Japan's female figure skaters have the reigning world champion Kim Yu-na in their sights. Japan, which produced its very first gold medalist in ladies' figure skating in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, is aiming to produce a follow-up to Shizuka Arakawa at the Vancouver Winter Olympics in February. But a major hurdle stands in the way -- Kim.
Japan can send three skaters to the Olympics, and is seeking to maximize their chances. In the Japanese national championships last weekend, it seemed the judges wanted to boost the morale of their most famous and popular skaters. Mao Asada claimed her fourth consecutive national title with a total score of 204.62 points, securing her spot on the Olympic team. She accumulated a lot of points on grade of execution (GOE) and program component score (PCS), which tend to be influenced by judges' subjectivity.
News reports in Japan say that Asada's trip to the Olympics could generate 5 billion to 10 billion yen in economic effects.
Akiko Suzuki obtained a spot on the Olympic squad by finishing second in the nationals with a total score of 195.90 points. Her story of coming back after suffering a serious personal ordeal made headlines in her home country. Due to the extreme stress of controlling her weight, Suzuki began to suffer from anorexia in 2003 and her weight dropped to the low 30-kg range. She sat out the entire 2003-2004 season, and her first season back after that was disappointing. But she signaled her full recovery this year with a third place finish in the International Skating Union Grand Prix Final earlier this month.
Miki Ando was the first skater to secure her spot on the Olympic team by finishing second in the Grand Prix Final.
All of the Japanese ladies are a force to be reckoned with, as Ando and Asada are former world champions, and Suzuki has been flying high this season. The Japan Skating Federation has reportedly already secured an ice rink in Vancouver so that its skaters can practice at their convenience.
In a final test before the Olympics, Asada and Suzuki will compete in the Four Continents Championships in Jeonju, North Jeolla Province, from Jan. 27 to 30. Asada's coach Tatiana Tarasova plans to travel to Japan to train her for the event.
"I'm the kind of skater who gets better in the second half [of a season]," Asada said. "I want to have good performances in the Four Continents, and carry that momentum to the Olympics." Suzuki, meanwhile, has said her story will "have a happy ending."
Kim, who fears self-complacency the most, will have to fight off three strong challengers from Japan if she wants to stand at the top of the podium in Vancouver.