Mao makes spirited return at nationals



Skating just over two weeks after the death of her mother, former two-time world champion Mao Asada put together a courageous Christmas Eve performance to place second after the women’s short program at the national championships.

Mao, appearing in her first competition since her mother Kyoko on Dec. 9 passed away aged 48 after a lengthy battle with liver cirrhosis, sailed through her fluidly composed program, landing all of her jumps cleanly to score a season-best 65.40 points.

Seventeen-year-old Kanako Murakami took top spot with 65.56 points while Akiko Suzuki, silver medalist at the Grand Prix Final in Quebec earlier this month, placed third.

With the Osaka crowd behind her all the way, Mao kept her emotions in check as she glided around the Namihaya Dome rink to “Sheherazade” by Nikolai Rimski-Korsakov, opening with a double axel and comfortably landing a triple flip-double toe and a triple loop in a skate free of any major errors.

“I feel relieved. I have had so many messages of support and I really wanted to try hard today. I felt like so many people were watching over me,” said the 21-year-old Mao.

“I felt a different kind of tension but I was able to stay focused. I had a solid skate and hopefully I can build on that in the free program.”

A resurgent Mao had been set to compete at her first Grand Prix Final in three years in Quebec but made a frantic return 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.

Murakami, who has struggled this season with boot problems and failed to qualify for the Grand Prix Final, landed a triple combo jump and had a clean triple flip and double axel for 65.56 points, her best score of the season.

“I think I did well. I was confident about my jumps and took care of the rest of my program and it went as well as I hoped,” said the former junior world champion.

“I didn’t make any mistakes and I am really pleased. I was hoping to score more than 60 points but I was surprised with my score.”

Suzuki had her opening triple-triple downgraded and took third with 59.60.

“I’ve gained confidence competing in events this season but it’s never that easy at the national championships,” said Suzuki, winner of the NHK Trophy in Sapporo in November.

“I want to show how much progress I have made since last season in the free skate.”

Defending champion and reigning world gold medalist Miki Ando is taking time out of competition this season but was watching Saturday’s short program from the stands.

Daisuke Takahashi won the men’s title with 254.60 total points, followed by defending champion Takahiko Kozuka (250.97) and Yuzuru Hanyu (241.91).

The nationals, which double as a qualifier for the world championships in Nice, France, in March, wraps up with the women’s free skate on Sunday.