Fired-up Kozuka outclasses field

Defending champ Takahashi struggles, sits in fourth

Kyodo

Takahiko Kozuka produced a near-perfect short program to take the lead in the men’s figure skating competition at the national championships on Friday.

Kozuka collected 87.91 points to move ahead of 16-year-old Yuzuru Hanyu in second with 78.94, followed by Nobunari Oda in third another 1.46 behind at Nagano Big Hat.

“I was shocked at my score. I naturally pumped my fist for joy,” said Kozuka. “I was able to do all my elements — jumps, steps and spins — to my liking. This was really great.”

Defending champion Daisuke Takahashi got off to a shaky start, landing awkwardly on his triple axel in an uninspiring effort and trailed in fourth with 74.78 points.

“I don’t know why I screwed up. I probably lost my nerve. This puts me in a tough situation. I want to make sure I don’t continue to mess up in the free skate and give it my all,” Takahashi said.

The 21-year-old Kozuka executed consecutive triple leaps, captivating the audience gathered to watch the final qualifier for next year’s world championships in Tokyo.

Oda, who is seeking his first victory in two years, fell on a quadruple leap and while performing a step sequence.

“I wasn’t able to win over myself. I think I had a momentary lapse of confidence when I jumped,” Oda said.

He added: “I’m disappointed that I wasn’t able to perform well though my wife and daughter came to watch for the first time.”

The men’s free skate and women’s short program, featuring reigning world champion Mao Asada, former world champ Miki Ando and Vancouver Olympian Akiko Suzuki, will take place Saturday.