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Sunday, June 7, 2009
Grand Prix assignments signal start of Olympic season
The ice on the blades had barely melted from the World Team Trophy in Tokyo, just seven weeks ago, when the moves that precede the Olympic season began kicking into gear.
First came a flurry of coaching changes, with the likes of 2008 U.S. champion Mirai Nagasu (from Charlene Wong to Frank Carroll), two-time U.S. pairs champions Rena Inoue and John Baldwin (from Phillip Mills to Jenni Meno and Todd Sand) and reigning U.S. title holder Jeremy Abbott (Tom Zakrajsek to Yuka Sato) all making moves.
Then 2006 Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen announced her return to competition, while speculation continued that five-time world champion Michelle Kwan may take one more shot at the Olympics.
The campaign for the 2010 Winter Games then began in earnest with the announcement of the Grand Prix assignments on May 30 by the International Skating Union.
The lineup will present some compelling matchups as the anticipation builds for Vancouver. With the schedule adjusted this season because Tokyo will host the Grand Prix Final (Dec. 3-6), the traditionally season-ending NHK Trophy (Nov. 5-8 in Nagano) will be held fourth in the six-circuit competition.
The GP season will commence with the Trophee Eric Bompard (Oct. 15-18) in Paris, and the field looks fantastic. Reigning world champion Kim Yu Na and 2008 world title holder Mao Asada headline a roster that includes Cohen, Yukari Nakano and Italy's Carolina Kostner.
Mao will have an early chance to go head-to-head with Kim, who will be looking to continue the sublime skating that resulted in her first world title in March. Mao, who finished a disappointing fourth at the worlds, will be the hunter instead of the hunted this time around, and could score an early psychological victory with a win.
With the Cup of Russia (Oct. 22-25) being held the very next weekend, Mao, in a highly unusual move, will skate in Moscow where coach Tatiana Tarasova can monitor the fruits of their offseason work.
While that maybe convenient, one has to wonder about the wisdom of the nearly six-week layoff that will follow. Barring a change to the schedule, Mao won't compete again until the GP Final in early December.
Skaters usually have at least one week off between events, but Mao is one of only two female skaters (along with Sweden's Joshi Helgesson) in the upcoming GP series who will take the ice in consecutive weeks.
The Japan Skating Federation's Tatsuro Matsumura told Ice Time that the decision was made by Mao's camp.
"We asked whether she minded to take on Kim and she was brave enough to say, 'I'm not reluctant to compete with anyone.' "
Matsumura said Mao wanted to skate in the Cup of Russia and that "in talks with her people, they said it would be easier for her to move from France to Russia, and it would also give her time to tune up for the GP Final."
Miki Ando, the 2007 world champion, will make her season debut in Moscow, and will be looking to build on the bronze medal she won at the worlds.
Fumie Suguri and Akiko Suzuki will represent Japan at the Cup of China (Oct. 29-Nov. 1) in Beijing, where they will go up against Nagasu and world silver medalist Joannie Rochette of Canada.
The NHK Trophy is up next with Ando and Nakano slotted as two of Japan's three entrants, with the final spot to be confirmed later.
Skate America (Nov. 12-15 in Lake Placid, N.Y.) is fifth in the rotation this season, and will feature Cohen in her first competition on home ice since 2006. She will be joined by Kim and Suguri.
It is worth noting that the U.S. has not yet named its third entrant for Skate America. One has to wonder if the spot is being held open in case Kwan jumps back into the fray.
Skate Canada (Nov. 19-22) rounds out the GP slate and will include Rochette, Suzuki and Nagasu.
On the men's side, former world No. 1 Daisuke Takahashi, who is coming off major knee surgery, is penciled in for the NHK Trophy and Skate Canada.
Takahiko Kozuka, who scored his first GP win at Skate America last season, will pull the boots on for the Cup of Russia and NHK Trophy.
Kozuka will be up against 2006 Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko, who is also making a comeback, in Moscow.
Nobunari Oda will skate at the Trophee Bompard and Cup of China. Oda will go up against world champion Evan Lysacek of the U.S. in Beijing.