FUKUOKA - With only two months to go until the Sochi Olympics, two-time world champion Mao Asada heads into this week’s Grand Prix Final as a prohibitive favorite while skating on home ice.
But before visions of another epic showdown with Kim Yu-na come into focus, Mao has to deal with two issues here — landing the triple axel and hitting a triple-triple combination. She is going to need to do both of these reliably if she has any hopes of dethroning Kim as Olympic champion in February.
Mao has won both her Grand Prix assignments this season (Skate America, NHK Trophy), but was unable to cleanly land a triple axel or the triple flip/triple toe loop combination in either. So while victory in her last international competition before Sochi would be nice, Mao has to keep the bigger picture in mind.
Mao has won the GP Final three times during her career, including last year’s competition at the Iceberg Skating Palace in Sochi. A victory here would tie her with Russian Irina Slutskaya, who won four GP Finals, for the most titles ever.
She will be pitted against American Ashley Wagner and four Russians (Julia Lipnitskaia, Anna Pogorilaya, Adelina Sotnikova, Elena Radionova) in the event at Marine Messe. The young Russian quartet has potential, but not the polish that Mao does at this point.
Fifteen-year-old Lipnitskaia should be the most formidable of the group, having won both Skate Canada and the Cup of Russia this season. Pogorilaya, also 15, was impressive in victory at the Cup of China.
Wagner, the defending U.S. champion, was victorious at the Trophee Bompard in Paris last month.
Three-time defending world champion Patrick Chan of Canada will be the overwhelming favorite in the men’s event, where he will be joined by the Japanese trio of Yuzuru Hanyu, Tatsuki Machida and Nobunari Oda. Russia’s Maxim Kovtun and China’s Yan Han round out the field.
Machida has been the revelation of the GP season, storming to victory in both Skate America and the Cup of Russia. Considered a long shot to make the Olympic team entering the season, the odds on the Kanagawa native have improved considerably due to his recent form.
With Hanyu and Daisuke Takahashi, who pulled out of the GP Final due to a bruised shin last week, looking like locks for the team for Sochi, it will likely come down to Machida and Takahiko Kozuka for the final spot at the Japan nationals later this month.
Hanyu, who placed second at Skate Canada and Trophee Bompard, is expected to be a top challenger here and in Sochi for Chan.
Defending world champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov top the pairs field, along with four-time world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany.
Two-time world champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White head the entries in ice dance, where they will face off with fellow two-time world champs Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada.
The Junior Grand Prix Final is held concurrently with the senior event. Japan has two entries (Keiji Tanaka, Ryuju Hino) in the men’s division, but none in the women’s.
Tanaka won the JGP events in Slovakia and the Czech Republic this season, while Hino was second in both Mexico and Russia.
Kim debuts: While the action unfolds in Kyushu, there will be huge media attention focused on the Golden Spin in Zagreb, where both Kim and two-time world champion Miki Ando are entered.
The competition will mark the season debut for Kim, who sat out the GP season with an injured metatarsal in her right foot. Kim will unveil her programs for the Olympics and will certainly be the center of attention at the usually minor event.
Kim flew out of Seoul on Tuesday, but not before holding a news conference in front of a huge contingent of media. She appeared fit and confident in photos and video at the airport.
“My physical condition is currently 80-90 percent,” Kim said. “I am trying to peak for the Olympics.”
She also stated that her “injury is getting better” and she is “focusing on her triple-triple combination.” She added that her jump configuration would be similar to last season.
Kim said she was looking forward to the challenge of competing again.
Miki’s mission: While most will be watching to see how Kim performs in Zagreb, Ando is hoping to continue rounding into form ahead of the Japan nationals, where she will be bidding to make her third straight Olympic team.
Ando has finished second in the two minor events she has skated in this season — the Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany and the Ice Challenge in Austria — but is going to have to really step it up to have a shot at going to Sochi.
It appears Ando will be going against more than her fellow skaters in Saitama later this month, however, as a reliable source has told Ice Time that, “the JSF does not want her on the team for Sochi.”
Though no reason was given for the position the JSF is believed to hold, the issue could be related to the fact that she did not enter the GP season and is conducting a rogue run at making the team, or fallout from all of the domestic media reaction that followed her revelation earlier this year that she had given birth to a daughter out of wedlock.
At any rate, the nationals promise to be filled with both drama and sub-plots as the battle for spots on the Olympic team are waged.
Work goes on: Ice Time has learned that 1994 world champion Yuka Sato and former American pairs skater Jason Dungjen have divorced after 14 years of marriage. The duo has been coaching many prominent skaters together at the Detroit Skating Club for the past several years.
The split occurred earlier this year, according to skating sources. What makes the breakup unusual is that Sato and Dungjen are continuing to work together coaching young skaters for the time being.
Sato, now 40, married Dungjen in 1999. Dungjen, who is 46, had skated pairs with Kyoko Ina before ending the partnership when he became engaged to Sato.
Sato is the only child of Hall of Fame coach Nobuo Sato, who has been guiding two-time world champion Mao for the past four seasons.
Ice Time contacted Yuka Sato by email recently and gave her the chance to comment about the divorce and her continuing work with Dungjen, but she politely declined.