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Mao must let the triple axel go for shot at gold in Sochi

by Jack Gallagher

Enough already.

It is time for two-time world champion Mao Asada to give up the triple axel.

It has been nearly two seasons now since she has been able to land the jump cleanly on a consistent basis, and it appears more likely that as time marches on the maneuver will remain problematic.

We all have moments in our lives where we come to a crossroads and difficult decisions have to be made. Sometimes they are personal. Sometimes they are professional.

In Mao’s case it is a bit of both.

This is the jump that has become her trademark and led to many victories over the years. She has become so associated with the triple axel that it is nearly a part of her.

But after watching both the Grand Prix Final in Fukuoka earlier in December and the Japan nationals in Saitama this week, it is quite apparent to Ice Time that drastic action must be taken.

If there is going to be a serious attempt mounted to prevent defending Olympic champion Kim Yu-na from winning her second straight gold medal at the Sochi Games, Mao and coach Nobuo Sato have to formulate a different strategy.

As Akiko Suzuki so elegantly illustrated at the nationals, you don’t need a triple axel to be a champion. The key is to develop a program that you can execute, amassing maximum points, and do it to perfection.

Suzuki pulled it off brilliantly and so did second-place finisher Kanako Murakami. They knew what they could do, what they had to do, and they did it.

Mao’s obsession with the triple axel has clearly gone too far. She is such a gifted and beautiful skater and so beloved by her fans, that they are all being set up for a huge letdown in Sochi.

Here is the dilemma: If she could not beat Kim Yu-na in Vancouver when she was hitting the triple axel, how is she going to do it in Sochi while not being able to land it?

It is a fair enough question.

If things continue as they are, it could all end in tears without a silver medal this time. Maybe without any medal.

Sound crazy?

I think not.

Suzuki and Murakami both showed that they are now serious contenders for a medal in Sochi. We already know Kim is. That alone makes four skaters and three medals, and that is not factoring in any of the competitors from the other countries that will be entered.

This kind of reminds me of what happened with American Michelle Kwan at the Salt Lake City Games back in 2002. Everybody thought she was just going to cruise to the gold after just missing out to compatriot Tara Lipinski at the Nagano Olympics in 1998.

It didn’t happen that way, though.

Kwan ended up settling for the bronze behind fellow American Sarah Hughes and Russian Irina Slutskaya. Kwan was one of the greatest skaters in history, a winner of five world titles and nine national crowns. But the reality is that a lot of people associate her with never winning the Olympic gold.

Mao has garnered many honors in her career, but the gold medal at the Olympics is the holy grail in skating. Winning it defines legacies.

There are approximately six weeks left until the Winter Olympics begin, certainly enough time for Mao’s team to come up with a routine for the short program and free skate which do not include the triple axel.

If Mao skates cleanly and Kim does not, Mao has a shot at the gold. If it is the other way around, Mao will have no chance at the top prize, and could end up with nothing.

What Mao needs to be convinced of is that, win or lose, her fans will still love her. But they all want to see her on top of the podium in Sochi, regardless of how she gets there.

She has to do everything in her power to give herself the best chance to win. It just does not seem realistic that the triple axel is part of that formula any longer.

I don’t want to see Mao look back, years down the line, and have regrets.

She must take action. It is now or never for her.

JSF on target: The Japan Skating Federation made the right call in including Daisuke Takahashi on the Olympic team for the 2014 Games.

There are some who disagree with the decision, but when you take into account Takahashi’s accomplishments and body of work, the case for his inclusion is pretty clear.

He was forced to withdraw from the Grand Prix Final with a bruised shin ealier this month and only finished fifth in Saitama, but that is only a small part of his story.

The only Japanese male skater ever to win a world title and an Olympic medal (both accomplished in 2010), Takahashi has the pedigree of a champion. He is a leader and revered by the other skaters and his legion of fans.

He is not only a great skater, but has the style and panache that resonates with both fans and judges.

Leaving him off the team for Sochi would have been a travesty. It was good to see the JSF not buckle on the basis of one poor outing.

It brings back memories of the horrendous decision by the Japan Asssociation of Athletics Federations not to include defending Olympic marathon champion Naoko Takahashi on the team for the 2004 Athens Games.

The JAAF got lucky that time because Mizuki Noguchi won the gold, but that was beside the point. Naoko Takahashi, the first Japanese to claim the Olympic gold in the discipline, was publicly disgraced. It was a complete outrage.

A tip of the cap is in order for the JSF hierarchy, who made absolutely the right call with Daisuke Takahashi.

Oda bows out: Veteran skater Nobunari Oda announced his retirement from competition earlier this week following the nationals. Oda was an excellent skater who was always in the shadow of Takahashi.

Oda was not selected for the Japan team for the 2006 Turin Games, and finished seventh in Vancouver, where Takahashi claimed the bronze.

The Osaka native enjoyed a fine career. He was the 2005 world junior champion and captured Japan’s national title in 2008.

Oda won five senior GP events in his career and made the podium at many more. But a medal at the worlds eluded him. His best finish was fourth place in 2006.

He was very popular amongst his fellow skaters and fans. Ice Time wishes him the best of luck from here on out.

  • Лизайчика

    I disagree with that Mao has to give up triple axels, but I’m worried if she has too much pain on her lower back to do her original jump layout (including the 3F-3Lo and 3Lz,) after watching her struggles with the spins at GPF and Japan Nationals…
    Do you really think it’s just her obsession in the first place? She needed triple axels to make up what she didn’t have: the salchow and luts jumps. That’s why I’m anxious now! She’s been working on all kinds of triples after winning her second world title in Italy, so I personally would love her to be the first lady to land six kinds of eight triples at the Olympics as she aimed at the beginning of the season, but I guess it’s even harder.
    Also, finishing third in Saitama is only a small part of her history as you mentioned Takahashi. Asada won all international competitions she took part in this season so far. After all, you never know what’s the best decision until it’s over. I just hope every skater to be healthy enough to do well.

  • hk

    During practice, Mao performs clean program for both SP and FS with 3A. So, there is no good reason she should give up. Since she had a back pain after GPF, she could not practice well for nationals and now, she has more time to prepare for Sochi in good shape. I believe that ISU tries to give her chance to win after we’ve seen GPS and the way she received scores. If she lands 3A, the gold medal will be hers no matter how Kim performs. Kim is a great skater for sure but 6 jumps of 4 kinds of triple jump (twice of 3Lz and 3S) in FS requires a perfect performance and even she skates perfectly, she will not be able to get higher score than Vancouver since many rules have been changed since. It is totally different from Vancouver. I personally think I want Mao to do 8 trips in FS but doing 3A twice is something that makes her strong and considering the risk of under rotation of 3F-3Lo, edge error of 3Lz, 3A combination jump has a better chance to win.

  • IzizI

    While Mao is great, in my opinion I’d rather watch Kim skate. Mao looks like she’s a talented skater who’s put in a lot of time on the ice. When Kim skates, it is as if she were born to do so. Mao may be more athletic but Kim is the queen of the ice; her grace and beauty are what figure skating is all about.

    I am looking forward to great performances from both of these talented young women.