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Asada, Takahashi ride gold to No. 1 ranking

Japan takes over men's and ladies' top spots

Daisuke Takahashi shows off his new gold medal after his record-breaking performance.
Daisuke Takahashi shows off his new gold medal after his record-breaking performance. (Getty Images)

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By Todd Hinckley
(02/18/2008) - Many of the world's best skaters were in action last week at the 2008 Four Continents Championships in Goyang City, Korea. Thanks to their gold medals there, Japan's Mao Asada and Daisuke Takahashi took over their respective top spots in icenetwork.com's World Figure Skater Rankings.

Ladies

The ladies competition at Four Continents began as a very close race. Asada took just a 0.87-point lead after the short program, and only 0.03 points separated second and third place. But Asada took control of the competition in the free skate, earning 132.31 points and winning the program by nearly 13 points. With her gold medal, Asada re-claimed the No. 1 ranking that she relinquished to Yu-Na Kim on Nov. 26, 2007.

Kim withdrew from the Four Continents because of a hip injury. In doing so, she basically gave up her spot in the polls. If Kim gets healthy for the world championships next month in Sweden, she still will be the favorite, thanks to her performances earlier this season. Asada simply made sure everyone knew that it was still a two-person race, not the runaway it appeared to be after Kim won the Grand Prix Final in December.

Asada opened her strong free skate with a clean triple Axel that seemed to kick-start her performance. Her program was 0.24 points off her season's best (132.55 points at the GP Final). Now she just needs to show that she can keep up with Kim for two full skates. If she can, the world championships will be very exciting.

Canada had two ladies that made strong moves in Korea. Mira Leung had her best showing of the season, finishing fifth overall and entering the rankings at No. 18. Joannie Rochette had a bigger impact, taking the silver medal and moving up three places to sixth overall in the standings.

Three weeks ago, at the European championships, Switzerland's Sarah Meier earned the silver medal in an effort to distance herself from the pack chasing the world's top-five skaters. This week, it was Rochette who made the big move.

The Canadian national champion trailed Japan's Miki Ando by 0.03 points after the short program, and moved up to second overall with a 119.50-point free skate. Ando held onto the fifth spot in the rankings with her bronze-medal finish, but Rochette is now right on her heals. And she also has the confidence of a head-to-head victory as they prepare for the world championships.

Men

Takahashi made the biggest statement of the week at Four Continents. He won the short program by roughly four-and-a-half points and then lapped the field with a 175.84-point free skate. Jeffrey Buttle was the closest skater, more than 25 points behind. Takahashi's performance finally moved him up to No. 1 in the rankings, replacing Brian Joubert for the first time all year.

Since Joubert contracted a severe virus last November, he had not yet returned to his world championship-form from last season. Takahashi has clearly been the best male skater in the world this season, and he came up 0.16 points at the Grand Prix Final short of a perfect season so far. On top of that, his 175.84 points in the free skate and 264.41-point overall score at Four Continents were both new world records. When skating like this, Takahashi is nearly unbeatable. The rest of the men will have a difficult time trying to do just that at worlds.

Canada's Buttle had not skated his best this year. He relinquished his national title last month to Patrick Chan, but his short program, free skate and overall scores in Korea were all season's bests. His silver medal vaulted him up three spots in the rankings to seventh overall. With the head-to-head victory over two-time U.S. champion Evan Lysacek, who won bronze at Four Continents and remained fourth in the world, Buttle is definitely now a podium contender in Sweden.

Americans Stephen Carriere and Jeremy Abbott finished fourth and fifth, respectively, in Korea. With their finishes, Carriere moved up a spot, to 10th, in the rankings. Abbott entered the polls at No. 16.

Pairs

Although the top-12 teams in the standings remained the same, there was still some turmoil among the best pairs in the world, and the picture heading into the world championships was significantly clouded.

Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy still hold the top spot, and their position there remains firm after their strong showing at Europeans. But Four Continents was supposed to be a chance for Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang to close the gap. Instead, their Chinese teammates, Qing Pang and Jian Tong, won the gold medal and moved closer to the top-two teams.

Pang and Tong began their season by being upset at Skate America by fourth-ranked Canadians, Jessica Dubé and Bryce Davison. They won gold the next week at Skate Canada but had not beaten either of the world's best teams this season until outskating Zhang and Zhang in Korea.

In the second half of the standings, there were some changes, mostly thanks to how close the teams are. Only 13.40 points separate the teams ranked 12th through 18th.

Jiaqi Li and Jiankun Xu moved up one to No. 13 with their sixth-place finish. Tiffany Vise and Derek Trent also moved up one spot, to No. 15, after finishing eighth at Four Continents. Both those teams are ahead of Jessica Miller and Ian Moram in the standings, but the Canadians made the stronger move in Korea, rising up three places, to No. 17, thanks to their fifth-place finish.

But the biggest movers of the whole week were Americans Brooke Castile and Ben Okolski, who won the bronze medal. The 2007 U.S. champions entered the polls at No. 16 after sitting out the Grand Prix Series due to injury.

Ice Dancing

Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir did not move up from the fourth spot in the rankings after their gold medal at the Four Continents Championships. They did, however, serve notice that they still belong in the conversation about who is the best dance team in the world. Their overall score of 207.32 points is the best international score this season. The young Canadians may not have beaten any of the world's top-three teams head-to-head, but they now have the season's best score, and the race for the podium at the world championships is still wide open.

Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the U.S. won the silver medal in Goyang City. They kept within striking distance of Virtue and Moir the whole time and moved up one place, to seventh, in the rankings. Their scores at Four Continents were all personal bests. Davis and White are making strides toward reaching the level of fifth-ranked Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski, rather than staying in the group with No. 6 Federica Faiella and Massimo Scali and No. 8 Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat.

Another American couple, Kimberly Navarro and Brent Bommentre, also made a significant leap with their finish in Korea. Their bronze medal was their first international medal, and they entered the rankings at No. 15.