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Mao aims for fourth NHK Trophy title as Sochi looms

by Jack Gallagher

Staff Writer

Two-time world champion Mao Asada continues her quest for the Olympic gold medal at the Sochi Olympics at the NHK Trophy starting on Friday in Tokyo.

Mao, who won Skate America last month in her first Grand Prix assignment of the season, will be looking to secure a spot in the GP Final in Fukuoka next month. A finish on the podium will likely do the job.

She will enter as a heavy favorite against a field which includes Akiko Suzuki, Satoko Miyahara and Americans Mirai Nagasu and Gracie Gold.

Mao, who won last year’s NHK Trophy in Sendai, will be looking to take the title at the event for the fourth time in her career.

Suzuki, who was second at Skate Canada last month, is also seeking to lock up a berth in the GP Final as she strives to make her second consecutive Olympic team.

Miyahara is Japan’s two-time defending national junior champion. The 15-year-old from Kyoto will be making her debut in a senior GP.

Nagasu wowed observers with her fourth-place finish at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, but has struggled with injuries and inconsistent results since then. She was third at last year’s NHK Trophy.

Gold, who was third at Skate Canada, is coached by the legendary Frank Carroll who led Michelle Kwan to an incredible five world titles.

World junior champion Elena Radionova, who finished third at Skate America, is also entered in the event. The 14-year-old Radionova is the defending Russian national champion.

Radionova’s compatriot, Alena Leonova, will also take the ice. Leonova, who is coached by Nikolai Morozov, was the silver medalist at the 2012 world championships.

In the men’s competition, 2010 world champion Daisuke Takahashi tops the lineup and will be joined by Nobunari Oda and Takahito Mura.

Takahashi, who placed a disappointing fourth at Skate America, will be looking to get back on track as he strives to earn a second straight Olympic medal in Sochi.

Oda finished third at Skate Canada and is also vying for a spot on the Olympic team.

Spain’s Javier Fernandez, the European champion, is also slated to appear along with three-time U.S. national champ Jeremy Abbott and fellow Americans Adam Rippon and Max Aaron.

Narumi Takahashi and Ryuichi Kihara will represent Japan in the pairs, where they will be up against defending Russian world champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov.

The Russian duo, who won at Skate America, are coming off an incredible season that saw them win every competition they entered.

Takahashi and Kihara, who have only been skating together for six months, are trying to get up to speed so they can be a factor for Japan in Sochi where the team competition will feature for the first time in the Olympics. They finished 11th at the preseason Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany, in September.

Takahashi previously skated with Canadian Mervin Tran, but the attempt to gain Japanese citizenship for him was denied, thereby making him ineligible to skate with Takahashi at the Olympics.

Americans Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, the reigning world junior champions, are also entered.

Two-time world champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the U.S. headline the ice dance roster. Davis and White, who won last year’s NHK Trophy, have skated in Japan several times over the years and are crowd favorites.

Japan’s Cathy and Chris Reed, in their lone GP assignment of the season, will go up against Davis and White and the Japanese-American brother-sister team of Alex and Maia Shibutani.

The Shibutanis were third at last year’s NHK Trophy and also took the bronze at Skate America.

Narrow escape: Two-time world champion Miki Ando has assured herself of a spot at the national championships next month with her second-place finish at the Eastern Japan championships in Maebashi, Gunma Prefecture, on Monday.

Ando had to stage a huge rally to finish second, after coming in 13th in the short program on Sunday. She won Monday’s free skate to vault onto the podium and keep her dream of appearing a third straight Olympics alive.

With only three spots available on the Olympic team, and Mao, Suzuki and Kanako Murakami favored to get them, Ando will still be in for a battle to make the squad.

Kim’s return set: Defending world and Olympic champion Kim Yu-na will make her season debut at the Golden Spin in Zagreb early next month, according to her agency All That Sports.

Kim suffered an injury to her right foot while training in August and decided to bypass the GP season.

Kim will be skating at the Golden Spin in order to try and achieve the Olympic qualifying standard, getting a late start in her bid to retain her title from Vancouver.

Junior review: Keiji Tanaka and Ryuju Hino have qualified for the upcoming Junior Grand Prix Final in Fukuoka in December. Tanaka, who won his two JGP assignments (in Slovakia and the Czech Republic), and Hino, who placed second in the Mexico and Belarus events, will represent the host nation at Marine Messe.

Shoma Uno, who came in third in Latvia and fourth in Estonia, is the third alternate in men’s singles.

Japan did not have a female skater qualify for the JGP. Riona Kato came the closest. She is also the third alternate after coming in third in Slovakia and fourth in the Czech Republic.