Takahashi leads at nationals

by Jim Armstrong

The Associated Press

OSAKA — Daisuke Takahashi finished first in the short program at the Japan National Figure Skating Championships on Friday, moving a step closer to earning a spot for the Vancouver Olympics.

Takahashi landed all his jumps to record a personal-best score of 92.85 points.

“There were no major mistakes today,” Takahashi said. “I still need to work on a few things like the axel and my steps but overall I was pleased. It would be great to finish first here and get some confidence for Vancouver.”

Two Japanese men will earn berths for Vancouver at this weekend’s nationals.

Takahiko Kozuka, the 2006 world junior champion, was second with 80.54 points while Nobunari Oda, who already secured a place in the Olympics by finishing second at the Grand Prix Final, was third with 79.60 points.

Takahashi, a former top-ranked skater, was a three-time winner of the Japan nationals before he injured his right knee last year and missed the entire 2008-09 season.

He was also first in the men’s short program at the GP Final in Tokyo earlier this month but dropped to fifth after an error-filled free skate.

Kozuka touched down on a triple axel but avoided further mistakes. Oda fell on his second element — a triple flip. The men’s event concludes Saturday with the free skate.

The women’s short program will be held Saturday. Miki Ando has already earned a place in Vancouver leaving Mao Asada, Yukari Nakano and Akiko Suzuki contesting for the final two spots.

The 2010 Olympic team will be named on Sunday following the women’s free skate.

Ando’s maturation

An argument with her coach was the last thing Miki Ando needed.

Yet there she was, hours before the free skate at last March’s World Figure Skating Championships in Los Angeles, in the midst of a volatile discussion with Nikolai Morozov. Ando was in position to medal, if not win outright at the worlds, an event she also won in 2007 in her first season under Morozov’s guidance.

Between that championship and Los Angeles, Ando did not win another significant event. She didn’t even get to defend her world crown in 2008.

And now, a potential meltdown.

“In the free program, I did not do a triple-triple,” Ando said, referring to the combination jump that is becoming commonplace in women’s skating. “In the morning skate practice I did it, but he said not to do the triple-triple (in the competition) because he knows it’s difficult to get and they are going to downgrade it for sure if I miss.

“And I was just worried what the Japanese people would say. I did not feel comfortable with this. I was worried because I am Japanese.”

Ando believes the jumps are so ingrained in the culture of the sport in her nation that to not attempt them shows weakness. It is something she’s needed to overcome because, as Morozov explains, “there’s a time to do certain things and a time not to.”

Morozov, who helped Shizuka Arakawa win the gold medal at the 2006 Turin Games for Japan’s first Olympic figure skating victory, has stressed to Ando the importance of being natural on the ice. It took Arakawa years to overcome that fear of letting down her country, and here was Ando experiencing the same feelings in Los Angeles.

“I go to Nikolai and I say, ‘I am worried if I don’t do the triple-triple what the people will say,’ ” Ando recalled, smiling uncomfortably. “And he is getting so mad.”

Angry enough that Morozov asked Ando if she no longer trusted the way he was training her, or if she had second thoughts about moving to Ice House in Hackensack, N.J., to work with him. Then he told her if she had such doubts, he would not attend the free skate that afternoon and their coach-skater partnership would be over.

“You have to understand that figure skating is not only jumps, it is how you are skating and feeling and how you want to show people how you are,” he told Ando.