number, and that passion is the most powerful driving force of all.
Kaori Sakamoto: the first Japanese skater of any discipline to win back-to-back World titles.
Read that again, if you need a reinforcement.
Considering the depth and the incredible quality of Japanese skating throughout the years, this feat is one for the ages. And we couldn’t be more pleased that it belongs to one of the sweetest, heart on her sleeve-skater out there: Kaori Sakamoto.
Winning gold at both 2022 Worlds and 2023 Worlds, she is one of only four women to win consecutive World titles since 1991, alongside Kristi Yamaguchi (1991-1992), Michelle Kwan (2000-2001) and Evgenia Medvedeva (2016-2017). Kaori is also the first Japanese woman to win Worlds (last year, in Montpellier) since Mao Asada in 2014.
But what makes her really adored by skating fans all around the world, apart from her brilliant skating qualities, is Kaori always being her – a beautiful soul through and through, her sunny, caring personality. Remember: she started her season in Bergamo, last September, hiding under the boards so that her teammate and gold medalist Rinka Watanabe can have her own moment of glory – and finished her season in Saitama, at Worlds, looking for a Belgian flag in the audience, so that bronze medalist Loena Hendrickx can have her moment too.
Haein Lee: the first South Korean figure skater in any discipline to win a World medal since Yuna Kim in 2013. Haein won a historical silver medal in Saitama by putting down two career-best performances and winning the free skate segment of the event.
And she is truly following into Yuna Kim’s footsteps, from her junior years to present times: this February, Haein was also crowned Four Continents champion, the second Korean woman to win the title after Yuna Kim did it first, in 2009.
Haein quotes Yuna as her biggest inspiration and says this only encourages to work harder.
Loena Hendrickx keeps doing history for Belgium: she has now consecutive medals at Worlds – silver last year in Montpellier, bronze this year in Saitama.
And that performance is unheard of in the history of Belgian women’s skating – and Loena is the first-ever World, European and Grand Prix Final medalist from Belgium in the discipline. No wonder she served as the country’s co-flag-bearer during the opening ceremonies of 2022 Olympics in Beijing.
[In the history of Belgian skating, only the pair Micheline Lannoy and Pierre Baugniet won medals at Worlds, taking the crown in both 1947 and 1948.]
But what Loena successfully does, apart from making history for herself and for the country, is opening a path for all Belgian female skaters out there, dreaming big and having huge aspirations. And it was a joy to have a complete squad of Belgian women at this year’s edition of Worlds, thanks to Loena’s silver last year in Montpellier, and watch them all doing great: Loena herself, Nina Pinzarrone, Jade Hovine.
Mai Mihara may not have won a World medal in Saitama, but she won our hearts this season.
And she put out two strong performances in Saitama, to conclude a season that was truly hers: Mai is 2022 MK John Wilson Trophy champion, 2022 Grand Prix of Espoo champion, 2022 Grand Prix Final champion.
The 23-year old really needs to look back at this season with joy – and look ahead with confidence: she came back on the world stage after a very difficult time, she came back where she belonged – and what a comeback!
Isabeau Levito: she’s been our revelation, our breakthrough star this season.
Debuting on the senior circuit, Isabeau became the US national champion, won silver in both her Grand Prix assignments, 2022 Skate America and 2022 MK John Wilson Trophy, qualified for the Final in Torino, where she finished 2nd – wowing the skating world with her qualities. She only finished 4th in Saitama – a disappointment for the ambitious skater that she is – but what Isabeau needs to know is the result doesn’t take anything from the season that she had; and it only makes everyone eager to see what’s next for her.
An image that will stay with us?
Isabeau, a petal of red rose, just like the ones she had on her short program dress while skating to “Una noche más”.
Nicole Schott: showing the best version of herself in Saitama – and how much we wanted for her to put out two great skates, so that the world finally sees her.
Nicole finished this edition of Worlds on the 7th place – a career best placement – and concludes the season in Top 10 at both Europeans and Worlds. And kudos to her for choosing to skate in Saitama the short program she felt closer to her heart, to the emotional music of Ezio Bosso, “Rain, in Your Black Eyes”.
Kimmy Repond’s reaction in the Kiss and Cry, at the end of her free skate in Saitama, will surely stay as one of the big moments of this edition of the World Championships – as will both of her performances.
