Mao recognizes challenges as she returns to spotlight at Four Continents

by David Hueston and Dave Hueston

Kyodo

A perfectionist’s work is never done.

So it is with two-time world champion Mao Asada, who kicks off her 2013 campaign on Friday at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in dogged pursuit to reclaim her erstwhile signature jump — the triple axel that distinguished her so completely from her rivals in years past.

The 22-year-old Mao will be aiming to regain the title she lost last year to American Ashley Wagner in the warmup for this year’s world figure skating championships in London, Ontario, in March, where a berth will be on offer for Japan to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

Rather than stick to the status quo, the Grand Prix Final winner insists on raising the bar, despite having won all four of her competitions in the first half of the 2012-2013 season without the 3½-revolution jump.

“The main thing is I don’t want to ruin the base I have built by incorporating it (the triple axel),” said Asada. “But to build on my base, I have to include difficult technical elements.”

Herein lies the paradox.

Without it, Mao has said she cannot experience real joy even in victory, her gravity-defying exploits defining her dominance among peers who toil in their own way to overcome her sky-blotting shadow.

“I felt I was landing triple axels very well in practice today,” said Mao following an official practice at Osaka Municipal Central Gymnasium on Thursday. “I was able to land more than usual.”

Vancouver Olympic champion Kim Yu Na, Asada’s longtime rival has returned to competitive skating for the first time in two seasons, but the South Korean is not competing in Osaka.

“The level I am at now is the best for now, but I want to push myself even more looking toward the world championships. I started executing my triple axels in practice at the nationals (in December). I feel confident I can execute them in competition now,” Mao said.

Kanako Murakami, who came second at the national championships behind Asada in December, and 2012 world bronze medalist Akiko Suzuki, who has been struggling with her jumps of late, round out the squad for Japan’s women at the three-day competition.

“I want to compete in Sochi, but right now I have to be selected first. I want to stay calm as I make a challenge for the Olympics,” said Murakami when asked about her prospects of competing at the Sochi Games.

With the next Winter Games just a year away, Suzuki feels time is tight.

“Sochi is right around the corner,” she said. “I want to make the most of each and every day. I want to enjoy myself as I look forward to Sochi. I am more focused on my performances than on results.”

Seventeen-year-old Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond is poised to make a strong challenge here after winning her national title in January with a score of 201.34.

Among the men, world silver medalist and Osaka native Daisuke Takahashi is aiming for a triumphant homecoming. The 26-year-old Takahashi has announced he will retire after the Sochi Games. The Grand Prix Final winner, however, will face stiff competition here from newly crowned Japan champion Yuzuru Hanyu.

Takahashi won the Grand Prix Final with the top score in this season’s series, 269.40, which left Hanyu second despite a sterling 264.29.

Takahashi, Hanyu, and Takahito Mura have a golden opportunity at a podium sweep in the absence of two-time world champion Patrick Chan of Canada.

U.S. champion Max Aaron and 2012 Four Continents bronze medalist Ross Miner, also of the United States, will be aiming to upset the favorites with some dazzling performances of their own.