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Shoji makes a splash in international debut

by Jack Gallagher

With world junior champion Kanako Murakami moving up to the senior ranks this season, there may have been some trepidation in Japanese skating circles about who would represent the next wave of young talent among the ladies.

Those folks have to worry no more, as 14-year-old Risa Shoji burst onto the international scene with a victory in her debut at the SBC Cup Junior Grand Prix in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, last weekend.

Shoji won both the short program and free skate on the way to racking up a total of 149.39 points in a comprehensive triumph. The Tokyo native beat American second-place finisher Kiri Baga (138.70) by more than 10 points. China’s Kexin Zhang (134.08) came in third.

Japan had two other finishers in the top eight — Shion Kokubun (128.20) was fifth and Karen Kemanai (109.96) eighth.

Shoji, who is coached by Naoki Shigematsu, performed to “Libertango” in the short program and “The Lake House” from the movie “The Cider House Rules” in her free skate.

The junior high school student, who began skating at age 6, represents the Seibu Higashifushimi Figure Skating Club. She finished 10th at the Japan Junior Championships last season.

Though she clearly has some big skates to fill, Shoji’s effort in Karuizawa bodes well for the future.

Trophy case grows: Two-time world champion and 2010 Olympic silver medalist Mao Asada added another honor to her ever-growing list this week when she was named the Tokyo American Club’s Sportswoman of the Year.

Mao, who turned 20 on Sept. 25, joins an impressive list of previous recipients that includes Olympic gold medal marathoners Naoko Takahashi (2001) and Mizuki Noguchi (2005), two-time Olympic gold medal judoka Ryoko Tamura (1996) and tennis star Kimiko Date (1994).

The TAC’s Jeff McNeill hit the nail on the head with his comment on Mao: “She is an outstanding sportswoman and a wonderful role model for aspiring athletes in Japan.”

New partnership: Mao and new coach Nobuo Sato held an open practice and news conference in Nagoya on Sept. 26. One of the interesting items that emerged was that Sato is interested in having Mao occasionally practice with male skaters.

“I think it would be good stimulation for her to practice with a male skater,” Sato told the Asahi Shimbun.

Sato, who was elected to the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame early this year, said that even though he has been coaching for 40 years he was a bit intimidated by the prospect of taking on a two-time world champion in Mao.

Staying cool: Miki Ando and coach Nikolai Morozov trained in Latvia for several weeks to escape the record heat wave that gripped Moscow for much of the summer.

Ando is representing Japan, along with Mao, world champion Daisuke Takahashi and Kozuka, in the Japan Open at Saitama Super Arena this weekend. Japan takes on teams from Europe (led by Evgeni Plushenko) and North America (featuring Joannie Rochette) in the invitational event.