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Pressure on Mao for victory at upcoming NHK Trophy


Defending world champion Mao Asada got a taste of what it is like to have everybody gunning for you following her recent second-place finish at the Trophee Bompard in Paris two weeks ago.

Mao was beaten in France by Canada’s Joannie Rochette (who also won Skate Canada), and some in the Japanese media didn’t take it too well, criticizing her for not winning.

It comes off as a bit humorous that Mao was knocked for finishing second in her first competition of the new season.

People seem to forget that competitive figure skating is not a play, where the result is predetermined. You still have to go out on the ice and perform.

What disturbs me is the questioning of Mao’s determination so early in the game. Talk about shortsighted.

One needs only to look back to the world championships in Sweden last March, when Mao slipped as she began to attempt the opening jump (a triple axel) of her free skate.

What happened after she picked herself up off the ice following the shocking fall?

She nailed every jump in the rest of her program, put on an inspired performance, and won her first world title.

That’s what champions are made of — overcoming adversity when the odds are against you.

All eyes will be on Mao again this week when she skates at the NHK Trophy in Tokyo, beginning Friday at Yoyogi Gymnasium. She will be favored against formidable competition from compatriot Yukari Nakano and U.S. senior champion Mirai Nagasu.

Following Mao’s breakthrough victory in Goteborg, the bar was raised significantly higher. It is tough enough to get the job done with the natural stress of competition, but when those who are supposed to be in your corner start making noise, it only intensifies the pressure.

With South Korea’s Yu Na Kim clearly in superb form (two Grand Prix victories this season) and the surprise showing of Rochette, Mao is looking at a real challenge if she is to repeat as world champ.

Combine this with the fact that Mao and coach Tatiana Tarasova (who is based in Moscow) essentially have to commute to work with each other, and it is clear the path will not be easy for Mao.

By finishing second in Paris, Mao equaled the entire number of times she did not win for all of last season. She failed to top the podium just once — at the Grand Prix Final in Turin, Italy, where Kim won for the second straight year.

The world championships next March in Los Angeles are a long way off, but it is obvious that Mao has a big target on her back. She is a big girl now, and has been in this business for a long time, so she understands it comes with the territory.

Tough time for Takahashi: Daisuke Takahashi, the No. 1-ranked male skater in the world, made it official last week that he will have surgery to repair his injured right knee and sit out the remainder of the 2008-09 season while rehabilitating.

The timing of his injury could not be worse. The season before the Olympic year is always very important, so for Takahashi to have to give up the entire year is a crushing blow.

Presuming that he will be ready for next year’s Grand Prix season, it will mean that he will not have taken part in a competitive event for more than 18 months.

Not exactly the way you want to build up toward the 2010 Vancouver Games.

Despite the terrible news, Takahashi issued a statement on his Web site that reflected the reality of the situation he is facing while at the same time taking a positive outlook on his predicament:

“I have already started rehabilitation and have been working from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., every day.

“The swelling on my right knee has gone and I had my knee examined last Friday. It revealed a damaged ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) and meniscus (cartilage).

“I might be able to continue to perform with this injury and concern on my knee, but I decided it’s not my style. It could result in more damage and I don’t want to skate with the concern. So, I decided to have surgery.

“It is a pity that I give up this season, but I have to overcome this adversity to compete in the Olympics. I decided to accept what I can’t change and try to change what I can change. Through this experience, I’ll learn a lot of things and I want to grow up as a skater, man and person.

“I apologize that I gave my fans a lot of concerns. I just move on. I won’t let myself down. I’ll turn this adversity to my energy to show you my skating.”

Takahashi is taking the right attitude, under the circumstances. Let’s hope all goes well with his rehab and he gets a fair shot to stand atop the podium in Vancouver.

Grand Prix return: Nobunari Oda will make his first Grand Prix appearance in two years at the NHK Trophy. Following his suspension for a drunk-driving arrest in the summer of 2007 and subsequent decision to sit out all of last season, Oda will get the chance to show his stuff for his fans in Japan for the first time following the long layoff.

Oda, who is now coached by Nikolai Morozov, won two minor competitions earlier this season in Germany and Austria. His main challenge in Tokyo will come from three-time U.S. champion Johnny Weir.

Takeda hurt: Nana Takeda had to withdraw from last weekend’s Cup of Russia due to an injury to her right ankle that she sustained last month before competing in Skate Canada.

The ankle actually bothered Takeda at the event in Ottawa, where she finished ninth, and did not improve enough to allow her to make the trip to Moscow.

Congratulations: Ice Time would like to extend its belated congratulations to six-time Japan national champion and Fukushima native Takeshi Honda, who became the father of a new baby girl a couple of months back.

If she grows up to skate anything like her Dad — a two-time world bronze medalist, who finished fourth at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics — Japan could have a new champion on its hands.