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Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto captures Olympic bronze with empowering free skate

Kaori Sakamoto of Team Japan in the free skate at the Beijing Olympics.

BEIJING, CHINA - FEBRUARY 17: Kaori Sakamoto of Team Japan skates during the Women Single Skating Free Skating on day thirteen of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at Capital Indoor Stadium on February 17, 2022 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

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Amidst what became an emotional spectacle Thursday at the Capital Indoor Stadium, Japanese figure skater Kaori Sakamoto kept the drama at bay as she confidently delivered a powerful performance in the women’s singles free skate to capture bronze at the 2022 Winter Olympics.

Starting the final portion of the event in third place, Sakamoto followed up on her poised short program from Tuesday with an empowering message for women in her four-minute finale, set to the music of French recording artist Imany’s “No More Fight Left in Me” and “Tris” by Ellie Goulding and Junkie LX from the “Divergent” movie soundtrack.

“It’s about a woman’s strength, internal strength, that is hidden within,” Sakamoto said in November regarding the program and the Imany track, which is from the documentary, “Woman.” “I hope people can sense that through my skating.”

Sakamoto’s choreographer, Frenchman Benoit Richaud, told NBC Olympics reporter Andrea Joyce that “he wanted to create something that celebrated the power of women.”

“At first, [Richaud] said, she was afraid,” said Joyce. "[Sakamoto] thought she didn’t have a strong enough personality for it, but she’s embraced it and it’s made her stronger.”

The 21-year-old – known for her speed and strength, and without a quad or triple Axel in her repertoire – nailed all of her elements cleanly, opening with a double Axel before hitting a triple Lutz and a triple flip-double toe loop combination. Her 153.29 score marked a new personal best and briefly moved her to second before Russian Olympic Committee’s Anna Shcherbakova, 17, took over first place and fellow 17-year-old ROC skater Aleksandra Trusova moved into second.

“I wasn’t sure I was going to get another medal,” said Sakamoto, who was also part of Japan’s bronze medal win in the team event at the start of the Games (a medal that has yet to be awarded after the news that Russian Kamila Valiyeva tested positive for a banned substance). “Then I saw my name in the third place, I was like, ‘Wow.’ It’s just so unbelievable.”

This marked the second Olympic appearance for Sakamoto, who finished sixth in singles and fifth in the team event in 2018. She wasn’t even in the conversation to earn one of Japan’s two spots for PyeongChang at the start of the 2017-18 season, but steady improvement and difficult content earned her two runner-up results – at Skate America and the Japanese nationals – vaulted her onto the team.

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The youngest of three sisters, Sakamoto grew up in Kobe, Japan, where she began to skate at age 4. She had seen figure skating on a popular Japanese TV drama and told her mother, “That is what I want to do.”

Sakamoto began competing at junior nationals in 2014 where she finished sixth. She won the junior national title in 2017 captured her first senior national title in 2019, adding a second in 2022 along with the Grand Prix Japan title. In two world championship appearances, she placed fifth in 2019 and sixth in 2021.

Sakamoto actually gives credit for her improved performances to the pandemic lockdown, when she turned her attention to fitness and stamina while spending six weeks away from the rink.

“I couldn’t skate for a month and a half, so I was able to work more on my strength training and maybe that has contributed to no major falls this season,” she said via Golden Skate. “I have more power than last year, so stamina is helping me in putting more effort into the expression of the music and other parts of the program.”

Off the ice, Sakamoto studies economics via remote college and keeps up her stamina with swimming and long-distance running.

“This is the culmination of four years in which I’ve felt a lot of frustration,” said Sakamoto after winning bronze. “I’m glad my hard work has been rewarded. I didn’t expect to win a medal in individual competition -- the result has certainly exceeded my [expectation].”

NBC Olympics researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.

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