Looking back at the 2023 Worlds in Saitama, part I

March 14, 2024
By Atsuko Kuryu
Photo © International Skating Union (ISU)

The 2023 World Figure Skating Championships took place from March 22 to 26 at the Saitama Arena in Japan. Twenty-three pairs, thirty ice dance couples, thirty-five women, and thirty men from around the world competed for the top prize. As the Worlds 2024 in Montreal draws near, Atsuko reminisces about the thrilling event of the previous year as we delve deeper into what to expect in the week ahead. (Note: The pictures featured in this article are from the current season, not from the previous one.)


Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara won the heated competition, becoming the first pair in Japanese figure skating history to win a gold medal at Worlds and achieve the "Grand Slam," which also includes the Grand Prix Final and the Four Continents Championships. Silver went to Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier from the USA, who also won a small gold medal for their free skate. After two nearly flawless programs, Italians Sara Conti and Niccolo Macci won bronze, marking the first World medal in pairs for their country. "I think our achievement will greatly benefit Italy," Niccolo said. "I hope that the development of pairs skating in Italy will accelerate."

Short Program

Riku and Ryuichi dominated the other pairs with their beautiful, graceful, and precise performance. Their score of 80.72 points was a season's and a personal best, and Riku jumped up and down with joy when she saw the score at Kiss & Cry before the audience did. The crowd was stunned for a moment, but then erupted when the score was announced.

Alexa and Brandon finished second due to Brandon's fall on the jump, but they collected themselves to score 74.64 points. At the press conference, Brandon admitted he was disappointed with the fall, but as with any jump, falls are bound to happen. Other than that, he was happy because their practice paid off. It was challenging for both of them to be in Saitama without their coach, Todd Sand, who stayed at home recovering from a heart attack. Alexa fought back tears when addressing this during the press conference, but she said he was the one who taught her to fight with all her might, and that she wanted to give a performance that would make him proud.

The Italian pair came in third with 73.24 points. Sara was bursting with joy both during the small medals ceremony and at the press conference. Niccolo said it was a dream come true for them to finish the season with a small bronze medal, considering they started it with being happy just for being assigned to two Grand Prix events.

Finishing in fourth were Deanna Stellato-Dudek and Maxime Deschamps from Canada, with a score of 72.81 points. They were technically stable, but above all, their moves matched well with the music, and their performance was very pleasing to watch.

Free Skating

In contrast to the flawless performances in the short program, most of the teams made mistakes in the free.
Sara and Niccolo showed a near-perfect program; their movements were smooth and matched the music well. With a season's best score of 134.84 points and 208.08 overall, they placed third. Niccolo recalled afterward how surprised he was to see the entire stadium standing up and praising them for their performance, and how Sara gasped when he told her, "You should see this!"

Alexa and Brandon, who performed next, made mistakes in their jumps, but otherwise executed their routine perfectly to win the small gold medal with a score of 142.84 and an overall score of 217.48, their season's best. Their performance was rich with musical expression. Later, at the press conference, they admitted that it had been a long journey for both of them, especially for Alexa, to get to this point. And they were proud of what they had accomplished.

Overnight leaders Riku and Ryuichi delivered a beautiful, albeit not error-free, performance and placed second with a score of 141.44 points, but they managed to maintain their lead and clinch their first World Championships with an overall score of 222.16. The pressure of competing for their first Worlds title in their home country might have made them both nervous, and their movements seemed a little stiffer than usual. However, Ryuichi expressed his gratitude in his victory interview, stating that the applause from the audience gave them strength.

Deanna and Maxime made a series of mistakes in the first half of their program but recovered in the second half to score 127.16 points and maintain their fourth place with 199.97 points overall. Emily Chan and Spencer Howe from the US struggled in the first half of their program but showcased a beautiful and elegant performance in the second half, remaining in fifth place with 194.73 points overall. Anastasia Golubeva and Hektor Giotopoulos Moore of Australia skated a strong, fast, and rhythmic routine to secure fifth place in the free skating and eighth overall. In the first warm-up group, Germans Annika Hocke and Robert Kunkel, who had placed fifteenth in the short program, impressed with a smooth and consistent performance that was a clear departure from the previous teams, finishing ninth overall with 184.60 points.

Editor's note: Italian pairs have strengthened their skills within just one year, making the decision of selecting only two pairs to represent Italy in Montreal quite challenging. Hopefully, Italy will secure three spots for the upcoming season. Riku and Ryuichi faced numerous difficulties throughout the season, primarily due to Ryuichi's back pain, which was later diagnosed as lumbar spondylosis. With only two competitions under their belt, it remains to be seen how they will perform. On the other hand, Deanna and Maxime are currently experiencing the best season of their careers, triumphing in every competition they participate in (excluding the Grand Prix final, where they finished third). As experienced competitors, they should not be unsettled by the added pressure of performing in front of a home crowd; rather, they will harness the energy of the audience to its maximum potential in order to secure the top spot on the podium.
Other notable pairs to watch out for include the 2024 World Junior champions and 2024 European silver medalists, Anastasiia Metelkina and Luka Berulava, as well as the 2023-24 Grand Prix Final champions, Minerva Hase and Nikita Volodin. Furthermore, Lia Pereira and Trennt Michaud had an excellent Grand Prix season, earning gold and silver medals in their events and securing a spot in the Final. With the advantage of competing on their home turf, they too might have a chance to medal.


Reigning champion Kaori Sakamoto secured victory with a total of 224.61 points, achieving her season's best in the short program. Haein Lee, who placed second in the short program, claimed the silver medal after winning the free skate, accumulating a total score of 220.94. Her captivating and graceful performance mesmerized the audience throughout both programs. Despite a challenging start in the short program, Loena Hendrickx made a remarkable comeback with a fantastic free skate, ultimately finishing third with an overall score of 210.42 points.

