Suzuki outperforms Mao, grabs first national title

Murakami finishes in second place, joins duo on Olympic team

by Jack Gallagher

Staff Writer

In a night filled with great drama, the script did not go quite according to plan.

Akiko Suzuki upset Mao Asada to win her first national title with an enthralling free skate on Monday at the All-Japan Championships.

Suzuki, who was nearly three points behind Mao after Sunday’s short program, put on a sensational performance to best second-place Kanako Murakami by nearly 13 points.

The 28-year-old Suzuki, who will retire at the end of the season, skated to “Phantom of the Opera” and was nothing short of spectacular in winning the free skate and vaulting to the top of the podium.

Suzuki earned a total score of 215.18 points in the victory, while Murakami finished with 202.52.

The triumph guaranteed Suzuki a trip to the Sochi Olympics, where she will make her second straight appearance as an Olympian.

She will be joined at the Sochi Games by Mao and Murakami, who rose to the occasion for the second night in a row to secure her first ticket to the Winter Games.

Suzuki opened with a triple flip/double toe loop, double loop combination jump and never looked back. She hit a total of seven triple jumps in the victory, but it was the way she did it that enchanted the capacity crowd of more than 18,000 at Saitama Super Arena.

Suzuki, who was eighth at the 2010 Vancouver Games, put all of her years of training and competition together and displayed beautiful line and edge throughout.

She was the epitome of grace and style as she glided across the ice in her choreographic sequence.

“I feel so clean in my heart,” said Suzuki. “It was a hard road to come here. I was surprised by my score, but it gives me big confidence for the Olympics.”

Suzuki said a change in her mind-set helped her path to victory here.

“At practice in Nagoya I am always thinking about the Olympics,” she stated. “Here I only thought about my performance in Saitama. I think that was important.”

Knowing the trip to Sochi was in her grasp, Murakami was cool under pressure to “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” while cleanly hitting six triple jumps. Her lone mistake was landing on the wrong edge on a triple lutz, but it didn’t matter in the end.

A night after being overcome by emotion following her short program, Murakami flashed her radiant smile and exulted at the end of her free skate, much to the delight of the crowd.

“I felt really confident today before the competition,” commented Murakami. “I did feel big pressure because of my hope to go to the Olympics.”

Murakami was very pleased with the fact the she skated two clean programs here.

“I did not make any mistakes in the short or the free skate,” she said. “I did my best today. The key point was believing in myself.”

Mao, who was in position to claim her seventh Japan title, came in a disappointing third at 199.50 to “Piano Concerto No. 2.”

The reliance again on the triple axel was Mao’s downfall, as she under-rotated her first one at the start of her program, then singled the second and touched the ice to prevent herself from falling.

Mao also under-rotated the back end of a double axel/triple toe loop combo later and botched a planned triple combo. She appeared lackluster throughout and the judges took note.

“It is regrettable that I did not do my best performance today,” said Mao. “My triple axel would just not work here. I tried to adjust to this rink, but I couldn’t.”

Mao said she wanted to test the two triple axels before the expected showdown with Kim Yu-na in Sochi.

“This is the only chance before the Olympics,” she noted. “I just could not get good timing today.”

Mao was clearly unhappy that the result here will linger for a while, but hopes she can get her patented jump back on track.

“I feel bad that I have to take this to the next competition and next practice,” she said. “I need 100 percent success in practice to land the triple axel at the Olympics.”

Satoko Miyahara, a two-time Japan junior champion, was fourth at 191.58 and showed a lot of potential for the future.

The 15-year-old Kyoto native competed to “Poeta” as the first skater of the final group and was superb.

Miki Ando’s bid to make her third Olympic team fell well short of the mark. She came in seventh at 171.12.

Ando performed to “The Firebird” and landed her opening triple lutz/triple loop combo, but then singled her planned triple loop and matters went downhill from there as she was unable to execute several more jumps.

The crowd did give her a very nice send-off in appreciation of her contributions to the sport.

Ando, who is 26 now and gave birth to a daughter in April, announced her retirement from competition earlier in the day on Twitter.

The two-time world champion wrote, “Today will be my last skating as a competitor. I want to fly today!!! And I want to skate with all my heart.”

She finished fifth at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and 15th in the 2006 Turin Games.

Hanyu leads men’s Olympic squad
Yuzuru Hanyu, who won his second straight national title on Sunday night, will lead the men’s squad for Sochi. Joining Hanyu on the team will be Tatsuki Machida, who was second to Hanyu here and won his two Grand Prix assignments this season, and 2010 world champion Daisuke Takahashi.

Takahashi, the bronze medalist at the Vancouver Games, was selected despite finishing fifth on Sunday following an error-filled free skate.

Narumi Takahashi and Ryuichi Kihara will represent Japan in pairs, while Cathy and Chris Reed will skate for the Hinomaru in ice dance.

The team competition at the Sochi Games begins on Feb. 5, a day before the Opening Ceremony.

The same selections for the Olympics will also skate for Japan at the world championships in Saitama in March.