Golden Skate

Mao Asada fights back

 

Japan's Mao Asada, 19, landed two triple Axels in her Long Program at the 2010 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships.

Japan’s Mao Asada overcame a disappointing start into the Olympic season by winning the 2010 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in Jeonju, Korea, and  is  now headed to the Olympic Winter Games with refreshed confidence.

Some had already written off the four-time Japanese Champion, but Asada has proven that she should not be counted out just yet.

The Olympic season couldn’t have started much worse for the 19-year-old. Asada was a distant second to Korea’s Yu-Na Kim at the Trophée Bompard in October, then faded to fifth after subpar performances at the Rostelecom Cup in Russia. As a result, she did not  qualify for the Grand Prix Final – a first since she began competing in the series in the fall of  2005.

At the Four Continents, Asada’s short program was a disappointment. Her trademark triple Axel was downgraded and she singled the flip. While she received  level fours for her spins and a level three for the footwork and the spiral,  she was still only ranked third behind teammate Akiko Suzuki, who has had a great season, and USA’s Amanda Dobbs, a 16-year-old  competing in her first senior-level international event.

The skater was irritated with her performance. “I couldn’t do two of my highest scoring jumps. It’s not good to make mistakes, but it’s better that it happened now than at the Olympics.”

“The training before the short program went well,” explained Asada. “I wasn’t worried about the short program, but when I stepped onto the ice (in the competition), I suddenly was nervous. I’ve learned from that experience how to control my nerves. I have to do all my elements in the short program at the Olympic Games.”

The short program has given the 2008 World Champion trouble all season. She singled the triple Axel at the Trophée Bompard and it was downgraded to a double at the Rostelecom Cup. As a result, the solo double Axel received no value as two double Axels are not permitted in the short program. At the Japanese Championships, she finally landed a triple Axel-double toe combination, but the Axel was once again under-rotated and downgraded.

Doing the triple Axel in the short remains a big risk, but Asada’s options are limited. Her triple flip-triple loop combination most of the time wasn’t ratified, and she has eliminated the triple Lutz from her repertoire since receiving edge calls on it. Her current alternative would be a program with a triple flip-double loop combination and a triple loop as a solo jump and the double Axel. However, this won’t hold up against Yu-Na Kim’s triple flip-triple toe and triple Lutz. The ambitious Japanese star knows this. The triple Axel is her favorite element, she is currently the only female skater doing it, and she wants to do it.

Since the Grand Prix Final in December 2008, Asada’s sharpest weapon finally worked in the long program at the 2010 Four Continents. She hit two triple Axels and both were clean. They were a thing of beauty, effortless and light, and possibly an envy for some of the men.

“I am very happy that I went for two triple Axels,” said Asada. “This is good for the Olympic Games. I wasn’t too nervous before the free program, and hopefully I’ll feel the same way when I compete at the Olympics.”

When asked about the difference between her season’s best of 183.96 and Kim’s season’s best of 210.03, Asada said: “If I do a good short program, I’ll have a higher (total) score. I’m not really thinking about points while I’m skating, because I’m focusing on the elements. But sometimes I need to think about them.”

Four-time World Champion Kurt Browning once said that you don’t win a competition with a short program but you can very well lose a competition with a short program. It was a lesson learned through bitter experience, and it is still valid although the code of points judging system allows for more movement, especially if the difference in points is not too big. Perhaps the short program will make the difference in the end in Vancouver.

“I know that the short program is easier than the free skating,” sighed Asada. “I just need to remind myself about that, and then it should be OK.”

Asada used the music of last year’s free program Waltz Masquerade for the short because she felt comfortable with it. For the long, she is skating to Sergei Rachmaninov’s Prelude No. 3 Opus 2 (also known under the name Bells of Moscow) – a powerful, yet dark and heavy piece of music. This choice was unexpected for such a light skater as is Mao Asada.

“I had two choices of music – a light and happy one and Bells of Moscow,” said Asada. I tried both, and I [felt] that the light music wasn’t working so well. I felt that the Rachmaninov piece was more powerful and suited me better. I feel strong with it, and also my coach Tatiana Tarasova suggested this music to me.”

Tarasova actually hasn’t been really coaching Asada lately. She neither came to the Japanese Championships nor to Four Continents, citing health problems. “The last time I was coached by Tatiana Tarasova was at the Rostelecom Cup (in October),” the skater said. “Since then, I’ve been training in Nagoya with Tatiana Tarasova’s assistant Jeanetta Folle. I was sad that Tatiana Tarasova couldn’t come to Korea because she wasn’t feeling well.” Tarasova plans to be in Vancouver.

Two days in February will tell if Asada’s childhood dream of winning the Olympic gold medal comes true in 2010. Kim, the record-breaking phenom, is the obvious favorite, but as Caroline Zhang pointed out at the Four Continents press conference, the favorite didn’t win the Ladies event in the past Olympic cycles: Shizuka Arakawa (2006), Sarah Hughes (2002), Tara Lipinski (1998) certainly were contenders, but the favorites were Michelle Kwan (1998 and 2002), Irina Slutskaya (2002 and 2006) and Sasha Cohen (2006).

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