Mao relishes potential duel with Kim

by Shigemi Sato

AFP-JIJI

Mao Asada says she has come a long way to be ready for another gold-medal showdown with reigning Olympic champion Kim Yu-na during February’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Mao, who took the silver medal behind her South Korean archrival at the 2010 Vancouver Games, won her second Grand Prix title of the season in Tokyo over the weekend despite some problems with her trademark 3.5-revolution triple axel.

“Since Vancouver I have repeatedly re-adjusted my jumps from scratch,” the 2008 and 2010 world champion told reporters, saying she now felt more confident as a result.

“Now I’m finally beginning to feel the effect of what I have gained in the three years since Vancouver.”

After winning October’s season-opening Grand Prix, Skate America, the 23-year-old Mao dominated in her home showpiece, the NHK Trophy, topping her personal best scores in the free skate and combined total.

“I believe I have stepped up since Skate America. I want to work hard so that I take my program to a higher level,” she added.

But the Japanese star had trouble with the difficult but high-scoring triple axel, a technique few of her elite rivals are willing to attempt, in both events.

Mao fell while attempting the maneuver in her Skate America free program. In Tokyo, she landed on two feet in the short and under-rotated it during the free skate.

She nailed a clean triple axel at the Japan Open invitational team event last month, but has struggled with her triple-triple combinations while excelling in steps and spins.

The seasoned Mao says she rarely frets about minor slip-ups these days.

“I have no worries. I have practiced in a way that lets me get rid of those fears,” she said.

“My jumps are getting quite steady so I think I can now aim higher.”

Her silver medal in Vancouver owed much to the three triple axels she landed in two programs, a feat no other woman has accomplished.

Mao said she might repeat the same feat in Sochi.

“I have come to believe I can land two triple axels (in the free skate),” she admitted.

Her rival Kim, also 23, who won the world championship in March with Italy’s Carolina Kostner second and Mao third, has skipped the Grand Prix series due to a foot injury.

Kim is preparing to make her season debut at the second-tier event Golden Spin in Zagreb, Croatia, from Dec. 5 to 8.

Looking ahead to the Winter Games, Mao said: “It will really be a huge inspiration for me if I can skate together with (Kim) on the big and supreme stage and at the center of attention, as we did in Vancouver.

“It will be great if we can show each other what we have.”

Kim still holds the world record in the free skate and combined categories, scoring 150.06 and 228.56 points in Vancouver, respectively.

After Tokyo, Mao was sitting at 136.33 points in the free skate, bringing her combined total to 207.59 points.

“I’m not a judge and so I’m not in a position to assess her performance,” Kim said of Mao’s result at Skate America.

“It appears that not only Mao, but also other competitors, are training hard with the Olympics just around the corner.”