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Asada leads way for Japanese sweep

Home skaters dominate ladies podium in Tokyo

Mao Asada of Japan ran away with the ladies title at the NHK Trophy in Tokyo.
Mao Asada of Japan ran away with the ladies title at the NHK Trophy in Tokyo. (Getty Images)

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By Tatiana Flade, special to icenetwork.com
(11/29/2008) - The 2008 NHK Trophy continued with an exciting ladies competition, as well as the pairs and dance finals, on Saturday in Tokyo.

Mao Asada led a Japanese podium sweep in the ladies competition. Qing Pang and Jian Tong of China celebrated their first victory this season, and Federica Faiella and Massimo Scali of Italy won the first Grand Prix gold medal of their career. U.S. teams captured a silver in pairs and a bronze in the ice dancing competition.

Ladies

There was a totally different Mao Asada on the ice in Tokyo today than the one we saw at the Trophée Eric Bompard Cachemire just two weeks ago. The Mao Asada in Tokyo was confident and cruised to victory with an advantage of almost 24 points over surprise silver medalist, Akiko Suzuki.

Asada went for two triple Axels in her program -- a feat that she has only accomplished before at Japanese nationals. While the first triple Axel was perfect, the second one in combination with a double toe was cheated and downgraded. Asada also left some points on the ice when she opted for a solo triple flip instead of her triple flip-triple loop combo, and she didn't include a triple Lutz in the "Waltz Masquerade".

The world champion was very excited, and rightfully so, as she looked more powerful and polished than ever before. At the end, she almost fell over in her final pose but laughed about it.

"I am very happy to be in first place today. Now, the Grand Prix Final is my next goal", Asada commented. "For me, it is important to do all my elements without mistakes in the Final. This is the first time I did my program without falling, and this gives me great confidence. Initially, we wanted the highest technical level and had the triple Lutz in the program, but for this competition we decided to do the two triple Axels and take out the Lutz."

Asada will now stay in her hometown of Nagoya and prepare there for the Final in two weeks.

Suzuki came out of nowhere to run away with the silver medal. Not many people would have put the 23-year-old on the list of the top contenders as she competed in the first Grand Prix event of her career. But Suzuki gave a solid performance that included five triples and pulled up from fourth place after the short program to second overall.

"I still cannot believe that this has happened. This is my first Grand Prix event, and I'm just amazed. The Grand Prix was a big stage for me, and I was just happy to have skated here," Suzuki explained.

Suzuki, also a native of Nagoya, was once a promising junior skater but battled health problems and has just now slowly made her way back to the world scene.

Yukari Nakano rallied back from a faulty short program that left her in fifth place. She did much better Saturday and hit four clean triples, but a triple flip was under-rotated. Nakano then decided not to risk the triple Axel.

"I am happy to have come third after yesterday's short program, and I'm happy to have qualified for the Grand Prix Final," Nakano said. "I would give myself 90 points for this performance, even without the triple Axel. I skated exactly like I wanted to."

Ashley Wagner of the U.S. slipped from second place after the short program to fourth after a loop and a flip were downgraded, and she also stumbled on her first triple flip.

Laura Lepistö from Finland, who was third in the short, placed fifth overall. She missed a triple loop but hit a triple Lutz.

The technical panel nailed American Katrina Hacker for four cheated jumps -- a triple toe, a double toe and two triple Salchows. On top of that, she stumbled badly on a triple loop. Hacker remained in sixth place.

U.S. champion Mirai Nagasu struggled in front of the Japanese crowd, finishing eighth overall.

Pairs

Pang and Tong closed out the pairs event with a strong performance on Saturday. The 2006 world champions hit the triple toe and their big throws, but both singled a double Axel.

"We are very happy about winning today. It's our first victory this season. When I get home I will see my doctor to find out about the status of my [Achilles tendon] injury. Depending on what he says, I will rest or continue competing, but my foot is much better than at the Cup of China," Tong commented. "This is a good start for us and bodes well for the upcoming events," Pang added.

Rena Inoue and John Baldwin of the U.S. finished second in the free skate and won the silver medal with a performance that was much better than what they put on the ice at Skate America. The veterans didn't risk the throw triple Axel on Saturday but landed a throw double Axel and a throw triple loop, as well a double Axel-double toe. Baldwin, this time, did a triple toe, but crashed.

