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Asada, coach face uncertain future

Star may not return to train in California

Mao Asada won gold at the Four Continents Championships.
Mao Asada won gold at the Four Continents Championships. (Getty Images)

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By Jack Gallagher, special to icenetwork.com
(02/27/2008) - Japanese figure skating fans woke up Wednesday morning to find star Mao Asada embroiled in controversy.

The 17-year-old sensation from Nagoya, who is the top-ranked female skater in the world, was reported by the Japanese wire service Kyodo to be splitting up with Armenian coach Rafael Arutunian and moving her training base back to Japan.

Asada, the silver medalist at last year's world championships, and her older sister, Mai, have been working with Arutunian for the past 18 months at Lake Arrowhead, Calif.

As if the alleged split wasn't startling enough, the report, which was released in the middle of the night, cited anonymous sources as saying Mao Asada "had been suffering stress because of the language barrier and other problems she has encountered living overseas."

IMG's Mariko Wada, who represents the Asada sisters, categorically refuted the claims.

"This story is completely untrue," Wada said by telephone Wednesday evening. "There has been no discussion with Rafael about ending the relationship with Mao."

Speculation started two weeks ago when Arutunian did not coach Mao at the Four Continents Championships in South Korea. Mao won the competition, and with rival Yu-Na Kim withdrawing due to an injury, is the favorite to win the world title next month in Sweden.

Mao, who won both Skate Canada and the Trophee Bompard during the Grand Prix season, had been training in Japan since the New Year holidays, and this led to an extended separation from Arutunian.

Arutunian, who also coaches several other skaters, had originally planned to come to Japan to work with Mao and then accompany her to the Four Continents.

"All of the arrangements had been made for his visas and travel," said Wada. "He said he could stay for 10 days. He was going to come to Nagoya for four days and then go to South Korea."

Wada says Arutunian then changed his plans.

"One week before the event, he told me he had not seen Mao train for quite a while and was wondering about her condition," she said. "He said he could not be responsible for her, so she worked by herself and the Japan Skating Federation stepped in and supported her."

Mao now has the convenience of being able to practice at the new national training center at nearby Chukyo University (in Nagoya) when she is in Japan. The center opened last year and is considered the best in the nation.

"Mao can train at Chukyo and the JSF people can look after her," Wada stated. "She has decided to stay in Nagoya until worlds."

Wada said Arutunian, who once mentored five-time world champion Michelle Kwan, will not coach Mao at the worlds.

The Kyodo story said Mao would select a new coach after the season.

"We never had any type of long-term agreement with Rafael in the first place," Wada noted. "But we have not decided to stop working with him."

Wada was especially disturbed by the claims that Mao had been having trouble adjusting to living and training abroad.

"This is totally wrong," Wada said. "To the contrary, Mao likes training in California. She can relax and have privacy that she does not in Japan."

Mao, who defended her national title in December, is one of the most popular athletes in the nation. She is referred to as "Mao-chan" by fans and "Miracle Mao" by the Japanese media.

The 2005 world junior champion, Mao was too young to skate at the 2006 Turin Winter Games due to eligibility rules. Compatriot Shizuka Arakawa won the gold in Italy after Mao had beaten her three different times in competition that season.