Mao Asada ended last year with a month of triumph and tragedy that are hard to imagine.
Just two weeks after her mother Kyoko passed away at 48 on Dec. 9, Mao laced up the boots again and showed the heart of a true champion in winning her fifth national title with an inspiring effort in Osaka.
The season restarts this week with the Four Continents Championships in Colorado Springs, Colorado. It will mark Mao’s last competition before next month’s world championships in Nice, France.
With European skaters not taking part in the Four Continents, the women’s field is thin. Mao’s main competition will come from compatriot Kanako Murakami and newly crowned U.S. champion Ashley Wagner.
Haruka Imai, who finished fourth at nationals, is Japan’s third entry.
In short, this is an event that Mao — even without a triple axel — should dominate. A victory here would give her strong momentum heading into the worlds and make her the favorite to claim a third world title.
Though Mao’s place in skating history is secure, if she caps this season with another world championship it would galvanize her position as one of the greatest Japanese athletes ever and boost so many fans that are still concerned for her.
It would also mark the fifth time in six years that Japan took home the world title in the women’s event.
It is a different story on the men’s side for Daisuke Takahashi. The 2010 world champion will face a formidable challenge in Canada’s Patrick Chan, the reigning world champion.
Takahashi claimed his fifth national crown in Osaka last month, but will have to contend with Chan’s quad at World Arena. If Takahashi can land his, the contest will be on. If not, he will be skating for second place.
U.S. champion Jeremy Abbott withdrew from the Four Continents last week with a hip injury. Two-time world junior champion Adam Rippon could factor into the equation in his compatriot’s absence.
Tatsuki Machida and Takahito Mura join Takahashi in the field.
Japan pairs winners Narumi Takahashi and Mervin Tran will have to contend with U.S. titlists Caydee Denney and John Coughlin and Canadian champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford.
Japan does not have an entry in ice dance, where world champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the U.S. will be heavily favored.
Turning back the clock: With the surge in power of Japanese skaters that began with Mao Asada’s victory in the Grand Prix Final in 2005, continued two months later with Shizuka Arakawa’s Olympic gold medal in Turin, and has never looked back, some in other countries are longing for the days of yore.
During the recently concluded U.S. championships in San Jose, columnist Mark Purdy of the Mercury News bemoaned the state of skating in the country and how “the event has struggled to create buzz and cut through the Bay Area’s professional sports clutter.”
Citing attendance that was far off the numbers when the city last hosted the event, 15 years earlier, Purdy’s analysis was both biting and correct.
“Alas, the contrast between 2012 and figure skating’s glory days was only brought into stark relief by Saturday’s late-afternoon ceremony that in recognition of (Michelle) Kwan, who will be inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame later this year,” he wrote.
“Yet as the video salute to Kwan unfolded on the arena video screen, featuring shots of her with David Letterman, Jay Leno, Katie Couric and even the Simpsons, it struck home how figure skaters were once woven into the fabric of American pop culture. Now, not so much.”
Purdy solidified his point by citing the region’s rich skating history and contrasting it with the national level of the sport today.
“For their part, the championship’s San Jose organizers did their best to restart that conversation. They utilized the South Bay’s skating Mount Rushmore — Peggy Fleming, Brian Boitano, Debi Thomas, Kristi Yamaguchi and (Rudy) Galindo — to be a part of the week’s programs. But much like the appearance of Kwan, this only served as a reminder of how no skating name of today is as big as the ones of yesterday.”
Book report: Two new Japanese books about 2011 world silver medalist Takahiko Kozuka have just been released.
“Step by Step” is a 223-page look at Kozuka’s life through last year’s worlds in Russia published by Bungeishunju, while “Takahiko” is a photo book filled with the work of Hidemi Ogata and put out by Gakken.
Meanwhile, “Beyond the Triple Axel,” a 192-page tome authored by skating expert Yoshie Noguchi and issued by Shufunotomo, is an updated biography of 1989 world champion Midori Ito.