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Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012

ICE TIME

Mao, Kim begin road to second Olympic showdown


Japan's strong showing at the recent Grand Prix Final in Sochi, Russia, set the table for what promises to be a fascinating 14 months leading up to the 2014 Olympic Games in the same city.

Jack Gallagher

With six of the 12 skaters in singles being Japanese, the odds were in favor of the Hinomaru going in, and they didn't disappoint. Japan took home four of the six medals in singles and both golds.

Mao Asada won her third straight competition this season, doing it again without the triple axel, and heads into the Japan nationals this week in Sapporo with a real head of steam. Mao, the 2010 Olympic silver medalist, will be seeking her sixth senior title when she takes the ice in Hokkaido.

The win at the GP Final was her first in the event since the memorable night she landed two triple axels in her free skate in 2008 to beat Kim Yu Na in South Korea.

News photo
Racking up victories: Two-time world champion Mao Asada, who won the Grand Prix Final earlier this month, will attempt to capture her sixth national title in Sapporo this weekend. AP

Perhaps the most impressive performance of the GP Final was that of Daisuke Takahashi, who outskated both compatriot Yuzuru Hanyu and two-time world champion Patrick Chan to capture the event for the first time in seven tries.

The 26-year-old Takahashi, the bronze medalist at the 2010 Vancouver Games, served notice that he aims to be part of the medal equation at Sochi 2014.

"I am the champion of the Grand Prix, but there is a lot to be done," commented Takahashi following the triumph. "I know what my challenges are and my issues and I hope the lessons learned here make me improve further," he said.

Hanyu's silver medal behind Takahashi showed again that he will be a force to be reckoned with in the coming years. His ability to hit the quad and his outstanding presentation skills make his potential unlimited. Hanyu also has great charisma and it shows when he competes.

Akiko Suzuki, the 2012 world bronze medalist, put forth a strong effort for the second straight competition to earn a place on the medal stand.

Although Suzuki does not possess the natural physical gifts that Mao has, she compensates for it with her execution and interpretation. Each time she skates Suzuki adds to her growing legion of fans.

The Japanese skaters gave the Iceberg Skating Palace good reviews after the GP Final.

"It was very nice, easy to skate,"Mao said following her victory on the IOC's official website, olympic.org. "It's beautiful. The arena was beautiful."

While Japan was racking up medals in Sochi, another drama was unfolding in Dortmund, Germany, where 2010 Olympic champion Kim was making her comeback after more than 18 months out of action while she took a break and helped promote Pyeongchang's successful bid to host the 2018 Olympics.

Kim looked like she had never been away at the lower-level NRW Trophy, as she racked up a season-high score of 201.61 points in winning against a group of junior skaters.

It was a surreal scene to see Kim competing in an arena that reportedly held only 200 spectators. She wanted to make her return low key, but when you have the kind of star power she does, that is impossible.

Kim's goal in Germany was to qualify for this season's world championships in London, Ontario, which she did with ease.

News photo
Rousing return: Kim Yu Na, competed for the first time in more than 18 months at the NRW Trophy in Germany earlier this month, where she notched the highest score of the season in winning. AP

Following the victory, Kim expressed satisfaction with her showing.

"At the beginning of the program my spins were going well, but I made one mistake," she said. "Afterward I felt shaky but I persevered to the end. I was actually surprised at the score I received. That was unexpected. I think I did my best, the best I could, even though I don't feel I've shown all I can do. But overall I'm satisfied."

Kim did fall on a combination jump in her free skate, but clearly exhibited that the time away has not eroded her skills.

Her display combined with Mao's results this season put the two once again on a collision course in the race for gold medal in Sochi. The anticipation and build-up will likely be greater than that heading into Vancouver, which is really saying something.

Fans could get an early preview in February at the Four Continents Championships in Osaka. Mao has skated in the competition five straight years and, with it being staged in Japan, will likely be entered again.

Kim Sun Young of Yu Na's management agency, All That Sports, informed Ice Time in an email from Seoul on Monday that a decision on her participation on the Four Continents will come next month.

"She hasn't decided to go Osaka yet. I can tell you in January if she will compete at Four CC or not," the email stated.

Kim Sun Young confirmed that Yu Na will next lace up her skates for the Korean nationals (Jan. 4-6).

So the coming months promise to be filled with drama as the skating world awaits the second round of the Mao vs. Yu Na battle at the Olympics. Two young but experienced athletes, still in their prime, going for the greatest prize in the sport.

That is about as good as it gets.



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