Chan says Japanese skaters top rivals for Sochi Games

AFP-JIJI

Akiko Suzuki, Yuzuru Hanyu, Nobunari Oda and Takahito Mura arrive at Skate Canada this week hoping to replicate the success compatriots Mao Asada and Tatsuki Machida enjoyed at Skate America last week.

Superstar Mao posted a convincing win in the women’s event last week in Detroit, where Skate America opened the ISU Figure Skating Grand Prix series in a season that will be highlighted by the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Unheralded Machida topped the men’s field with a surprise result.

This week, Hanyu, Oda and Mura take on Canada’s three-time reigning world champion Patrick Chan, while veteran Suzuki, 28, faces a quintet of talented teens including defending Skate Canada champion Kaetlyn Osmond, of Canada, Russian Julia Lipnitskaia and an American trio led by Gracie Gold.

Skate Canada, the second of six Grand Prix events, features 51 athletes from nine countries vying for medals and points needed to qualify for the Grand Prix Final in December.

That event in Fukuoka will serve as a preview of the Olympic contest that will unfold in Sochi, Russia, in February.

Suzuki’s bid for gold in Canada was eased somewhat by the withdrawal of Kim Yu-na, South Korea’s reigning world and Olympic champion who is recovering from a foot injury.

Second at this event last year and third at the Grand Prix Final, Suzuki needs to bounce back from a disappointing end to last season when a bad case of nerves caused her to tumble to 12th place at the world championships.

“I had the bronze medal the year before that and I wanted to be higher and I just got too nervous,” Suzuki said.

“This season will be my final competitions, so I want to enjoy my skating every time I compete. I will try really hard to get on the Olympic team (at the national championship in December). There are very strong women in Japan, so that will be hard,” said Suzuki, who finished eighth at the Vancouver Games in 2010.

In practice on Thursday, the women were impressive in executing their most difficult tricks, while the men looked a little less steady and confident. Still, Chan and the three Japanese all managed successful quad jumps in their first outing on Harbour Station ice.

“It was a bit frustrating. It took a lot of adjusting, but I got done what I had to get done,” said Chan, who settled for silver a year ago when he competed without sufficient preparation for this event.

“Probably my biggest rivals for the 2014 Olympics” is how Chan described the Japanese.

“They perfect every element of figure skating. I think that’s why figure skating is growing so quickly there because they’re making a real statement internationally,” he said.

Still, Japan’s top-ranked Hanyu (fourth at the 2013 worlds) was not perfect in his first warmup, although that did not worry his coach Brian Orser, who guided Kim to Olympic gold in 2010.

“When he goes out and does a crazy good practice where everything is perfection, that’s when I get nervous,” Orser said, noting he believes Hanyu has what it takes to land on the podium in Sochi.

Hanyu admitted he was distracted by watching his competitors go through their paces and promised to focus only on himself next time out.

“I want to skate two perfect programs and win. I want to qualify for the Grand Prix Final,” he said.

In ice dance, Canada’s Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir are the heavy favorites for gold. Their teammates and world bronze medalists, Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, are the frontrunners in the pairs event.

The first rounds of competition for all disciplines are Friday, with the medal rounds on Saturday.