Asada holds top spot at nationals

Nakano sits in second place after short program

by Jim Armstrong

The Associated Press

KADOMA, Osaka Pref. — Mao Asada posted the top score in the women’s short program at the Japan Figure Skating National Championships on Saturday, strengthening her chances of securing a spot in the Vancouver Olympics.

Mao had a triple axel downgraded to a double but was solid throughout, receiving 69.12 points.

Yukari Nakano, who also is bidding for one of two places remaining for Vancouver, was second with 68.90 points. Miki Ando was third with 68.68.

Mao has struggled this season but said Saturday’s performance was a big step forward.

“I came here with the intention of booking a ticket to the Olympics,” Mao said. “I feel like I’ve cleared one hurdle and hope to carry this momentum into the free skate.”

The 19-year-old Mao finished a disappointing fifth at the Rostelecom Cup in Moscow in October and second at the season-opening Trophee Bompard, won by South Korea’s Kim Yu Na. Mao failed to qualify for this month’s Grand Prix Final in Tokyo, another event won by Kim.

Mao’s last win was at the 2008 Japan nationals.

“I got a lot of support from the fans today,” she said. “It’s been a while since I got a standing ovation.”

Ando already has earned a place in Vancouver by finishing second at the GP Final. She had planned a triple lutz, triple loop to open her routine but went with a triple, double instead.

“My goal here is to enjoy this event,” Ando said. “I wanted to do the triple, triple to open today and was a bit disappointed I couldn’t do that.”

Assuming Mao earns a place in the Olympics, the third and final spot likely will come down to a race between Nakano and Akiko Suzuki, who was fourth in the short program with 67.84 points.

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

Takahashi triumphs

On the men’s side, Daisuke Takahashi won the Japan National Figure Skating Championships on Saturday to secure a place in the Vancouver Olympics.

Takahashi, who was first after the short program, made several mistakes in Saturday’s free skate but was good enough to finish first with a total of 261.13 points.

Takahashi stumbled on his opening quad toe loop and a triple loop later in his routine but took advantage of the 12.30 point lead he built up after a strong short program.

Nobunari Oda, who has already secured a place in Vancouver, fell on his opening quad toe loop but was solid the rest of the way and finished second with 244.30 points.

Takahiko Kozuka was third with 236.16 points and is likely to be named to the Olympic team when the Japan Skating Federation makes the announcement on Sunday.

A former top-ranked skater, Takahashi 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.

Takahashi was No. 1 in the world when he injured his right knee in practice just over a year ago. With damage to the anterior cruciate ligament and cartilage, he had to skip the season and have major surgery.