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Murakami’s skill, personality a winning combination

by Jack Gallagher

Following her third-place finish at last month’s NHK Trophy, Kanako Murakami said she wanted to be on top of the podium at her next competition.

At Skate America last Sunday, the energetic 16-year-old got her wish.

Coming from behind to win just her second senior Grand Prix event, Murakami dazzled the crowd at the Rose Garden in Portland, Ore. In doing so, she equaled world champion Mao Asada’s feat of triumphing in her second GP.

The victory qualified Murakami for the Grand Prix Final next month in Beijing, where she has a legitimate chance of winning.

When you have been around sports long enough, you develop a sixth sense when you encounter a special individual, be they an athlete, coach or executive.

I first saw Murakami in person at last season’s Junior Grand Prix Final at Yoyogi Arena, and I remember thinking, “this gal really has the goods.”

She was not only athletic and technically superior to her fellow skaters, but possessed an electric smile that she displayed both on the ice and with the media afterward that resonated. A few months later she became the world junior champion.

Even though she could have skated in the junior ranks again this season, the Nagoya native exhibited the fortitude of a true champion and took the challenge by joining the senior division with the encouragement of her coach, Machiko Yamada.

It was the kind of move that fans love. Forget playing it safe, I’ve accomplished all I can as a junior, let’s go for it.

The saying “no guts, no glory” wasn’t created for no reason. It’s true — and now it’s paid off for Murakami.

In an interview with Ice Time in May, Murakami was asked if she was impressed by Mao winning her second world title in March.

“Actually I was inspired by her performance not in the worlds but in the Olympics (where Mao finished second behind South Korea’s Kim Yu Na),” she said. “But I was happy for her for winning the worlds and her performance there taught me a lot.

“Before I watched this year’s Olympics, I had no intention to compete in the Olympics, because my dream is to be a figure skating coach in the future,” she stated. “But by watching her performance in Vancouver, I was so impressed and moved. Then I felt that I wanted to compete on such a big stage in the future and impress many people.”

It is clear that Murakami idolized Yamada, who mentored Japan’s first world champion, Midori Ito, once upon a time.

“I wanted to be a coach as soon as possible,” Murakami said. “Machiko is my ideal type of coach and my goal is to be just like Machiko.”

Murakami first put the blades on when she was 3 years old and joined a skating club at 5.

“My older sister (who was 6) was skating at that time. By watching her skate, I guess I felt like doing it too. I don’t remember why I felt like skating exactly. What I remember is I didn’t like skating when I was a little kid (until about 8) because I hated practicing,” she said with a laugh.

“Of course I love skating now,” she added, laughing some more.

Murakami said she practices 5-6 hours a day during the season and 3-4 hours a day during the offseason.

“During the season I practice to the songs I use in the competition,” she noted. “In the offseason I work on new jumps and spins.”

Though she has many years ahead of her on the ice, the teen is already looking ahead.

“In the first year after the retirement, I will skate in some shows and get relaxed,” she said. “Then I want to be a coach the following year.”

When questioned about why she only wanted to be a show skater for a year, the teen elaborated on her statement.

“If I feel like continuing for a second or third year on shows, I’ll continue,” she said. “I’m not ruling it out. But I really want to be a coach. That’s my dream.”

Pride and poise: Lost in the attention focused on Murakami’s rise and Mao’s struggles is Miki Ando’s continued resurgence. Her victory at the Cup of China earlier this month marked her third straight GP win over the past two seasons.

The 2007 world champion captured the NHK Trophy and Cup of Russia last season, was second at the GP Final, and fifth at the Olympics. Not a bad year any way you look at it.

Ando will skate in this weekend’s Cup of Russia in Moscow, where she will face compatriot Akiko Suzuki, American Ashley Wagner and Russia’s Alena Leonova with a good shot at extending her streak of GP triumphs.

Though her highest-flying days may be behind her, the 22-year-old has proven in the past two seasons that she has matured and knows how to win.

Dominating: World champion Daisuke Takahashi came from behind last week to edge compatriot Nobunari Oda for the Skate America title and claim his second GP victory of the season. The win punched the Okayama native’s ticket for the GP Final and continued what has been an outstanding season for Japan’s male skaters.

Takahiko Kozuka won the Cup of China crown, and Oda has two second-place finishes, meaning both could join Takahashi in Beijing. Kozuka skates next at the Trophee Bompard in Paris later this month.

Not to be forgotten is world junior champion Yuzuru Hanyu, who finished fourth at the NHK Trophy in his senior GP debut. He will skate this weekend at the Cup of Russia.

The only GP event a Japanese man did not win this season was Skate Canada, where Oda was runnerup to Canada’s Patrick Chan. If they continue their strong showings, a Japanese trio could realistically sweep the medals at the GP Final.