The Revolving Rivalry of Kim Yu-na and Mao Asada

      December 02, 2009 09:34

      The wheel of fortune is constantly turning, as figure skating stars Kim Yu-na and Mao Asada show.

      In Dec. 2005, just two months before the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, the international figure skating scene was stunned by the emergence of a sensational young skater from Japan. At just over 15 years old, Asada won the Grand Prix Final in her senior debut, edging out one of the strongest contenders for the Olympic gold, Russia's Irina Slutskaya. Asada's brilliant entry into the senior circuit captivated not only the home crowd in Tokyo, but skating fans around the world.

      Just a month before that, in Nov. 2005, Kim had won the Junior Grand Prix Final and at 15th place became the first Korean figure skater to enter the top 20 of the world rankings. Her reputation and skating skills were not yet up to the level of Asada. But Kim made her senior debut a year later, and after a remarkable improvement soon established a close rivalry with Asada.

      Kim Yu-na (left) and Mao Asada

      Last year Asada reached her peak, winning the Four Continents Championships in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, in Feb. 2008, while Kim was recovering from back and hip joint injuries. A month later Asada won her first World title in Gothenburg, Sweden. Kim, who was taking painkillers and hiding the fact that she had partially ruptured a hip muscle, earned a hard-won bronze medal. Asada also won the 2008 Grand Prix Final in December in Goyang, becoming the first woman skater ever to land two triple axels in one free skate program. Kim came in second.

      Now with the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver just two months away, things have changed completely, making people wonder if Asada and Kim had ever been rivals. Kim won the 2009 Four Continents Championships and the World Championship, as well as two Grand Prix events this season, advancing to the Grand Prix Final in Tokyo on Friday and Saturday this week. It will be held in Yoyogi National Gymnasium, the same venue where Asada won the Final four years ago.

      Kim left her training camp in Toronto and arrived in Tokyo on Tuesday to prepare for the last major international event before the Olympics. Meanwhile, Asada is practicing at the ice rink at Chukyo University without a full-time coach. She struggled badly in the first two Grand Prix events this year, and did not qualify to compete in the Final. Her coach, the legendary Tatiana Tarasova, is still based in Moscow.

      Many fans in Japan say Asada needs a coaching change, or she needs to train in Moscow. After a recent discussion with Asada, Seiko Hashimoto, president of the Japan Skating Association, said the athlete is analyzing what has gone wrong. But the association does not seem to have come up with a concrete way to get Asada out of her slump.

      Asada now has to compete for one of three spots allotted to Japanese female skaters for the Olympics, and she has to win the Japanese national at the end of this month in order to advance to Vancouver. The Japan Skating Association will likely consider ways to send its megastar to the Olympics, but Asada's situation right now seems daunting. However, anything is possible, including another reversal  -- the wheel of fortune may hold some more surprises.

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