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Sunday, Jan. 31, 2010

ICE TIME

Sato's commitment earns Hall of Fame nomination


In a development that hasn't even been acknowledged by the Japanese media, longtime coach Nobuo Sato was quietly nominated for the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame earlier this month.

Jack Gallagher

Sato, whose resume is both long and distinguished, was selected for consideration in the "Outstanding Contributor" category for creative impact along with Canadian choreographer Lori Nichol, the late Hans-Rudi Mauch of Switzerland and the late pair of Eva Pawlik and Rudi Seeliger from Austria.

The results of the voting will be announced in the second week of February by the Hall, which is based in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Among the nominees in other categories are former Swiss skater Denise Biellmann, who patented the Biellmann spin, and American Todd Eldridge, in singles, along with American pairs Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, and Canadian ice dancers Tracy Wilson and the late Rob McCall.

For Sato the honor would be a fitting tribute for an association with the sport that has spanned more than 50 years. Though he is known by recent generations as a coach, he was quite a skater in his own right back in the day.

Sato first put on the blades as an 11-year-old growing up in the post-war era in Osaka.

"I started skating on New Year's Day when I was in the fifth grade," Sato recalled this week during an interview in Shin-Yokohama. "During summer vacation the following year I began skating seriously and had a personal coach for the first time."

It was the beginning of a journey that would see him win the Japan singles title a record 10 straight years (1956-65), skate in two Olympics (1960, 1964) and six world championships.

News photo
Wisdom for the ages: Veteran coach and two-time Olympian Nobuo Sato works with seven-year-old skater Rurino Tsuru at the Shin-Yokohama Skate Center on Monday. AP PHOTO

The soft-spoken Sato, who will coach Takahiko Kozuka at the Vancouver Olympics, placed eighth at the Innsbruck Games in '64 and fourth at the '65 worlds.

Sato went on to marry fellow Olympic skater Kumiko Okawa, who participated in the '64 and '68 Games. Their daughter Yuka was the 1994 world champion and also represented Japan in two Olympics (1992, 1994) herself.

Sato, who also coaches Yukari Nakano, says he learned of his nomination in a letter from the Hall.

"I received a letter and I was surprised," he said. "But I hear there are many contenders this year, so I don't know what will happen.

"You should have interviewed me after the election was finalized," he added with a laugh.

When asked what it would mean to him to make the Hall of Fame, Sato paused momentarily then said, "It is a dream. I've visited Colorado Springs twice, and I was like, 'Wow, there are so many great skaters in the world.' "

Even though the skating community stretches around the world, it inevitably is smaller than it appears. In an ironic twist, Sato will coach against Yuka in Vancouver when she leads two-time U.S. champion Jeremy Abbott at the Winter Games.

What will it feel like to be going up against his daughter in such a high-profile event?

"It's wonderful," he said. "I'm very glad. I don't regard this as a competition between us. I have seen Abbott skating. He is a good skater. He was a good skater before my daughter started coaching him. With a year of hard work between them, he has improved more."

In addition to coaching Yuka, Sato has also mentored Miki Ando and Fumie Suguri. The 68-year-old continues to work with young prospects in his role as the director of coaching at the Shin-Yokohama Skate Center.

Yuka is proud of her father's impact on skating in Japan.

"For him to be nominated to the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame is a tremendous honor," she wrote in an e-mail from her Michigan home this week. "I am so happy for my father to be recognized after all these years of his dedication to the sport of figure skating."

Coaching against her father in the Olympics will no doubt mean something special to both of them.

"It will be a great honor for me to share the boards with my father at the Vancouver Olympic Games. I wish both of our skaters all the best."

More drama: As if Mao Asada needed anymore turmoil after what has already been a turbulent season, it arrived last week with news that her coach Tatiana Tarasova would be unable to attend the Four Continents Championships — where Mao won on Friday — after being hospitalized with high blood pressure following the European championships earlier this month.

This development clearly makes Tarasova's status for Vancouver questionable. Going against a young field in Jeonju, South Korea, Mao came from behind to beat compatriot Akiko Suzuki for the title in a final tuneup before the Olympics.

News photo
Future prospect: Teenager Eri Nishimura, a Tokyo native, won the Canadian junior title this month. G.HSUEH/JAPANSKATES.COM

Mao won the 2008 world title in Sweden without a full-time coach by her side, and may have to reprise that in Canada.

An e-mail sent to Mao's agent, Mariko Wada of IMG, this week asking for an update on Tarasova's condition, was not replied to.

New prospect: As the Asian boom in skating continued last week with the selection of Mirai Nagasu to the U.S. Olympic team, another up-and-comer appeared on the scene. Fifteen-year-old Eri Nishimura, a Tokyo native, won the Canadian junior championship in mid-January.

Nishimura, who used to skate for the Meiji Jingu club, went to Canada to train with coaches Doug Leigh and Lee Barkell two years ago and liked it so much that she decided to stay. She is now in the process of obtaining Canadian citizenship, and therefore was allowed to participate in the junior nationals.

Nishimura lives in Barrie, Ontario, and will skate for Canada on the Junior Grand Prix circuit next season.

It's not out of the question that in the near future both the U.S. and Canadian senior champions could be of Japanese descent.

Ticket giveaway: As Olympic fever continues to build, a new Japanese movie entitled "Coach" about a former figure skater who once had Olympic dreams is set to hit theaters. The film includes appearances by both Miki Ando and 2006 gold medalist Shizuka Arakawa.

The Japan Times will be giving away free tickets to see the film, which opens Feb. 6 throughout the country. Details on the giveaway will be published soon.



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