And Kimmy’s season was full of joy, at the end of flawless performances, skated with a kind of flow that kept us glued. She skates with commitment, dedication, she puts herself out there, no strings attached.
Lara Naki Gutmann had the 13th free skate of the day in Saitama – and her Vertigo-Hitchcock-Psycho long program was truly a highlight in the women’s event this season. There you have a glimpse of it, for us all to remember this masterpiece.
Romania’s Julia Sauter is our own personal hero: we followed her journey the last couple of seasons, admired her passion for the sport, the perseverance, the grit and the resilience, and published a feature earlier this season to tell it all.
A strong-willed, self-made skater, we wrote – and finishing in the Top 20 at back-to-back Worlds (18th in Montpellier, 20th in Saitama), now that’s quite a feat for this incredible skater who’s been following her dreams, and financing her skating journey, right from the start.
The power of dreams is not a figure of speech when it comes to Julia – it’s what kept her passion for the sport alive, and how lucky we are all to experience it.
Julia’s story continues to unfold itself, and it even involves one of the skaters and friends that she is really fond of.
2023 Worlds were meant to be Daša Grm’s last competitive event – but we didn’t know that when she took the ice for her short program in Saitama Super Arena.
But the thought definitely crossed our mind while watching Daša’s emotional performance while skating to “Near Light” and “Breathe Me”, a program that she’d choreographed herself – and then, again, while seeing her emotional reaction while exiting the ice.
It was her Goodbye to competitive skating – the final chapter of a long, eventful career (we saw her first in Bern, at 2011 Europeans) that made who she is: an inspiration.
Pursuing one’s dreams, handling one’s career with little outside support, choreographing one’s programs – there are so many things that Slovenia’s Daša Grm and Romania’s Julia Sauter have in common, and Julia said it loud and clear a while ago: “You see, Daša Grm from Slovenia, she also does a lot of things by herself – and for me, that’s an inspiration: if she can do it, I can do it too! We’re pretty good friends now, and we also travelled after Japan [2019 Worlds] together. So I would ask her to look over things and tell me what she thinks, and she would look over and say: This and this and this”.
For 2023-2024 season, these two women are taking it one step further while working and choreographing together one of Julia’s competitive programs.
Madison Chock and Evan Bates: the sweet taste of gold.
It was a long journey to the World title for Madison Chock and Evan Bates – they’ve been skating together since the summer of 2011 – and what a successful journey, filled with medals on the international circuit, filled with recognition.
Just listen: from the moment they debuted at Worlds, in 2013, they never missed an edition of the competition, they never finished lower than 7th place, they won the silver medal in 2015, the bronze in 2016 and 2022 – before finally taking the gold in Saitama, this season, in their tenth Worlds.
They’ve been in the elite of the discipline for a decade now – a proof of their abilities, no doubt, but also a proof they were able to reinvent themselves in order to stay at the top.
And the moment they both quote as essential in their career moving forward was their move to Canada, in May 2018, to train with Ice Academy of Montreal’s team of professionals.
Evan calls it simply: a renaissance.
“They took us in their group – even though they didn’t have to; at that time, they already had the strongest American couple skating. It turned out that they gave us a second wind, a real renaissance in our career. But the main thing is that they taught us a lot, and not only about figure skating. Our school in Montreal is a question of values, of human qualities, of true friendship. And that’s the most important thing we’ve taken away from our – so long – career in figure skating”.
Charlène Guignard and Marco Fabbri: coming to Saitama to win their first World medal – they envisioned the bronze – to win, to their surprise, the silver one, making such a huge layer of personal history in their long career as Believers. Fighters. Doers.
Their reaction in the Kiss and Cry seeing the scores for both the rhythm dance and the free?
And if reactions could tell a story (and they can!), these ones tell the story of perseverance, of moving forward, of knocking on the doors of world recognition until those doors finally opened.
At 2023 Worlds, the 11th of their journey, Charlène and Marco’s technical prowess was equaled by a striking ability to tell their story to the audience – hence no one could refuse them a so well-deserved World medal.
We called it an act of justice – it really felt like that.
Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier: finishing the season with joy, with gratitude.
And that was the whole purpose of it, of this post-Olympic season: to erase the feelings of the last one from their recent memory, and replace them with brand new thoughts, emotions, with renewed enthusiasm for the sport.
