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Murakami turns in dream free to take NHK gold

Voronov takes silver; Mura settles for bronze; Abbott falls to fifth place
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A Japanese man won the NHK Trophy, but it was not the one who most people thought it would be -- heck, it wasn't even the guy who would have been most people's second guess. It was Daisuke Murakami, who was competing in his first Grand Prix event since 2011 Skate America. Murakami set personal bests in all three phases of the competition and captured the gold, becoming one of the most unlikely Grand Prix winners in recent memory. -Getty Images

The men's competition at the 2014 NHK Trophy finished in surprising fashion. Overnight sensation Daisuke Murakami of Japan skated a near-perfect free skate to capture gold in what was his first Grand Prix Series medal. Russia's Sergei Voronov took the silver medal and Japan's Takahito Mura settled for bronze.

Many expected a Japanese men's skater to win the NHK Trophy, but Murakami was by no means the favorite. When he finished in a surprising third place in the short prgram, Murakami said,"I can't believe I'm sitting here, but I'm afraid my placement will drop tomorrow."

He shouldn't have doubted himself.

Murakami skated to the "Piano Concerto No. 2" by Rachmaninoff. He opened with a clean quad Salchow and nailed another quad Salchow in combination with a double toe. He went on to land six more clean triples, including two triple Axels.

Clearly overwhelmed with emotion, Murakami covered his face with his hands when he finished the program. He received 166.39 points for his free for a final score of 246.07.

"I just don't know how it happened," Murakami said. "I was not expecting to win the medal. Standing in the middle of the podium here is something I didn't even dream of."

Murakami had to withdraw from the NHK Trophy two seasons ago after dislocating his right shoulder.

"I thought of retiring from competitive skating at the that time, but I decided that's not how I wanted to finish my skating career," Murakami said.

When asked if the result of short program gave him confidence, Murakami said, "Not really. My mind just went blank [during the free.] Only after successfully landing the second quad, I thought maybe this is going well, just like the practice."

Murakami and his family moved to United States when he was 9 years old. He competed in the U.S. championships as a novice and junior and was selected for the junior world team in 2006. He started to represent Japan in 2007-08 season and currently trains in California with Frank Carroll.

Voronov moved up from fourth place in short to win silver. He landed a quad toe-triple toe combination and five more triples to collect 157.72 points in the free to finish with a final score of 236.65. After finishing second at the Rostelecom Cup, he earned a spot in the Grand Prix Final.

"I think that NHK Trophy is always one of the toughest events," Voronov said. "There are always strong competitors, especially your three Japanese guys. I think it was one of the most exciting of the events, and dramatic. For me, it ended happily. I am just happy that, at 27 years old, I made it to the Final for the first time."

Mura, who sat in first place after the short, made several mistakes in the free skate and had to settle for the bronze.

"After being first in short program, I was last to skate in the free," Mura said. "I didn't realize how nerve-wracking that is to skate last -- it was beyond my imagination. I want to give a lot of credit to skaters like Daisuke Takahashi or Yuzuru Hanyu to do this all the time."

He opened his The Phantom of the Opera free skate with a quad toe, but stepped out of the element. He successfully landed quad toe-triple toe combination right after, but followed by only recording a single on an Axel. He also stepped out of his attempted triple flip. He earned 148.16 points in the free skate for a final score of 234.44. His third place finish along with his gold medal at Skate Canada earned Mura a ticket to go Barcelona to compete in the Grand Prix Final.  

"I'm still happy that I qualified to the Final," Mura said. "It will give me a good experience toward competing in the Japanese nationals."

When Yuzuru Hanyu came out on the ice, spectators in Namihaya Dome cheered loudly. He also skated to The Phantom of the Opera and started his program by popping his attempted quad Salchow-double tpe combination. He also fell on his triple toe and did a single Axel instead of a triple. He still nailed six triples in total to collect 151.79 points, giving him 229.80 overall.

"I know people will think that my poor performance was due to my injuries, but that's not true," the Olympic champion said. "It just shows that this is where I'm at right now. This competition made me realize how weak I could be mentally. I was doing fine in the six-minute warmup both before the short and free. I just could not pull it off at the competition."

When he was asked if coming to the NHK Trophy was the right decision, he replied right away.

"I think so. First of all, I was able to skate to the very end," Hanyu said. "Yes, I did make many mistakes, but mistakes do not mean stepping backward. I just realized that I was not mentally prepared to accommodate my current physical conditions."

Hanyu finished in fourth place, but still earned a spot in the Grand Prix Final in two weeks.

"I thank everyone for supporting me in the Cup of China and here as well," Hanyu said. "I don't have much time, but I will do my best to prepare for [the Final.]"

Team USA's Jeremy Abbott dropped from second place to fifth overall. Skating to "Adagio for Strings" by Samuel Barber, he popped his opening quad attempt, registering a triple. The four-time U.S. champion went on to land five clean triples, but his second triple Axel was not clean and he doubled his Lutz. Abbott collected 148.14 points in the free for 229.65 points overall.   

"It was so much better than Skate America," Abbott said. "I felt I gave a solid performance -- not my best, but strong. I felt it was good enough to keep me in contention, so when I saw the score, I felt a little bit disgusted.

"But when I looked at the [judges detail] sheet, it made a little bit more sense," Abbott continued. "I realized I lost levels where I didn't think I did."

Two of his spins received only Level 2.

"These are not big things; something I can go home and work on. I have lots of time now to prepare for the U.S. nationals," he said with a smile. 

Despite the fifth-place finish, judges awarded him with the highest five components scores out of all men for his elegant performance and excellent music interpretation.

Canada's Elliadj Baldé delivered a strong free skate to finish in sixth place with 212.50 points. Team USA's Ross Miner fought back to move up from 10th to seventh place with a final score of 205.36 points. Miner's teammate, Joshua Farris, placed 11th in both the short and free, finishing with 169.88 points.