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Takahashi’s encore for Vancouver — a world title

by Jack Gallagher

It’s not often in life that you get a second chance after squandering a golden opportunity.

For Daisuke Takahashi, the bronze medalist at the Vancouver Games, it comes this week at the world championships in Turin, Italy. Two years ago, in Goteborg, Sweden, the Okayama native was the No. 1-ranked skater on the planet and the favorite to win his first world title.

But problems with his boots and a lack of poise under pressure conspired to see Takahashi somehow not even make the podium (he finished fourth).

Takahashi didn’t know it, but this was just the beginning of his problems. Within weeks he had left coach Nikolai Morozov, who guided him to the silver medal at the 2007 worlds, and moved back to Japan.

Then true disaster struck when the Kansai University student tore the anterior cruciate ligament and medial meniscus cartilage in his right knee during a jump in practice in October of 2008.

Takahashi underwent surgery the next month to repair the damage and missed the entire 2008-09 season while rehabilitating.

Nobody ever wants to endure an injury like that, but especially not just 16 months before the Olympic Games.

To his credit, Takahashi worked through excruciating pain to get himself back in shape and ready to skate.

When he placed fourth at the NHK Trophy in Nagano last November, Takahashi was clearly still lacking the stamina that comes with real competition. But more practice and perseverance saw him take second place at Skate Canada and qualify for the Grand Prix Final.

Though he finished a disappointing fifth at the GP Final in Tokyo, it provided him with more valuable game action. Three weeks later, he won his fourth Japan championship in Osaka. It was a good omen heading into the Olympics.

But the best was yet to come.

Going against the likes of reigning Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko and current world champion Evan Lysacek, Takahashi put on the performance of a lifetime and became the first man to earn an Olympic medal for Japan in figure skating.

His short program to “Eye” by Coba was nothing short of sensational and received universal praise. In third place heading into the free skate, Takahashi attempted a quadruple toe loop and despite falling, held on for the historic bronze.

Takahashi showed his true colors afterward, when asked why he tried the quad when he could have played it safe to protect his medal chances.

“I wanted the gold,” he said. “That’s why I tried the quad.”

This statement said everything about this young man’s heart and courage.

Many Japanese athletes have been knocked over the years for cracking under pressure or being too conservative.

Takahashi, who turned 24 last week, blew a huge hole in that image and deserves to be recognized for it.

He can raise the bar even higher by doing something no Japanese man ever has this week in Turin, where both Lysacek and Plushenko will not participate. Barring something unforeseen, Takahashi is a solid bet to add another prestigious tag to the “Olympic bronze medalist” that now often proceeds his name.

This one says “world champion.”

Compelling viewing: I recently watched the newly released Discovery Channel documentary on Vancouver Olympic gold medalist Kim Yu Na entitled “Hip Korea: Yu Na Kim — Seoul Spirit.”

The 45-minute piece is a fascinating look into the world of Yu Na and what she means to the people of South Korea. It features footage of Yu Na’s climb from anonymity to the world stage and includes interviews with her mother Park Mi Hee, coach Brian Orser, choreographer David Wilson and many others.

It also focuses on the continuing progress of women in South Korean society and how Yu Na symbolizes it. It is highly recommended viewing.

Major impact: Kim’s victory and the medals gained by other South Korean athletes in Vancouver are expected to bring a lot more than glory and exposure to the nation, according to a recent story by Reuters.

Samsung Economic Research Institute economist Lee Dong Hun estimated Asia’s fourth-largest economy would benefit by nearly $18 billion from the record haul.

“The country’s splendid achievement in the 2010 Winter Games will bolster soft power, a prerequisite becoming an advanced country,” Lee wrote in a report.

“After watching Kim Yu Na’s performance, Koreans may have experienced a heightened sense of self-confidence that encourages the belief that, by putting together their capabilities, Koreans can achieve anything.”

Looking ahead: The dates for the 2010-11 Grand Prix season are now set. It will feature a real shakeup in how the events have traditionally fallen on the calendar.

The NHK Trophy will kick off the GP season in Nagoya (Oct. 22-24) and be followed by Skate Canada (Oct. 29-31), the Cup of China (Nov. 5-7), Skate America (Nov. 12-14), the Cup of Russia (Nov. 19-21) and the Trophee Bompard (Nov. 26-28).

Also worth noting is that Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture will host a Junior Grand Prix event (Sept. 22-26). With Japan boasting both world junior champions, this is a good opportunity to get a look at some of the stars of the future.