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Mao looks for 4th straight Japan title after long break

by Jack Gallagher

With the Vancouver Olympics only 50 days away, Mao Asada will take the ice on Saturday in Osaka looking for redemption at the Japan nationals, having not skated competitively for two months.

Mao last competed in October at the Rostelecom Cup in Moscow, where she finished a shocking fifth. Compounding this result was the fact that she was coming off a 36-point loss at the hands of reigning world champion Kim Yu Na in the Grand Prix season-opening Trophee Bompard in Paris the week before.

The nation’s eyes will be on Mao to see if she can regain her form following the long layoff and capture her fourth straight national crown. In what once seemed almost unimaginable, Mao has now gone an entire year without a victory. Her last title came at last year’s nationals in Nagano.

Much has been made about the strange coaching setup Mao has with Tatiana Tarasova, whereby the legendary coach lives in Russia and only sees Mao periodically, but now is the time for the 2008 world champion to silence the critics and show them she can challenge Kim for the gold in Canada.

This weekend isn’t so much about Mao making the Olympic team, but showing she is a legitimate medal contender after a calamitous 12 months. Mao is a lock for the team as a Japan Olympic Committee symbol athlete and with the massive amount of marketing packaged around her.

The only way she doesn’t make the trip to Vancouver is if she gets injured.

With Miki Ando having locked up an Olympic berth via her second-place finish at the Grand Prix Final in Tokyo earlier this month, and Mao poised to get a spot, the real competition at Namihaya Dome will be the battle for Japan’s final ladies berth.

It essentially boils down to a two-horse race between Akiko Suzuki, who has enjoyed a very successful season (third place at the GP Final, winner at the Cup of China) and Yukari Nakano, who has not (third at the Trophee Bompard, fourth at the NHK Trophy).

Though both are veterans, their story lines are quite different but equally compelling.

Suzuki, 24, was away from elite skating for years while battling anorexia. She won a Junior Grand Prix event back in 2002 at the age of 17, but then missed the entire next season with the ailment and disappeared off the radar for what seemed an eternity.

She finally earned her first senior GP assignment last season and finished second at the NHK Trophy. Japan Skating Federation officials liked what they saw and gave her two assignments this year and she capitalized on the opportunities to make the GP Final.

Nakano, also 24, has been a top skater for years, but has been unable to break through at a major competition, with her lone podium finish coming at the 2005 GP Final, where placed third.

She has record multiple podium finishes at regular GP events, but has always found herself going up against the likes of Shizuka Arakawa, Fumie Suguri, Ando and Mao during the course of her career.

One of just five women to land a triple axel in international competition, Nakano is looking at her last chance to make the Olympic team. She was passed over back in 2006 for Ando, who despite finishing sixth at nationals, got the nod as the focal point of JSF and JOC marketing campaigns and went on to a disastrous 15th-place finish in Turin.

When Ice Time interviewed Nakano back in the fall of 2007, it was clear that this wound was still festering. Though she remained poised when asked about it, a nerve had obviously been touched.

“I have mixed feelings about what happened at that time,” Nakano admitted. “Now that I look back, I realize that I didn’t have the track record (of results). Even though I feel that way, I still feel anxious about what could have been. That feeling is still inside me.

“I realized that, under the circumstances, there were a lot of other factors (like sponsors) involved in the decision,” she said. “This made the results that much more difficult to accept.”

So now we are four years on, and just last season Nakano would have seemed a sure thing for the Olympic team, but Suzuki re-emerges, almost like a ghost from the past, and suddenly Nakano’s hopes rest on a blade’s edge.

It will make for great theater, but the sad reality is that one of the skaters is going to have to go home disappointed. In the end it may be the fans who cry the biggest tears, as Nakano’s popularity has endured, while Suzuki is still somewhat of an unknown commodity in terms of personality.

The public will have a tough time begrudging Suzuki’s selection, however, following her courageous triumph over such a life-threatening condition.

On the men’s side, Japan also has three Olympic slots, but matters appear much more cut and dried.

Nobunari Oda has qualified for Vancouver after taking second place at the GP Final. The two other spots should be taken by former world No. 1 Daisuke Takahashi, who has made a strong comeback from reconstructive surgery on his right knee last year, and Takahiko Kozuka.

Takahashi was fifth at the GP Final, but is still working on his stamina after a year out of competition. He has put himself back into the Olympic medal equation by finishing second at Skate Canada and fourth at the NHK Trophy this season.

Kozuka, who took second at last season’s GP Final, started this campaign strong with a second-place showing at the Cup of Russia, but stumbled to seventh place at the NHK Trophy.

Nevertheless, Kozuka, the 2006 world junior champion, possesses great skills and an Olympic bloodline. His father, Tsuguhiko, skated for Japan at the 1968 Grenoble Olympics.

The men’s short program is scheduled for Friday night, with the ladies starting on Saturday.

The 2010 Olympic team members will be announced at a news conference on Sunday night following the conclusion of the ladies free skate.