Mao awaits emotional return at national championships



Former two-time world champion Mao Asada has vowed to pull out all the stops in what is set to be a highly emotional return to the rink at the national championships getting under way on Friday.

The 21-year-old has made the brave decision to compete at the event that serves as a qualifier for the world championships in Nice, France, in March, and starts just a fortnight after her mother, Kyoko, passed away at age 48 after a lengthy battle with liver cirrhosis.

A resurgent Mao had been set to compete at her first Grand Prix Final in three years in Quebec City earlier this month, but made a frantic dash back to Japan from Canada on the eve of the women’s short program after learning that her mother was in a critical condition. Kyoko died before Mao could reach her bedside.

“When I came back from the (Grand Prix) final I was so busy and didn’t have time to think about competition,” Mao told a news conference Thursday.

“But I had to think after things settled down a bit and I realized I only had about a week before the nationals and thought I ought to start training. I wasn’t thinking about pulling out.”

Mao did not speak about her mother as she stood calmly before reporters at the news conference, but said she has been given words of encouragement by those close to her.

“People said ‘try hard but not too hard as you are already doing your best.’ This is the last event of the year so I want to wrap it up with a good performance. It’s not about points or positions I just want to show my best skating,” she said.

Mao failed to win a single event in the worst season of her competitive career in 2010-11, but headed into the Grand Prix Final with confidence sky high after a pair of strong performances in November.

She finished second behind Akiko Suzuki at the NHK Trophy in Sapporo before ending a three-year GP title drought at the Rostelecom Cup in Moscow, despite leaving out her trademark 3.5-revolution triple axel jump.

Mao will be aiming for her first national title in two years and fifth overall. Defending champion and world gold medalist Miki Ando is taking time out of competition this season.

NHK Trophy winner Suzuki finished runnerup at the Grand Prix Final and is a strong contender while Kanako Murakami and Haruka Imai are likely to be competing for the third berth.

On the men’s side, former world champion Daisuke Takahashi, whose strong free skate earned him the silver at the Grand Prix Final, will be battling it out with Takahiko Kozuka and 17-year-old Yuzuru Hanyu, who placed fourth in his Grand Prix Final debut.

“I made mistakes on my quads (in Quebec) but I have improved in every other aspect,” Takahashi said.

“I have got confidence in my triple jumps. I just have to try and make the quad in both the short and the free programs. Obviously I will be going for victory (at the nationals) but the main thing is getting one of the berths for the world championships.”

Hanyu said he was hoping to build on the experience of competing against the world’s elite skaters.

“I was so pleased that I was able to get a place among the six skaters at the final,” he added.

Defending champion Kozuka underperformed on the GP circuit this season and failed to qualify for Quebec. Nobunari Oda will miss the nationals as he continues to recover from an injured left knee.

The competition begins on Friday with the pairs and men’s short programs. The women’s short program is scheduled for Saturday.