And you could feel that calmness, that new found serenity in all of their skating this season – one that led Piper and Paul to gold at 2022 Skate Canada, gold at 2022 Grand Prix of Espoo, gold at 2022 Grand Prix Final, and on the podium of World Championships in Saitama.
They too have a long story behind them, sharing so many podiums throughout their career with Madison and Evan, with Charlène and Marco – and, truthfully, having them share one more in Saitama this March, and a meaningful one for each of the teams, filled us with gratitude.
We know now that Piper fought a different type of battle from the beginning of this year, after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer – she revealed it with honesty, wearing her heart on her sleeves, just prior to May 8th, World Ovarian Cancer Day.
We didn’t know her struggle at the time of Worlds – and, knowing it now, it only makes their presence, their medal even more precious, more meaningful.
And we can all re-read their most recent interview with Inside Skating, done at the time of the Grand Prix Final in Torino last December, with a different set of eyes, a special appreciation to Piper’s perspective on life and skating.
We re-read it ourselves.
Caroline Green and Michael Parsons – finishing the first Worlds of their career on the 6th place.
And you don’t have to be a fortune teller to realize just how much promise for the future this result holds.
World medals next seasons seem totally within reach for these two incredibly talented skaters who took the world by storm last year with their innovative Martha Graham-inspired free dance (see above), and only grew their artistic range this season with their fresh take on Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
Is it next season yet?
Kana Muramoto and Daisuke Takahashi at 2023 Worlds: what a moment! And the Saitama Worlds that Daisuke needed so badly in order to close the circle – after missing the Saitama Worlds in 2014 due to injury.
But, once again, the moment they finally laid down everything they had on the ice, at the biggest competition of the season. Doubts aside – only emotions, only the performing abilities they have.
A whole arena on their feet – a collective embrace that Kana and Daisuke felt, we’re sure, through every fiber of their bodies.
It was – we see that now – the closing chapter of a career.
One that flew so fast – only three seasons as an ice dance team on the competitive stage – but one that allowed them to live a dream, and us with them as well.
Natálie Taschlerova and Filip Taschler: their speed and power on the ice deserve a prize themselves. And they are definitely climbing the rankings with the same speed.
Finishing 2023 Worlds on the 8th place – after being 13th last year – Natálie and Filip got to qualify an additional ice dance spot for next season’s Worlds; and that, potentially, means we’ll get to have a double take of Czech greatness in Montreal next March, with Kateřina Mrázková and Daniel Mrázek, 2023 Junior World champions, joining the senior ranks next season.
Solène Mazingue and Marko Gaidajenko skating at 2023 Worlds this March, six months after Solène’s life threatening head injury, was a victory itself. Her victory, their victory – something they decided they needed in order to move forward.
The purest form of skating with a purpose.
And Solène’s journey this season has been nothing but inspirational. We’ve all been following the ups and downs of the recovery, as meticulously documented by Solène – we shared the tears, the laughter, the tears again. We say hats off to the fighter that she is and wish her, wish them both the skating journey they envision.
(And in order to do that, you might consider visit their GoFundMe page and give them a helping hand.)
Shoma Uno: fighting through adversity, through injury to win the gold in Saitama – and become the second Japanese skater of any discipline (with Kaori being the first) to win back-to-back World titles.
And if you were to read again the titles of the stories preceding the men’s event in Saitama, you almost feared that Shoma wasn’t going to make it. An ankle injury kept bothering him and the Japanese champion left the practice sessions in Saitama leaving everyone worried.
Will he be able to defend his title? soon became Will he be able to skate after all? And if so, what kind of expectations one could have, what kind of expectations Shoma Uno could have?
It turned out, he wasn’t going to surrender his title without a fight.
And, apart from his much needed physical abilities, he knew he needed his brain as an ally.
“Going into this with a calm mind was not the answer, so I really pushed myself to be motivated and in a fighting mode. With the strong mind I was able to deliver today”.
Two days after, he willed himself once again in the long program and won his second (consecutive) World title on home ice, in Saitama.
“My performance was far from perfect, but I put out everything I can do at this moment. There were many shaky jumps, but I’m happy I was able to get a good result despite not being in a good condition these past two weeks. I know I caused a lot of concern to everyone around me, but I was able to pay them back and show my gratitude with my performance today”.
Junhwan Cha: the first South Korean man to medal at an edition of the World Figure Skating Championships.
Read that again, if you need to.
