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Has Mao come to end of line with triple axel?

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Three-time world champion Mao Asada did something unusual at the Challenger Series event in Finland last week. For a rare instance in the last 10 years, she didn’t attempt a triple axel in either her short program or free skate.

Was it a sign of things to come or just an anomaly?

That is the million-dollar question.

Mao, with a total score of 186.16, finished second at the Finlandia Trophy in Espoo, Finland, just over a point behind Canada’s Kaetlyn Osmond (187.27). Mao was second after the short program, behind Russia’s Anna Pogorilaya, and remained there after the free skate. Pogorilaya (182.80) had to settle for third.

The base value of a double axel (3.30) is far less than a triple axel (8.5) under ISU rules, so with Mao’s adeptness at the more difficult maneuver over the years it has made sense for her to stay with her patented jump.

But in recent years, most notably at the Sochi Olympics, Mao has had trouble cleanly landing the triple axel. The absence of her favorite jump in Finland might lead one to believe we have seen the last of it, but not so fast according to her coach, Nobuo Sato.

Speaking after returning to Japan on Sunday, Sato told reporters not to jump to any conclusions.

“She is lacking the coordination at this point,” Sato was quoted as saying by Nikkan Sports. “She is not at her highest level.”

Sato then revealed that Mao is still suffering from pain in her left knee after injuring it last season. He said he instructed his famous charge to, “not risk injury” with the triple axel and “go at her own pace.”

Watching both of Mao’s programs in her season debut, Ice Time felt she was still working herself into shape and appeared to lack flexibility at times. The reality is that Mao is not a young kid of 15 anymore, but a mature woman of 26 now.

The human body changes over time, and Mao’s is no different. After her free skate, Mao analyzed her performance.

“I made some mistakes,” she was quoted as saying by Kyodo News. “Is it because this was my first time with this free program?

“There was a sense of not having any margin for error.

“I still need to skate myself into shape,” Mao added. “When I build up enough practice time, a feel for different things will come to me naturally.

“I want to turn these mistakes into a positive.”

What’s interesting is that despite not receiving the highest levels on two of her spins and step sequence, Mao still almost won the event.

The old axiom in skating is that “you can’t win a competition in the short program, but you can lose it.”

This is so true and time and again we have seen Mao put herself in a tough spot by botching the triple axel in the short program, then having to make up a huge margin in the free skate.

As we saw at the Finlandia Trophy, Mao can still be highly competitive without the triple axel.

It is more statistically beneficial for her to have it in her arsenal, but if you can’t rely on it, then it become pointless (literally and figuratively).

Yuna Kim and Miki Ando both won regularly without the triple axel, and now Mao can try and do the same.

Mao has said in the past, “The triple axel defines me. It’s who I am.”

In life we are often confronted with difficult decisions — about work, relationships, business ventures, etc.

The natural first reaction is to want to stay in a cocoon and maintain the status quo. But after careful introspection, there frequently comes clarity and the recognition that it is time to move on.

Ice Time is reminded of how baseball pitchers adjust their games as the years pass and they lose the speed they had on their fastballs as younger players. Many of them say they become better pitchers because they take a more cerebral approach and learn how to improvise and make the most of their remaining tools and experience.

It’s time for Mao to do the same.

Let the triple axel go once and for all.

Scintillating showing: Yuna Shiraiwa vaulted from sixth after the short program to finish second at the Junior Grand Prix in Dresden, Germany, on Saturday. The young star, who last season became the first junior since Yuna Kim to win her first two competitions, put on a fabulous show to the “Notre Dame de Paris” soundtrack.

Shiraiwa, a 14-year-old from Kyoto, landed seven triple jumps in her free skate and did not receive a single negative mark from the nine judges at the seventh and final JGP of the regular season.

ISU announcer Ted Barton was equally impressed with Shiraiwa’s effort.

“What a terrific performance,” Barton commented on the YouTube webcast of the event. “Living on the edge, pushing the speed, and the emotion of the program.

“She didn’t give away the performance in order to get the jumps done,” Barton noted. “She said, ‘I’m going to do it all or nothing’ and she did it all tonight. Perfect technically. Emotionally engaged.”

Barton called Shiraiwa’s free program “an intelligent skate” and added, “She was on her game tonight most certainly.”

Shiraiwa was so tired at the end of her free skate that she slumped onto all fours for a moment before getting up off the ice.

With her second-place finish in Dresden, Shiraiwa ended up with a total of 22 points from her JGP assignments. Unfortunately this is not enough to give her a berth in the JGP Final in Marseille, France, in December. Shiraiwa is the third alternate at this point.

Yuna Aoki (169.60) came in fourth in Dresden.

Mitsuki Sumoto earned the bronze medal in the men’s singles with a tally of 195.74. He finished behind South Korea’s Cha Jun-hwan (220.54), who won the Yokohama JGP last month, and Canada’s Conrad Orzel (196.30).

JGP Final field set: With the conclusion of the JGP in Dresden, the six skaters for the women’s and men’s singles at the JGP Final have been determined. It will be Japan vs. Russia in women’s singles, with both countries qualifying three skaters each.

New sensation Rika Kihira, Kaori Sakamoto and world junior champion Marin Honda are all in. They will compete against Russia’s Anastasiia Gubanova, Polina Tsurskaya and Alina Zagitova.

No male skaters for Japan qualified for or are alternates for the prestigious competition this season.

Total tally: Japan completed the JGP season with a total of 13 medals in the seven events. Three times (France, Yokohama, Slovenia) during the season the Hinomaru earned three medals at one competition.

Next up: Skating takes a break this coming weekend and then begins the Grand Prix season the following week (Oct. 21-23) at Skate America in the Chicago suburb of Hoffman Estates, Illinois.

Mao and Mai Mihara will represent Japan at Skate America, along with Shoma Uno and Daisuke Murakami.