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Sunday, April 8, 2012

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Just reward: Akiko Suzuki earned her first medal at the world championships last week with a bronze in Nice, France. AP

ICE TIME

Japan's strong showing at worlds bodes well for future


Though much attention was placed on Mao Asada's disappointing sixth-place finish at the world championships in Nice, France, it was still a fine showing for Japan.

Jack Gallagher

Taking three of the six medals in singles (Daisuke Takahashi —silver, Yuzuru Hanyu — bronze, Akiko Suzuki — bronze), plus the surprise bronze medal from Narumi Takahashi and Mervin Tran in the pairs made it a successful week.

Italy's Carolina Kostner ended the five-year reign by Asian women as world champion. The last time a non-Asian won the title was when American Kimmie Meissner did it in 2006.

Suzuki's third-place finish was well deserved and marked the first time she had medaled in the worlds or Olympics. Her battle in overcoming an eating disorder years ago and her perseverance in making the podium at 27 combined to make her story especially inspiring.

She has enjoyed an outstanding season in 2011-12, winning the NHK Trophy, and finishing second at the Grand Prix Final, Japan national championships and Skate Canada.

The Aichi Prefecture native's combination of fitness, enthusiasm and technique have been responsible for the compelling surge so late in her career.

By Suzuki's age most skaters have long since retired from competition. The vibe she emits is one of unrelenting joy that she can still perform at a high level.

Many athletes take their natural talents for granted, but Suzuki is different. The emotion she showed when she left the ice after her free skate at the Vancouver Games was truly moving. You just have the feeling that every time she takes the ice she is determined to cherish the moment and make the most of it.

The most encouraging performances in Nice were those of Hanyu and Kanako Murakami, who placed fifth. Hanyu was skating for the first time at the worlds as a senior, while Murakami finished eighth last season. Hanyu and Murakami were both world junior champions in 2010.

With the 2014 Sochi Olympics only two years away, the two 17-year-olds are well-positioned for a shot at glory.

What stands out most about this pair is their drive. The are clearly ascending, and their dedication to skating means there is no chance of them slacking off. It is going to be a treat to watch Hanyu and Murakami continue to develop.

Daisuke Takahashi, the 2010 world champion, was solid, but until he can land the quad consistently will find it tough to challenge Canada's Patrick Chan for the title of top male skater. The question now is whether Takahashi, the bronze medalist in Vancouver, will hang on for two more years until Sochi.

Mao's showing was unfortunate, but considering what she has been through this season with the untimely passing of her mother, Kyoko, was understandable. The hope here is that the offseason will give her time to regroup physically and mentally and enter next season with a full head of steam.

The triple axel has been her meal ticket for many years, but problems with landing it consistently this season pose the question of whether it makes sense to continue trying to incorporate it in her programs. The view here is that a skater of Mao's class and refinement can win without it.

It may take some convincing, but at the end of the day it is about winning. With Miki Ando and Kim Yu Na sitting out this season, the argument could be made that Mao should have easily claimed her third world title.

As we all know, other factors intervened, but in spite of what the final results from Nice said, Mao is still a cut above the rest.

Japan team set: The host squad for the World Team Trophy in Tokyo on April 19-22 will include Daisuke Takahashi and Takahiko Kozuka, Suzuki and Murakami, Narumi Takahashi and Mervin Tran, and Cathy and Chris Reed.

Hanyu withdrew with a sprained ankle after the worlds, while Mao's season will end early after she was not selected for the team.

The competition will pit sides from Japan, the United States, Canada, Italy, France and Russia. Chan and Kostner are both slated to take part, along with Canada's world champion ice dancers, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.

The U.S. won the inaugural World Team Trophy held in Tokyo in 2009.

Parting ways: The Chicago Tribune's Phil Hersh reported earlier this week that Mirai Nagasu has left legendary coach Frank Carroll.

The split was attributed to logistics, as Nagasu had to make a two-hour drive each way from her home in Arcadia, California, to work with the Carroll, who is now based near Palm Springs.

But one also has to wonder if results were also a factor, as Nagasu has failed to make the U.S. team for the world championships the past two seasons.

The Hall of Fame coach had expressed frustration at times during their association with Nagasu's motivation.

Nagasu, who will be 19 later this month, is now at the crossroads of her career. It has been four years since she was the U.S. champion and two since she finished fourth at the Vancouver Games.

If Nagasu is going to have any chance at being a factor in Sochi, she is going to have to bear down and start posting better results next season.



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