Kaori Sakamoto leads, Mariah Bell in medal position at figure skating worlds (video)

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Reigning U.S. national champion Mariah Bell is in contention to become the first American woman to win a figure skating world championships medal in six years after posting a personal best in the women’s short program in Montpellier, France.

The 25-year-old Bell recorded 72.55 points skating to the music of “River Flows in You” by South Korean pianist and composer Yiruma, putting her in third place – 7.77 behind leader and 2022 Olympic bronze medalist Kaori Sakamoto (80.32) of Japan. Belgium’s Loena Hendrickx stands second at 75.00 going into Friday’s free skate.

Sakamoto’s program, set to music from the movie “Gladiator,” was highlighted by a triple flip-triple toe loop combination that vaulted her more than five points clear of Hendrickx, who finished seventh at the Winter Olympics last month in Beijing. Rounding out the top five in Montpellier are South Korea’s You Young (72.08) followed by American Alysa Liu (71.91) – both of whom are also in contention for the world championship podium given the close point differential.

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Sakamoto, whose Olympic bronze medal derailed a Russian sweep of the podium in Beijing, did not have to contend with her top competitors – including gold medalist Anna Shcherbakova, silver medalist Alexandra Trusova and fourth-place finisher Kamila Valiyeva – in France after the Russian athletes were barred from international competition following the invasion of Ukraine.

“It does sort of open up the field just (because) there’s three ladies that won’t be there, and the top ladies,” Bell said last week. “So obviously the results will be different, and there are some opportunities to bump up.”

Their absence means a non-Russian skater will win the women’s world title for the first time since 2018. The Russian women swept the podium at last year’s world championships (Shcherbakova won gold, Elizaveta Tuktamysheva silver, Trusova bronze) and took two out of three medals in 2019. The championships were not held in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 16-year-old Liu, who burst into “happy tears” tears after their clean skate, hopes to attempt a triple Axel in the free skate.

Also competing in France is American Karen Chen, who finished 16th in Beijing. The 22-year-old Chen popped her triple loop – a move that gave her trouble at the Olympics – and stands eighth.

Wednesday also featured the pairs’ short program, which was without the top five finishers from Beijing. While the Russian teams, who captured silver and bronze, are not competing due to international sanctions, China’s gold medalists – Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, as well as teammates Peng Cheng and Jin Yang – also are not competing at worlds.

The U.S. team of Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, who finished sixth in Beijing, and are in first after the short program (76.88 points). Right behind them with 75.85 points is the other American pair of Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc. Both U.S. pairs are in contention to become the first American pair to capture a world title since Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner in 1979, and a medal of any color would be the first for a U.S. pair in 20 years.

In related news, the 15-year-old Valiyeva, who won gold in the Olympic team competition – a medal that is now provisional after a positive doping test was reveleated – will skate in an exhibition tournament in Russia that begins Friday.