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Tokyo confirmed as host of 2009 Grand Prix Final

by Jack Gallagher

World champion Mao Asada’s last international competition before heading to Vancouver for the 2010 Olympic Games should be in Tokyo at the Grand Prix Final next December, according to the schedule recently released by the International Skating Union for next season.

The senior and junior GP Finals will be held together at Yoyogi Arena from Dec. 3-6, which should provide skating fans one final chance to see Mao and South Korean rival Kim Yu Na compete before they take their shots at Olympic glory.

Mao made her first major splash at the last GP Final in Tokyo, back in 2005, when she beat a field of veteran skaters to win the event at the age of 15. That victory rocketed her onto the world stage and she has never looked back.

With Japan being awarded the GP Final for the third time, the NHK Trophy, which traditionally is held in late November, will be moved to mid-October and staged in Nagano from Nov. 5-8.

The entire Grand Prix schedule for next season has been changed around, with the Trophee Bompard in Paris leading off, followed by the Cup of Russia in Moscow, the Cup of China in Beijing, the NHK Trophy, Skate America in Lake Placid, N.Y., and Skate Canada in Kitchener, Ontario.

Presidential treatment: Pairs skater Yuko Kawaguchi was recently awarded Russian citizenship under a special order by president Dmitry Medvedev. Kawaguchi will be able to skate for Russia at the Vancouver Games with partner Alexander Smirnov, following the special decree.

Kawaguchi and Smirnov, who finished second at last week’s European Championships in Helsinki, are the reigning Russian pairs champions. The duo took first place at Skate Canada this second and second at the Cup of Russia. They finished fourth at the world championships last season.

The 27-year-old Kawaguchi is a native of Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture, and one-time singles skater for Japan. She speaks Russian fluently, and is a university student in St. Petersburg, majoring in international relations.

Shirota returns: Noriko Shirota, who played a key role in helping Shizuka Arakawa win the gold medal at the Turin Olympics, and has helped nurture several young Japanese skaters over the years, has returned to the support staff of the Japan Skating Federation, JSF spokesman Tatsuro Matsumura confirmed on Tuesday.

Shirota, previously held the title of director of figure skating for the JSF, but she resigned voluntarily in the wake of the financial scandal that hit the federation back in April 2006.

Though Shirota was never personally accused of any wrongdoing, she was caught up in the media frenzy in the aftermath of the arrest of former JSF chairman Katsuichiro Hisanaga, who later received a three-year suspended prison sentence for embezzling nearly ¥25 million.

2009-10 ISU GRAND PRIX CALENDAR

Trophee Eric Bompard—Oct. 15-18 (At Paris)

Cup of Russia—Oct. 22-25 (At Moscow)

Cup of China—Oct. 29-Nov. 1 (At Beijing)

NHK Trophy—Nov. 5-8 (At Nagano)

Skate America—Nov. 12-15 (at Lake Placid, N.Y., )

Skate Canada—Nov. 19-22 (At Kitchener, Ontario)

Grand Prix Final—Dec. 3-6 (At Tokyo)

Shirota’s return comes after lobbying from both skaters and coaches, who felt her contributions will make a significant contribution going forward. She will officially be on board for next month’s Four Continents Championships in Vancouver.

Shirota’s first event back promises to be a good one, as Mao and Kim are both slated to skate. Mao has been in Russia the past two weeks training with coach Tatiana Tarasova.

Kwan back in training: Five-time world champion and two-time Olympic medalist Michelle Kwan has resumed training. No one is quite certain what to make of it at this point.

She could be just trying to stay in shape for shows — or something more.

A cryptic comment that Kwan’s agent Shep Goldberg made to The New York Times at the U.S. nationals last week in Cleveland will certainly fuel speculation that she may be considering a return to competition.

Said Goldberg: ” . . . Michelle still hasn’t ruled out a comeback, you know. She’s back to intense training. Whether that could take her to the Vancouver Games, no one knows.”

It would still seem like a long shot at this point, especially after Kwan missed the Turin Games due to injury and has sat out the three seasons since. The feeling here is that having never won Olympic gold is still something that stokes a fire in the nine-time U.S. champion.

She has a silver medal from the Nagano Games (1998) and a bronze from the Salt Lake City Games (2002), but when you look at her trophy case, there is just one thing missing.

This has to be one of the reasons why the 28-year-old Kwan, one of the most talented and popular skaters of all time, is leaving the door just slightly open.