MOSCOW — Heading into the World Figure Skating Championships in Moscow, Japan’s women skaters, once so dominant, are now a question mark.

They could win the title, get more than one medal or no medal at all.

At the beginning of the season, things looked great for the Japanese women. They had won all the major titles available to them in the 2003-2004 season: world championship, world junior championship, Four Continents, senior and junior Grand Prix Final.

Then problems arose.

World champion Shizuka Arakawa struggled with boot problems, had blisters on her foot and had to withdraw from the Japanese championships.

Miki Ando hasn’t done a decent quadruple jump in a major competition in nearly two years and changed her long program less than three weeks ago — not a good sign.

Fumie Suguri didn’t even qualify for the Grand Prix Final that she won the year before and had to have a second chance to make the world team.

Yukina Ota has been injured and couldn’t defend her Four Continents title.

And the brightest hope of them all, Mao Asada — the world junior champion — isn’t eligible for the Olympics until 2010 because of age restrictions.

The women’s event begins Wednesday with qualifying rounds that have Arakawa, Suguri, five-time world champion Michelle Kwan and unbeaten Irina Slutskaya in one group.

Ando and last year’s silver medalist behind Arakawa, Sasha Cohen of the United States, head the other group.

Under the old 6.0 system it would have been a disaster for at least once of the skaters to come in third or fourth in the qualifying.

However the new scoring system, based on cumulative totals, keeps people within striking distance.

The qualifying score is multiplied by .25 and then added to the short program on Friday and the free program on Saturday.

Arakawa, who won last year under the 6.0 system, was expected to do well in the new scoring system which counts jumps, spins and footwork along with artistry.

Last March in Dortmund, Germany, Arakawa became the third Japanese woman to win a world title, following Midori Ito in 1989 and Yuka Sato in 1994.

Arakawa had a triple-triple and a triple-triple-double combination which scores heavily in the new system.

She hasn’t come close to that since.

Foot injuries caused by a change of boots in the fall have plagued her.

She has had good short programs then struggled. She was just fourth in the field of six at the free skating in the GP final. Then she dropped out of the Japanese championships after leading in the short program.

She was still named to the world team and recently went to the United States to work with Tatiana Tarasova again in Connecticut.

Tarasova normally advises her by long distance and shows up at the competitions usually for her.

Arakawa credited Tarasova with her rise to the world title in Dortmund.

“She is a champion maker,” Arakawa said then. Tarasova has coached seven Olympic champions.

Arakawa’s withdrawal at the national championships paved the way for Ando to win her second consecutive title.

Still just 16, she is already known for a number of commercials on billboards and on TV with her bright smile.

Ando has been making headlines in the junior ranks for years — in December 2002 at the junior GP final she became the first female skater to complete a quadruple jump in competition at the age of only 14.

She won the world junior title in 2004 and a few weeks later came in fourth in her first senior world championships.k

She too has struggled with an ankle injury. That limited her jumping and she, like Arakawa, was not sensational at the GP final in Beijing, coming in fourth overall.

That helped lead to the decision to go back to last year’s program of “Firebird.”

She has not done a good quad in an international competition since Dec. 2002.

At the 2004 world championships, she fell on it in qualifying and popped it to a double in the free final.

While Arakawa and Ando have been struggling, Suguri has recently leaped back into the spotlight with a stirring victory at the Four Continents championships last month in Gangneung, South Korea.

With two fourth-place finishes in the Grand Prix series, she did not qualify for the final. She was questionable for the world team even though she won the bronze medal in 2002 and 2003.

At the Japanese championships, she came in third even after Arakawa dropped out. That prompted the Japanese Federation to give the third spot on the team to the skater that did the best at the Four Continents competition.

Yoshie Onda did a seven-triple performance just before Suguri skated and put the pressure on. Suguri delivered her best performance of the season and earned the trip to Moscow.

“Moscow is cold, but I want to melt the snow with my passion. I will do my best to climb to the highest place,” Suguri said on returning to Japan after her victory.

She stayed in Japan under her former coach, Nobuo Sato, who also trains Ando, and is the father of 1994 world champion Yuka Sato.

Suguri had moved to Chicago to be coached by Oleg Vasiliev, the trainer of the world pairs champions, Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin.

However, with the worlds coming up and Vasiliev at the European Championships, Suguri decided to return to Sato for a time.

So after all the twists, turns and blisters, Arakawa, Ando and Suguri will again represent Japan as they did in the world championships in 2004, where they finished first, fourth and seventh, respectively.

But there is still one other thing hanging over their heads: The Olympics in Turin, Italy, in February 2006, where all will try to get the gold medal that eluded Midori Ito in 1992 at Albertville, France.

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