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Mao’s path to gold difficult, but not impossible

by Jack Gallagher

Staff Writer

Mao Asada returned to practice here on Sunday following several days of training in Yerevan, Armenia. Mao trained for 40 minutes at the Iceberg Skating Palace along with teammates Akiko Suzuki, Kanako Murakami and three other skaters.

Mao and Suzuki worked on their free skates, while Murakami went through her short program during the session.

Mao landed several triple axels and a triple flip/triple loop combination jump. It is obvious that the Japan team is doing everything it can to boost Mao’s confidence heading into Wednesday’s short program. Whenever she hit a triple axel, the coaches and trainers all clapped, their cheers echoing around the nearly empty cavernous arena.

“After the team event, I was a little upset and unsure of myself,” Mao said at a press conference with Suzuki and Murakami on Monday evening. “I wasn’t exactly on a high during the training in Armenia, but I’ve felt pretty good the last couple of days since coming back to Sochi.”

“In Armenia I tried too hard to perfect my program and wound myself up into a knot,” Mao noted. “I started stressing out, so my coaches told me to relax and just let the skating come to me.”

The two-time world champion worked on her jumps and step sequence again on Monday afternoon as the clock continued to tick down to Wednesday night’s short program.

Mao believes that her frame of mind will be crucial to her result in the singles.

“I was picking it up for Sochi but I wasn’t strong enough mentally in the team event,” Mao said. “In the singles I want to focus on myself, trust myself more. That’s probably the most important thing.”

The significance of the short program — where Mao has had problems over the years — can’t be underscored. Four years ago in Vancouver, Mao was nearly five points behind Yuna Kim heading into the free skate. Mao ended up finishing 23 points behind the South Korean star after the free skate.

If Mao is going to win the gold here, she is going to have to stay close to Kim in the short program to have a realistic chance heading into the free skate. Ice Time thinks the gap can be no greater than one point. If Mao is close, or has the lead over Kim, she will be in a good position.

As we saw with the men on Friday, in the Olympics anything can happen. Yuzuru Hanyu had a nearly four-point lead after the short program, but looked like he had squandered his chance after two falls in the free skate. But then Patrick Chan came apart and Hanyu was able to hang on.

Mao will have to skate cleanly in the short program, landing all four jumps, to keep the pressure on Kim. The view here is that if Mao and Kim skate cleanly in both programs, Kim will retain her title as Olympic champion.

Based on her recent form, Mao is going to need some help to top the podium. It won’t be easy, but it is not out of the question. Landing triple axels in both programs will be mandatory.

“I will attempt the triple axel once in the short and once in the free,” Mao commented. “There is some risk involved with the axel but I want to do it. I did it twice in Vancouver (in the free skate) but I’m only doing it once in Sochi. I just don’t feel like I need to do it twice.”

Mao said her trademark jump is a tool of motivation.

“I don’t consider the triple axel to be a burden at all,” she stated. “It actually gives me something to shoot for and it defines me. But the axel isn’t everything; even with one I can still have a decent program with the other jumps I’ve got.”

Russian teen Julia Lipnitskaia could factor into the equation, skating in front of the home crowd, but Kim remains the greater concern for Mao. She and Mao both have reputations with the judges that have been built up over the years.

Monday’s draw for the short program determined that Kim will skate 17th out of the 30 entrants, while Lipnitskaia will go 25th and Mao last. So Mao will already know Kim’s score when she takes the ice.

Looking back: American Tara Lipinksi, who made history as the youngest women’s champion ever at 15 at the 1998 Nagano Games, provided her take on youth versus experience. Lipinski, now 31, is in Sochi as a commentator for NBC.

“My main source of confidence came from training,” she said. “Being young has its benefits but it also has its downfalls. I feel being young, you bounce back faster, you’re more spontaneous, and it’s like being a kid in a candy shop where everything is so exciting.

“At the same time, you don’t have as much experience to rely on,” she noted. “The ups and downs can be intense as you don’t have the adult outlook of how to set your mindset right. You are fully aware and feel the same pressure. That’s why we see many 15-year-olds come and go, but the ones who can handle national, world and Olympic pressure are harder to find.”

Classic quote: Murakami, after being asked why Aichi Prefecture produced so many elite skaters (like her, Mao and Suzuki), produced this gem of a response:

“There are a lot of devoted moms and some of them are really scary. It’s not just the coaches, but the moms really crack the whip. I think that’s how kids get better in Aichi.”

  • Elbegzaya Batjargal

    Mao did her best though she injured herself during the training in Armenia. We heard that she has had a hard time with her mom passed away and so much responsibility put on this fragile girl alone. We fully understand you and still proud for your beautiful skating. We love you. Your fan from Mongolia