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Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2010

ICE TIME

Mao facing intense pressure at nationals


On a crisp morning last week Mao Asada tore off triple jumps one after another during a practice at the Shin-Yokohama Skate Center. It looked like business as usual for the two-time world champion and Olympic silver medalist.

Jack Gallagher

As most already know, this season has been anything but normal for the nation's top female athlete.

A coaching change in the offseason, practicing at a different venue, and sharing ice time with other skaters, are just a few of the adjustments Mao has had to deal with. Not to mention trying to stay motivated after last season's titanic showdown with Kim Yu Na at the Vancouver Games.

The results thus far have not been good. A shocking eighth-place finish at the season-opening NHK Trophy in her hometown of Nagoya, followed by a fifth-place showing at the Trophee Bompard in Paris have fans concerned that Mao has lost her mojo.

Even though she has had trouble landing jumps this campaign, some seasoned observers think the issue lies more with her skating line.

There is an old axiom in skating that says, "It is all about line and edge." Whatever the glitch truly is, one thing is for certain — Mao needs to sort it out in a hurry.

While Kim chose to sit out this Grand Prix season to take a break after the road to the Olympic gold clearly took its toll, Mao decided to forge on. Leaving Tatiana Tarasova for Nobuo Sato was Mao's major move of the offseason, and while it is clearly too early to make any real judgment on the switch, Mao is facing massive pressure heading into this weekend's national championships in Nagano.

News photo
In a pinch: Two-time world champion Mao Asada will be under the gun this weekend at the Japan nationals as she bids for a spot on the team for the 2011 world championships. KYODO PHOTO

The bottom line is that Mao has to finish in the top three at the Big Hat or face the ignominy of being left off the team for the world championships in Tokyo in March.

Mao is a motivated athlete who has great pride, but the stakes can't be understated. Missing out on the worlds would not only be bad for Mao, it would be bad for skating in Japan.

Television ratings, sponsorship revenue and interest in the sport have risen to all-time highs since Mao first hit the scene. While missing out on the worlds would provide Mao with an extended rest, it would also take the spotlight off skating.

Japan is loaded with top-notch skaters, but the bottom line is that Mao is Mao. It is her picture you see on TV, in magazines and in the trains around the country. It is no stretch to say that she has done for skating in Japan what Tiger Woods has done for golf in the U.S.

With Kanako Murakami having essentially locked up one of the three slots for the worlds by virtue of her third-place finish at this month's Grand Prix Final in Beijing, it boils down to Mao competing with 2007 world champion Miki Ando and surprise Olympian Akiko Suzuki for the other two spots.

Ando was the top qualifier for the GP Final after scoring victories at the Cup of China and Cup of Russia. She finished fifth in Beijing after changing her short program, but skated magnificently in the free skate.

Based on her performance this season, Ando has to be considered a solid bet to make the team for the worlds.

So it looks like it may well come down to Mao and Suzuki for the coveted final spot. Suzuki has recorded second-place finishes at both the Cup of China and Cup of Russia this season. In the former she was in second place after the short program, behind American Mirai Nagasu, while in the latter she led heading into the free skate.

In both events Ando vaulted past her and others to victory.

With Mao's history of struggles in her short program and Suzuki's showing this season, it will likely all come down to Sunday's free skate. The key is that Mao has to maintain contact with Suzuki in the short program in order to try and blow past her in the free skate.

This was the problem in Vancouver, when Mao fell too far behind Kim to have any real chance of overtaking her for the gold.

Mao's history of coming from behind is well known. So is her record at the nationals, where she has won four straight crowns.

She was in a tough predicament last season going into nationals, after missing out on the GP Final, and won convincingly in Osaka. Now, after missing out the GP Final for the second straight year, the tension will be palpable as she makes the drive for five.

Once again it should make for compelling viewing for spectators and the massive television audience that is certain to tune in.

Big three: The men's team for the worlds will almost certainly be world champion Daisuke Takahashi, Nobunari Oda and Takahiko Kozuka.

Oda (second) and Kozuka (third) both made the podium at the GP Final, while Takahashi finished a disappointing fourth. But Takahashi is not facing the same level of competition for the final spot for the worlds.

Kozuka has enjoyed a fine season, posting victories at the Cup of China and Trophee Bompard, while Oda came in second at both Skate Canada and Skate America.

Takahashi won the NHK Trophy and Skate America, before hitting a bump at the GP Final.



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