KRASNAYA POLYANA, RUSSIA – Aiko Uemura got her fifth Olympics off to a strong start Thursday, when she qualified for the final round of the women’s moguls although Japan’s effort was marred by an injury to ace Miki Ito during practice.
The 34-year-old Uemura, who finished fourth at the 2010 Vancouver Games, put together a solid run at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park that netted her 21.01 points, a seventh-place finish and a spot in the final.
“I intended to stick to my own kind of skiing,” said Uemura. “I’ve felt all along that this was going to be my final Olympics.
Uemura set off at a blistering pace. Even after a soaring first aerial, she didn’t slow down. Although at times she was leaning too far back, Uemura was never out of control and finished strong to achieve her goal of a spot in the top 10 and a berth in the final round.
According to the Japan Olympic Committee, Ito was taken from the venue by ambulance after collapsing in the finish area after landing her final aerial in practice. She had opted to skip surgery on her right knee in order to take part in the Sochi Games.
Team doctor Toru Okuwaki revealed that Ito had aggravated her right-knee injury, and according to women’s mogul coach Tatsuo Hayashi is unlikely to compete in Saturday’s second qualifying.
“I think it would be difficult,” Hayashi said. “Taking her future into consideration, It’s not like I can let her ski even if she says she wants to.”
Uemura felt for Ito, who is affiliated with the same company in Japan.
“Because we are colleagues, we’ve trained together a lot,” Uemura said. “I was thinking how hard it must be for her.”
American Hannah Kearney, the defending Olympic champion, led the qualifying with 23.05 points.
If Ito does manage to compete on Saturday, she will join compatriots Junko Hoshino, who is making her Olympic debut, and Arisa Murata, who finished eighth in Vancouver, in the second qualifying round.
Kearney initially hoped to grab gold in Turin in 2006, when she was a 19-year-old world champion entering her prime. Instead she crashed during qualifying, tumbling over one of the early bumps in the course.
It nearly happened again during training earlier in the week, providing Kearney with a haunting reminder of Turin.
“I thought, ‘Oh, boy, we don’t need this problem again,’ ” Kearney said.
She needn’t have worried. Knees seemingly magnetized together as she navigated the moguls, Kearney posted the second-fastest time down the hill and highlighted it with a pair of well executed if not quite perfect jumps that allayed any concerns about the course’s safety.
“I think that everywhere we go, every World Cup venue, we show up and say, ‘Oh, my god. How are we going to make it down this course? This is impossible,’ ” Kearney said.
After some tweaking by officials, the slopes of the Caucasus Mountains looked no different than most other moguls events over the last four years, with the top-ranked Kearney looking down at the rest of the field.
“The course is great,” she said. “It’s challenging but in a very positive way. It’s going to separate the weak skiers from the strong skiers, hopefully.”
The top 10 skiers earned an automatic berth into the finals, with the remaining competitors returning for a second qualifying run on Saturday. The top 20 qualifiers make the finals, which will be held in three stages as the field is whittled down to 12 then six before a champion is crowned.
“You have expectations of how you should feel when it’s the Olympics,” Kearney said. “Then when you don’t, you think, ‘Am I not excited enough? Am I too excited? Am I relaxed? Am I nervous?’ Ugh. Too much thinking, time to go skiing.”