Japan's Kaori Sakamoto is doing her best to get in the way of what was long expected to be a historic podium sweep by the Russian Olympic Committee women's figure skaters at the 2022 Winter Olympics.
The highly anticipated women's singles competition began with Tuesday's short program, which was headlined by Kamila Valieva.
The 15-year-old ROC skater has made headlines throughout these Games -- first as the fourth woman to land a triple axel at the Olympics, then as the first woman to land quadruple jumps at the Olympics (both in the team event), then for her Dec. 25 drug test that was positive for Trimetazidine but only came to light during these Games.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that Valieva may continue to compete, and roughly 32 hours later, she is in the lead halfway through the women's singles competition.
Valieva made an uncharacteristic mistake on the takeoff of her opening triple axel and stepped out on the landing, putting her hand on the ice. Her score of 82.16 points is eight lower than what she earned in the team event short program.
Valieva did not attend the press conference held following the event for the top three athletes.
Her teammate and the 2021 world champion, Anna Shcherbakova, sits in second with 80.20 points. The 17-year-old was the only ROC skater who did not start her program with a triple axel attempt.
"I realized how important this skate was and I tried to pay attention to every detail," Shcherbakova said. "There were small mistakes but overall I am happy how I skated today. I'm going to be in full fighting mode (in the free skate)."
The final athlete to take the ice, 21-year-old Sakamoto, wedged herself between the trio of Russian teenagers after a clean performance to "Now We Are Free" from the movie "Gladiator." With a new personal best by two points, she scored 79.84 points.
"Not long ago, I chatted with my coach and choreographer online to talk about how to adjust the details of my program and how to get a better score," Sakamoto said. "I think that paid off. I'm very happy about it.”
Aleksandra Trusova, the 2021 world bronze medalist, is in fourth with a 74.60.
"If I do the axel and skate clean, there is a chance I will get Olympic gold," Trusova, 17, said. "If not, then not. My goal is to skate clean."
All three ROC skaters have quadruple jumps planned for their free skates on Thursday, meaning the ROC's hopes for a podium sweep are still very much alive.
Of the 30 skaters who competed in the short program, 25 advanced to the free skate. The number is typically 24, but the International Olympic Committee and International Skating Union decided it would be increased by one if Valieva is among the top 24, since her appeal with the Russian Anti-Doping Agency is ongoing. Finland's Jenni Saarinen was the beneficiary.
The IOC also ruled that if Valieva is top three in the final standings after the free skate, no flower ceremony or medal ceremony will be held for the event.
Alysa Liu leads the trio of American women in eighth place. With a score of 69.50, she is just over four points out from the top five.
"I just can't believe I actually did a clean short program today, because I've trained so much," said Liu, who appeared to be having the time of her life -- smiling during her warmup and the entirety of her performance. "I'm just really glad that all my training paid off because I'm here competing. And the goal of my whole life and my skating career was to compete at the Olympics. So now I can officially say I'm an Olympian."
Liu, 16, has been one to watch at these Games since the season after the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. She became the youngest athlete to win the U.S. women's singles title when she did so at 13 in 2019. She won a second title in 2020, and this season Liu was finally old enough to compete as a senior on the international stage -- just in time for the Olympics.
Mariah Bell, who at 25 is the oldest U.S. woman to compete in the Olympic singles event in 94 years, sits in 11th after falling on her opening triple-triple and scoring 65.38 points.
“I have very mixed emotions about it," Bell said of her skate. "I am bummed with the mistake on the opening element -- I think it cost me quite a bit of points -- but I am happy how I came back with everything else. Ultimately, I just really enjoyed skating on Olympic ice. I am looking forward to the long program."
Returning for her second Olympic Games, Karen Chen -- who was part of the U.S. team that placed second in the team event -- fell on the triple loop late in her program and appeared heartbroken after; she scored 64.11 points for 13th place in the short.
“I'm super disappointed about my skate," Chen, 21, said. "I know I'm capable of much better than that. And to not deliver that is, again, just very disappointing. I can't find a better word to describe how I'm feeling right now."
Correction: Chen fell on a triple loop, not triple toeloop as an earlier version read.