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Kaori Sakamoto prepares for nerves, history at world figure skating championships

Kaori Sakamoto gets so nervous that her legs shake before her figure skating programs.

You wouldn’t know it by looking at her recent results.

This week, at the 2024 World Figure Skating Championships in Montreal, Sakamoto bids to become the first woman to win a third consecutive world title since American Peggy Fleming from 1966-68.

The 23-year-old from Kobe, Japan, ascended to the top of the sport after earning bronze at the 2022 Olympics, breaking up a potential all-Russian podium.

NBC Sports and Peacock air live coverage of the world figure skating championships from Montreal.

She then captured world titles a month after those Games and again in 2023 under two different types of pressure.

The first, as the clear favorite after Russian athletes were banned from competition due to the war in Ukraine. The second, in front of home fans just north of Tokyo (and after defeats that season to countrywoman Mai Mihara).

Her success came while she studied economics remotely at Kobe Gakuin University, graduating last year.

Sakamoto, the youngest of three sisters, was a precocious talent on the ice.

At age 3, she saw figure skating on a Japanese TV drama and told her mom that’s what she wanted to do. By age 8, she had become serious about the sport.

Her international breakout, at age 17, actually came in the United States. Sakamoto was runner-up at 2017 Skate America in her first senior season.

Three months later, she became the youngest Japanese Olympic figure skater since Shizuka Arakawa in 1998. Arakawa won Japan’s first figure skating gold in 2006.

“Since I was in junior, people had been saying that, ‘Kaori’s jumps were amazing! But her expression is not yet good enough,’” Sakamoto said in response to emailed questions. “When I competed in the Skate America in 2017, I thought I could win the competitions only by my jumps and attract judges and spectators with my original skating style. I had thought that the jump is my only advantage at that time. Since then, until today, I have competed in many competitions and gained lots of life experiences. It is obvious that it brought me a new ‘weapon,’ the ability of expression.”

She became a well-rounded skater with the help of coaches and choreographers from around the world. That includes Americans Rohene Ward and Zach Donohue and Canadian Marie-France Dubreuil.

“We don’t really have full conversations because of the language barrier, but what’s fun is that music, movement and skating is a language by itself,” said Dubreuil, who choreographed Sakamoto’s free skate the last two seasons to music from Sia and Lauryn Hill. “So once we start moving and dancing and playing, it feels like there’s no language needed.”

Ward, based in the Chicago area, worked with Sakamoto on the program that may have gained her the most fame.

Last season, Sakamoto skated to a Janet Jackson medley for her short program. The legendary singer shouted out Sakamoto on Instagram after she won Skate America.

“We were trying to step outside her comfort zone and bring some sex appeal to her skating,” Ward said. “Because she is such a big star, we wanted to give her that pop star kind of appeal.”

Madison Chock and Evan Bates look to win a second consecutive world title this week in Montreal. They spoke with NBC about their goals, their long and successful career, and about being a couple off the ice.

Back home, Sakamoto maintained humility amid the success. Donohue, a retired U.S. ice dancer, has done seminars with Sakamoto in Japan.

In one session, Sakamoto fell on her face and somersaulted on the ice in front of child skaters. Her reaction was to laugh at herself and joke with the kids, Donohue said.

When Sakamoto is at work, it’s clear why she’s the best in the world.

“She gets speed in two pushes that most skaters need three or four full crossovers to get to,” Donohue said. “I don’t remember laughing as hard or sweating as much trying to keep up with her because she’s just go, go, go all the time. She is powerful. She is ambitious. She’s aggressive. And at the same time, she is so super feminine and so wonderfully a woman that I think the best way to describe her is just as an athlete.”

The athlete takes the ice in Montreal this week as the two-time defending world champion with a chance to complete an undefeated season.

Her legs might still be shaking.

“I get nervous easily, so I never get used to it,” she said. “Every time I compete the worlds, I cannot predict how I will feel when I stand on the ice.”

NBC Sports research contributed to this report.