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Mao needs victory at NHK Trophy to regain confidence

by Jack Gallagher

Just over one year ago, Mao Asada entered the NHK Trophy coming off her second world title and a silver medal at the Vancouver Olympics. The stage was set for a triumphant return at the Grand Prix event in her hometown of Nagoya.

With archrival Kim Yu Na having announced she would sit out the 2010-11 season, and Miki Ando three years removed from winning the world championship, it looked like Mao was poised to dominate her fellow skaters. But it didn’t quite work out that way.

Instead, Mao went on to endure the worst season of her competitive career. For the first time since the 2002-03 season, she failed to win an event.

Last year’s NHK Trophy foreshadowed the trouble that loomed ahead. Mao placed eighth, her lowest finish in an event since the Japan nationals during the 2003-04 season when she was just 13 years old.

The disastrous result assured she would not make the Grand Prix Final for the second straight year. The following month, Mao came in fifth at the Trophee Bompard in Paris.

There was a slight uptick midseason at the Japan nationals and Four Continents, where Mao was second behind Ando in both events. But any hopes of salvaging the campaign came to a crashing halt at the delayed world championships in Moscow in April, where Mao took sixth as Ando claimed her second world crown.

Mao begins this season at a crossroads. With Kim and Ando both electing not to compete in 2011-12, Mao would seem to have a clear path to her third world title. But as history has taught us, the road to glory can be filled with many obstacles, especially in the form of younger competitors.

So which Mao will fans see in Sapporo?

Will it be the confident two-time world champion?

Or the inconsistent performer of last season?

Mao’s primary competition at the NHK Trophy will come from Olympic teammate Akiko Suzuki, who was second at Skate Canada two weeks ago, American Ashley Wagner, third at Skate Canada, Russia’s Alena Leonova and Finland’s Kiira Korpi.

In years past, Mao would have been the prohibitive favorite going up against this field, but at 21 she is now faced with the prospect of having to prove herself all over again. The 2014 Sochi Games are more than two years away, which is an absolute eternity in skating.

Mao would go a long way to silencing the doubters with a decisive victory. The nation will be tuned in again to see if this is the beginning of the end for its favorite female athlete, or the start of the journey to greater glory in Russia 27 months from now.

Here’s hoping it’s the Mao of old, who helped propel skating to incredible heights with her talent and charisma. No matter the sport, people everywhere love a comeback. There is nothing like seeing great athletes do it like they used to.

The men’s field in Sapporo is strong, with the likes of 2010 world champion and Olympic bronze medalist Daisuke Takahashi and compatriot Takahiko Kozuka, the silver medalist at last season’s worlds, going up against Tomas Verner of the Czech Republic and American Brandon Mroz.

Takahashi finished third at Skate Canada, while Kozuka took third at Skate America.

Germany’s Robin Szolkowy and Aliona Savchenko, the reigning world champions, will face off with Russia’s Yuko Kawaguchi and Alexander Smirnov in the pairs, where Narumi Takahashi and Mervin Tran will represent Japan.

Maia and Alex Shibutani of the United States, who came in second at the Cup of China, will take on Canada’s Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje in the ice dance. Cathy and Chris Reed are entered for Japan.

Wise decision: Ando’s announcement last week that she was going to sit out the entire season to recharge her batteries for Sochi was the right move.

After skating competitively nonstop for nearly 12 years, and coming off an absolutely incredible season, Ando consulted with coach Nikolai Morozov and arrived at the decision.

She will not skate in the Japan nationals in Osaka next month, and therefore won’t be able to represent Japan at the world championships in Nice, France, next March.

Ando’s success last season was a testament to her fortitude and the genius of Morozov, who made all the right moves. With many feeling Ando’s best days were behind her, she summed up a season for the ages. Her victory over Kim at the worlds was both fitting and poignant.

The big picture: The city of Fukuoka has stated its interest in hosting the 2013 Grand Prix Final, the last major event of the next Olympic season. The Japan Skating Federation was cool to the proposal, saying it would have to take into consideration the feasibility of holding the event outside of Tokyo.

It is time for the JSF to stop having such a narrow view and taking the easy route. Last season’s world championships, which were to have been in Tokyo before the March 11 disaster hit, were originally slated for Nagano, but swapped with last season’s nationals without explanation.

Whether the excuse is cost or convenience, it doesn’t fly. For the benefit of raising interest in the sport and supporting the economy, the JSF should take a broader view and get away from always trying to stage the major events in the nation’s capital.

There are a lot of fans in other parts of the country who should have the opportunity to see the elite skaters in person, while there are many in the international skating community who would welcome the chance to see other parts of Japan.