Short Program

The competition was intense as the top six skaters all scored over 70 points, showcasing exceptional performances that highlighted their individual personalities. Isabeau Levito from the USA was the first skater to break the 70-point mark with her dynamic and energetic skating, executing beautifully crafted positions throughout her routine. Despite earning 73.03 points, she finished in fourth place that day.

Mai Mihara emerged as the next skater to surpass the 70-point mark. Skating with her light jumps, beautiful positions, and power added to her angelic purity, she received a standing ovation from the entire audience. During the interview, she expressed how the cheers from the spectators in her home country at the Worlds had boosted her confidence. Although her score of 73.46 points initially secured her the top position, Haein, who performed immediately after her, surpassed it with a score of 73.62. It was an impeccable execution of the program, dynamic, fast, and beautiful. Haein remembered feeling anxious, but she managed to deliver a strong performance by convincing herself that her nerves were a sign of improvement in her skating.

In addition to Haein, Kaori Sakamoto, the clear frontrunner in this tournament, surpassed all expectations. Her performance may be said to have changed the conventional concept of women's figure skating. With her vitality, enthusiasm, and powerful jumps, coupled with her speed and strength, she emerged victorious in that day's competition, achieving an extraordinary score of 79.24.

Leona, highlighted as a top competitor alongside Kaori, possessed the ability to overshadow the impact Kaori had on the ice and the audience with her own performance, immersing them in her world. Her unique and original worldview was wonderful. Regrettably, she fell on the second jump of her combo, leading to her fifth-place finish in the short program with a score of 71.94. Niina Petrokina from Estonia expressed her delight at the Kiss & Cry, earning a score of 68.00 with a routine that harmonized well with the creative music, securing her sixth place.

Free skating

In the final group, every member fought with determination, giving their all just like in the short program. Despite a single mistake, Kaori impressed the audience with her speed, powerful jumps, confidently executed elements, and deep edges. Her performance seemed to stem from both physical and mental strength. It was different from the strength of men's skating, and I felt as if I were watching something new, different from the concept of women's skating so far. With a score of 145.37, Kaori trailed Haein by 1.95 points. After her performance, a tearful Kaori said that she had hoped to skate without mistakes and regretted repeating a mistake from the Worlds four years ago held at the same arena. She found comfort in her ability to recover from the error, showing her growth.

Haein displayed an abundance of energy, effortlessly executing jumps one after another, all while under immense pressure. Her remarkable performance earned her a score of 147.32 points. Since the Four Continents, Haein has made significant progress, culminating in her first World medal, and the first for Korea in a decade since Yuna Kim's era. This achievement not only marks the rise of a new Korean skating star but also highlights the impressive strength of Korean female skaters in recent years. Reflecting on her journey, Haein admitted to facing challenges in the first half of the season. However, her determination to compete in the Saitama Worlds, especially as it was her first time competing in Japan, fueled her motivation. Now that she has achieved her desired goal, she aims to improve further.

Leona, who finished fifth in the short program, embodied the image of a powerful woman. Despite skating to "Falling Angel," her performance exuded the aura of a mighty goddess leading the world. Although she fell on her Lutz, the program possessed such strength that it made us overlook the mistake.

During the press conference, the three medalists were asked about their "weapon", the personal strengths that helped them this season and that they want to continue using. Kaori emphasized her extensive experience, which allowed her to handle difficult situations and recover from mistakes. Haein highlighted her self-control as a crucial factor in overcoming obstacles. Loena emphasized her ability to gather energy and courage to bounce back after setbacks.

Isabeau, who achieved fourth place, showcased a graceful and sophisticated performance that included beautiful jumps. Unfortunately, not all of her jumps were successful, but her agility, quick spins, and elegant movements made her captivating skating highly promising for the future.
Mai, just as graceful as the other skaters, held the third spot after the short program by a slim margin. However, during the free skate, she seemed to have lost some of her strength. She finished in fifth place with a score of 132.24, placing fifth overall with a total of 205.70. Following the competition, Mai's coach, Sonoko Nakano, revealed that Mai had sustained a foot injury. Nakano expressed relief that Mai was able to complete the free program despite the injury.

Chaeyeon Kim of Korea made an impressive comeback, moving up from twelfth place in the short program to secure third place in the free skate. With an overall score of 203.51, she finished sixth. Nicole Schott from Germany claimed seventh place with a combined score of 197.76. Both received well-deserved standing ovations for their flawless performances. Chaeyeon, in particular, is anticipated to be one of Korea's strongest contenders, showcasing her exceptional jumping skills and consistent execution of all elements.

Editor's note: Kaori is determined to defend her title for the third consecutive time, just as she did earlier this season at the National Championships. Loena, another strong contender this season, likely received a significant confidence boost after securing the European crown in Kaunas. Haein has had a somewhat inconsistent season thus far, failing to medal at her Grand Prix events and finishing eleventh at the Four Continents, an event she had won the previous year. Despite this, her focus is on leaving the past behind and moving forward, and we will soon find out how successful she is in doing so. Chaeyeon, the 2024 Four Continents silver medalist, has been steadily improving in the latter half of the season; she is a force to be reckoned with. Isabeau experienced a less successful season compared to her previous one (failing to medal at the Grand Prix Final and finishing third at the National Championships). However, with her talent and two great programs, she has the potential to surpass her last year's placement. The 2024 European bronze medalist Nina Pinzarrone, the 2023 European champion, and the 2024 European silver medalist Anastasiia Gubanova, along with the 2023-24 ISU Grand Prix Final bronze medalist Hana Yoshida, are also in contention for the medals. The field is wide open, which makes the women's event even more exciting.

Part II: Ice Dance, Men

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