Mao, Daisuke poised to win gold at world championships

by Jim Armstrong

The Associated Press

Japan is aiming to become the first country since Russia in 2002 to win gold medals in both the men’s and women’s events at figure skating’s world championships.

On a star-studded team, Mao Asada, Miki Ando and Yukari Nakano all look strong on the women’s side, while Daisuke Takahashi is peaking at the right time for the men.

Irina Slutskaya and Alexei Yagudin won the men’s and women’s events at the 2002 worlds in Nagano.

Asada is coming off an impressive performance last month in South Korea, where she won the Four Continents without coach Rafael Arutunian. He will also not attend the world championships, which begin Tuesday in Goteborg, Sweden.

Asada has trained under Arutunian in the United States since 2006, but decided to move back to Japan this year. Japanese media reported last month that she will seek a new coach after the world championships.

Asada’s main rival, South Korean Kim Yu Na, missed the Four Continents with a hip injury. Kim successfully defended her Grand Prix Final title in December and a return to action at the worlds would set up the latest chapter in the rivalry between the 17-year-old Asian dynamos.

“It’s good to have a rivalry,” Asada said. “We want to continue to have good performances and motivate each other.”

Kim is expected to take part in the worlds, but whether she will be fully recovered from her injury remains a question.

Asada has been in this position before.

She was favored at last year’s worlds in Tokyo, but faltered in the short program, finishing fifth. She won the long program, but had to settle for second overall behind Ando.

Asada was cautiously optimistic about her chances in Sweden.

“Last year, I finished second in the world championships and I am working hard and training hard,” Asada said. “This time around I would at least like to match that rank and hopefully even do better.”

Ando hasn’t won a competition this season and has shown a tendency to be inconsistent over the years.

After a poor 15th-place finish at the Turin Olympics, Ando won the worlds on home ice last year, but blew a chance for gold at the Four Continents and took third behind Canada’s Joannie Rochette.

Her performance at the NHK Trophy at Japan in December was indicative of Ando’s recent problems.

Trailing Italy’s Carolina Kostner by less than a point going into the free skate, Ando put on a performance that resembled her outing at the Turin Games. She fell twice, touched the ice another time and botched a triple combination jump on the way to finishing fourth.

The NHK result cost Ando a chance to qualify for the season-ending GP Final.

Asada made the GP Final, but showed her inconsistency by missing an element and finishing last in the short program. She then rallied to win the free program but finished second overall to Kim.

Nakano is fifth in the world rankings and has consistently been doing triple axels.

On the men’s side, Takahashi appears to be hitting his stride at the right moment.

The 2007 world silver medalist set a total points record to win the Four Continents after nailing two quads.

“I definitely want to continue the momentum at the world championships,” Takahashi said after winning the Four Continents. “Winning the world championships is something I’ve had my eyes on for some time.”