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Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012

ICE TIME

Sweep at Skate America illustrates Japan's strength early in season


The senior Grand Prix season began with a bang for Japan as Takahiko Kozuka, Yuzuru Hanyu and Tatsuki Machida swept the medals at Skate America last Saturday.

Jack Gallagher

The strong showing could be a harbinger of what lies ahead in the coming months for the Hinomaru's male contingent.

A day after Hanyu set a world record of 95.07 in the short program, Kozuka vaulted past him to claim his first GP title in two seasons with a solid free skate.

Coming off an inconsistent campaign in 2011-12, which saw him fail to qualify for the GP Final and place 11th at the world championships, Kozuka had to have been pleased with the result.

"It's been a while since I last won but this definitely adds to my confidence," said Kozuka, the 2011 world silver medalist, after the victory. "I wasn't thinking about where I was in the standings. I didn't have a performance I'm completely satisfied with, but it's reassuring to be able to put up the points I did."

Hanyu suffered a meltdown in his free skate, falling three times as he tried to live up to his performance from the night before.

News photo
Rejuvenated: After finishing a disappointing 11th at the world championships in March, Takahiko Kozuka began the new season with a victory at Skate America last weekend. AP

Hanyu's coach, Brian Orser, was quoted as saying that he felt the fact that the 2012 world bronze medalist didn't return to his hotel on Saturday after the morning practice and chose to remain at the rink may have contributed to his poor showing.

Surely the 17-year-old was energized by his historic score the night before, but as he matures he will learn to follow the preset plan and eliminate distractions. He squandered a nearly 10-point lead but was still able to finish in second place.

Despite his stumbles on Saturday, the incredible potential the Sendai native possesses remains significant. With only 16 months to go until the Sochi Olympics, Hanyu is a legitimate medal contender.

His lithe build and ability to land the quadruple jump combine to make the 2010 world junior champion part of the equation when considering who has a shot at gold in Russia.

The expectation amongst many will be that two-time world champion Patrick Chan of Canada and 2010 world champion Daisuke Takahashi are the prime contenders, but Hanyu's chances cannot be discounted.

Unfortunate development: Two-time world champion Miki Ando's late decision to pull out of the Grand Prix series cost Japan spots in the singles at the Cup of China and Trophee Bompard.

According to International Skating Union rules, Japan is only allowed to replace assigned skaters at its own event (the NHK Trophy), so Ando's spots were taken by alternates from other countries.

Ando withdrew because she lacked conditioning and did not have a coach after splitting with Russian mentor Nikolai Morozov. It would appear that she was pressured into signing up to compete in the GP series by external forces.

It is highly likely that the Japan Skating Federation and sponsors leaned on Ando, even though she had stated her mixed emotions about committing to participating. Now look at what has happened.

With Ando dropping out and only Haruka Imai competing at Skate America, one of the powerhouses of skating will now have a lone female entrant in three of the six GP events (Skate America, Cup of China, Cup of Russia) and none at the Trophee Bompard in Paris.

The assignments for the coming season are determined by the ISU in May based on the world rankings at that time.

Juniors qualify: Japan will have three skaters — Satoko Miyahara, Ryuju Hino and Keiji Tanaka — competing in the Junior Grand Prix Final in Sochi in December. The trio earned spots based on their results during the recently concluded Junior GP season.

Miyahara won the JGP event in the U.S. and placed third in Turkey.

Hino took second in Austria and third in France, while Tanaka was second in the U.S. and fourth in Slovenia.

Pair despair: World bronze medalists Narumi Takahashi and Canadian partner Mervin Tran have withdrawn from the Grand Prix Series after Takahashi's shoulder injury from last season failed to heal properly. The announcement was made by the JSF on Thursday.

Takahashi dislocated her shoulder back in April and will undergo surgery soon to repair the damage.

The pair helped Japan capture the World Team Trophy title in Tokyo at the end of last season with their performance.



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