Junhwan is really making history for himself, for the country, for the sport – and left a powerful impression on all of us watching: he was flawless in Saitama, had impeccable performances in both the short program, impersonating Michael Jackson, and the free, when he was Bond. Junhwan Bond.
Have we felt the urge to copy his moves in front of the TV? Yes, we had. And Kaori Sakamoto did that too – so hurray for choreographer Shae-Lynn Bourne for putting together two programs suiting Junhwan to his gloves, and leaving quite an impression on all of us, and fellow skaters too.
It may be the right moment to remember Junhwan’s journey, his cool head while debuting at the Olympics on home soil, in PyeongChang, the talent that he is, the likeability, all those qualities brought forward by coach Brian Orser in an interview for Inside Skating.
“He has work ethic, he has a great look – the fans really like him, and there’s shyness. He’s a handsome kid, he’s quite popular in Korea now, and in the skating community. People like him, he’s likeable. And he does some really great things. I think the new system – the +5/-5 – is good for him. Because he’s a great spinner, he’s got great steps, very good jumps… He’ll be a major player”, Brian said in the autumn of 2018.
Some seasons later, Junhwan Cha became exactly that: a major player. A World silver medalist – with so much expectation surrounding him already.
And a soft spot, if you may: his exhibition program, to “Golden Hour” by JVKE, as choreographed by Joey Russell, was a highlight itself.
Ilia Malinin: landing the first quad Axel at an edition of the World Figure Skating Championships – and finishing his second Worlds with a bronze medal.
Ilia really built up a reputation around landing this almost impossible jump – he landed it for the first time in a competition last autumn, at 2022 US Classic – and he now thrives as the first skater in history to have done it. With him, the quad Axel changed its status from impossible to possible, and this feat will forever stay with the American teenager.
The thing is, Ilia realized he needed more to become a complete, well-rounded skater, so he eyes a growth into the performance aspect of his skating for next season.
And we can’t wait to see him grow.
Energy translated into movement – that was key to Kévin Aymoz’s transformation this season.
And it was a moment of sheer joy to see him skate so well at Worlds. Not just skate – take us all in his journey.
His Euphoria short program? A statement from a skater, from an artist whose name we know by heart. His Gladiator free? Brilliance. And a torch that has been passed from one edition of the Worlds to another, from Kaori’s Gladiator to Kévin’s one.
Joy. Pure joy.
Words fail to describe what kind of impact Jason Brown’s skating has on us.
After all, you can’t really measure emotions, and with Jason’s skating, it’s all about emotions.
Watching him fly, you know: this must be essence of figure skating, this is what skating should be – and get rewarded for.
His Melancholy short? His Impossible Dream free skate?
The kind of skating that makes you feel – that makes your heart jump with excitement.
What else is there to say?
We’re all Tracy Wilson at the end of Jason’s performances. Trying to find our hearts that left by themselves in a journey with the purpose of giving Jason a big hug.
Kazuki Tomono playing with the crowd in his Die Fledermaus free skate.
Nothing could really stand in the way of him performing through every fiber of his body – not even forgetting his step sequence and making one on the spot. At the end of that glorious free skate, Kazuki was overjoyed – and so were we.
Kazuki’s musicality? Just brilliant – he is one with the music, he brings it to life.
Keegan Messing saying Goodbye to competitive skating in the most emotional way possible: skating his heart out in Saitama, at 2023 Worlds.
It wasn’t enough for a medal – but Keegan received so many medals from the audience, in the form of joy and gratitude, as a response to his skating. A kind of skating that feels joyful, that feels contagious, that feels free.
That right here is the essence of Keegan’s skating: freedom.
And his free skate to “Lullaby for an Angel” and “Home” really felt like a collective embrace.
Snow on his hair, Keegan took the final bow of his competitive career.
Ah, Andreas Nordebäck is really the one to watch the next couple of seasons – so much life, commitment, character he breathes into his programs. He’s been one of our highlights this entire season – and we can’t wait to see what future brings for this talented young man.
On that note, Thank You for yet another season alongside Inside Skating – and know that we will fill the off-season with gorgeous photos from competitions here and there, to keep you in the skating bubble all through the summer. So do pay us a visit from time to time – you may find some hidden gems.
[Selection and short stories by Florentina Tone
Photos by C. Nguyen in Saitama
Other photos: Alberto Ponti, Getty Images,
© International Skating Union
Homepage and opening photo © International Skating Union]