"This is our third time at NHK Trophy, but the first time that we are on the podium," said Inoue, who was born in Japan.

"Being at the 30th anniversary of NHK Trophy, it is great to get a medal and be part of history", Baldwin added. "Performing and competing in front of such a gracious crowd was a pleasure for us."

As the couple is the third substitute for the Grand Prix Final and therefore will most likely not go to Korea, they now will focus on the 2009 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

"The top six or seven couples in the U.S. are closely tied, so it will be a tight competition," expects Inoue. "It won't be easy to win, but we have a chance."

Reigning world bronze medalists Jessica Dubé and Bryce Davison of Canada, who were the favorites at this event, did not skate their best for the second straight day. After landing a triple twist, they struggled with the solo jumps and throws. Dubé doubled the side-by-side Salchow, and Davison stumbled on it. She also singled a double Axel and went down on the throw triple Lutz. Additionally, they did only a throw double loop.

"I couldn't really put my finger on any one particular thing that went wrong with us, per se. For sure, after the decent triple twist, I think we got a little stiff on the Axels. Once you get stiff, things don't flow properly. The jumps and throws -- the more dynamic elements -- once you're stiff, there is not an easy way to muscle through them. I think this is what we were having a problem with," Davison explained.

MeeRan Trombley and Laureano Ibarra of the U.S. finished seventh. They landed a triple twist and throw triple Salchow, but she singled the Axel and fell out of the landing of the throw triple loop.

Ice Dancing

Faiella and Scali danced to the gold, but Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat stole the show a little bit. Like the OD, the French beat the Italians in the free dance. However, the 2.41-point cushion that Faiella and Scali built after compulsory dance proved to be enough to secure first place overall.

Faiella and Scali gave a smooth performance of their romantic "Moonlight Sonata" program, but two low levels on the spin and the midline footwork cost them some points.

"We are so happy that I can't really describe it," Scali said. "It has been years that we have been trying to get something else than a bronze medal [on the Grand Prix]. This is our first gold medal and our first NHK Trophy, and we are really proud."

He added that they felt it difficult to skate after the fall in the original dance yesterday.

"The pressure was already high, because only the winner today can go to the Grand Prix Final, and the mistake didn't help", he went on.

Pechalat and Bourzat turned in an entertaining circus program, acting as clowns. They had changed some of their lifts since their sub-par performance at Skate Canada and overall looked much more confident and solid. For their elements, the French team got five Level 4's and a Level 3 for the step sequences and the twizzles.

"I understand why Massimo and Federica are so happy to have the gold medal, because we also wanted the gold," sighed Pechalat, with a glance at her neighbors on the press conference podium. "The compulsory dance cost us. But on the positive side, we did a good job, and the audience really appreciated our programs, so we are happy with 'only' the silver. But it is very disappointing for us to end up in second place after winning the two most important parts of the competition, the original and free dances," she continued.

Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates of the U.S. used a little bit of luck to grab the bronze, their first medal on the Senior Grand Prix Series. They had strong footwork and lifts, but Bates fell during the combination spin. Although the couple was ranked fourth in the free dance and in the original dance, they still moved up to third in the overall result. The reigning world junior champions looked very precise, while former junior rivals of theirs, Russians Kristina Gorshkova and Vitali Butikov, dropped to fifth after a flat performance. The other Russian couple, Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev, who are also contemporaries of Samuelson and Bates, finished third in the free dance but were too far behind going into Saturday's skate to overtake the Americans.

"We are very pleased to have received the bronze medal today. This is our first NHK and our first season on the Grand Prix, and it's an honor to be here. It's just a great experience that we are going to take a lot from to improve and to come back next year to do our best," Samuelson said. "I'm not exactly sure what happened [on the spin]. In the beginning, we got into the first position and everything felt OK until for some reason my leg collapsed and that, in turn, caused more pressure on Evan, which resulted in the fall. It's just something that has never happened before, and I'll be sure never happens again," she added when asked about the error.

Kimberly Navarro and Brent Bommentre skated their funky Fatboy Slim program with spark but remained in sixth place. Their step sequences were graded only a Level 2, everything else was a Level 4.