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The final showdown: Mao vs Yuna

Mao Asada says she will retire after this season and would like nothing better than to close her career with an Olympic gold.

Publication Date : 07-02-2014

 

Asada looks to avenge loss to Kim at Vancouver 2010

 

Four years after their classic duel on the ice in Vancouver, figure skating stars Mao Asada and Yuna Kim will go at it again at the Sochi Olympics.

Sochi could mark the end of the rivalry between the two 23-year-olds that dates back to their junior days, as Asada has indicated she would retire at the end of this season.

Can Asada turn Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 into a victory anthem and go out as Olympic champion?

The prestigious US magazine Sports Illustrated doesn’t think so. The weekly has predicted a second straight gold for the South Korean skater, while foreseeing a bronze for Asada, one place lower than the silver she won at the 2010 Olympics.

The difference between victory and defeat will likely come down to the one jump that has been both a blessing and a bane for Asada during her career—the triple axel.

Currently, no other female skater is able to land this extremely difficult jump. In Vancouver, Asada became the first female to complete three triple axels overall at the Olympic Games, landing one in her short programme and two in the free skate.

In figure skating, the skill of each skater is determined by assessing each technique’s “base value” and “grade of execution”, which is added to the presentation score for artistic quality. The major reason Asada lost to Kim in Vancouver is that Kim scored significantly higher in grade of execution.

After the Vancouver Games, Asada turned to noted coach Nobuo Sato, who is known for his focus on basic skills. By changing coaches, she sought to rebuild her skating from scratch and to be able to execute high-quality jumps to earn higher execution points.

Initially, Sato told Asada that her skating “lacks speed in the approach runs, and power in the takeoffs.” So Sato instructed Asada to go back to basics and practice elementary skills again and again. Asada also worked hard on weight training. Sato now says Asada can jump with “sufficient speed”.

Asada has yet to successfully land her “ideal” triple axel in competition this season, but the ratio of acceptable triple axels is increasing in practice sessions.

In addition, Asada has shown improvement in other jumps in which she was not as proficient and had refrained from putting into her programmes. However, after years of hard work on basic skills, she is able to include all five other triple jumps in her programme.

Her spins and steps have also improved and, in recent competitions, most were assessed as level 4, the top rank.

At the NHK Trophy in November, Asada failed to complete a triple axel, but still managed to compile 207.59 points, breaking the personal best that she achieved at the Vancouver Games.

Having solidified the foundation for striking gold in Sochi, the time has come to execute her signature jump—Asada has described the triple axel as “the highlight of my programme which no other skater can perform” —on the biggest stage.

Suzuki, Murakami ready to crash party

While Asada understandably draws the majority of nationwide attention leading up to the Sochi Games, Japan's two other entries in the women’s event—Akiko Suzuki and Kanako Murakami—can’t be counted out.

Both have key victories this season, with Suzuki taking the national title and Murakami triumphing at the Four Continents, and are fully capable of bumping the two favourites off the top of the podium.

The 28-year-old Suzuki, looking for her first medal in her second Olympics, gained a boost of confidence when she beat Asada at the All-Japan Championships in December for her first national title in 13 appearances.

The late bloomer scored 215.18 points, the second best in history, although scores at the All-Japan are not officially recognised by the International Skating Union.

Murakami will be making her Olympic debut in Sochi. The 19-year-old is coached by Machiko Yamada, who is known for mentoring Olympians Midori Ito, the 1992 silver medalist, and Yoshie Onda.

Murakami has made a name for herself with her superior artistic performance, but has been plagued by inconsistency. Early this season, she had troubles coping with the pressure of seeking an Olympic berth and failed to perform well in competition. However, she gradually improved and finished second at the All-Japan championships to secure her spot for Sochi.

Last month, Murakami won her first Four Continents title, gaining a much-needed confidence boost. She will now look to ride that momentum onto the medal podium.

 

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