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Ando sports new look, relaxed attitude

2007 world champion takes one day at a time

Miki Ando poses with her bronze medal after the ladies free skate during the 2009 ISU World Figure Skating Championships in Los Angeles.
Miki Ando poses with her bronze medal after the ladies free skate during the 2009 ISU World Figure Skating Championships in Los Angeles. (Getty)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(09/28/2009) - It's early days, but Miki Ando is getting ready for her Olympic close-up.

"I feel maybe a little stronger than last season, and I think I can improve more," she said.

Since the Japanese siren won world bronze last season, "stronger" could mean a podium finish in Vancouver next February. The 21-year-old from Nagoya dazzled with a polished exhibition to her new free skate at Stars, Stripes and Skates on Saturday, sporting an eye-popping gold dress and hitting tough triples, including two Lutzes, despite a shortened rink and show lighting.

"She looks different with this program," said Ando's coach, Nikolai Morozov.

"When she won worlds [in 2007], she improved so much. Everybody was very surprised. Then the last two years, she was kind of doing the same things. So this year she is improving again. She skated with lights and she was already basically better than she was at worlds, except for no combinations."

The two-time Japanese champion, known for her strong jumps, spent the summer at her training rink in Hackensack, N.J., polishing her routines. She hopes to impress judges by infusing her athleticism with a bit of storytelling.

"My free skate at worlds last year [to Saint-Saens' Symphony no. 3] didn't have any story. It was classical, just my feelings," Ando said. "This year I have a story. I am playing [the role of] a woman and I try to show the audience her life and how she feels inside. But I can't say the music yet."

Ando was gently reminded by training mate Nobunari Oda that fans would post videos of her performance on the internet before she had taken her final bow. Sure enough, word got out: her free skate is to a medley of the theme from HBO's Rome and music from the mini-series Marco Polo. Her short program music, though, is still private.

"My new short is also very different than last year's [to Memoirs of a Geisha," she said. "It is more powerful, a new style for me. My programs, I think, are kind of exotic. I hope they will show the audience I'm a completely different person."

Ando has had ups-and-downs almost as dramatic as the quad Salchow she landed as a 15-year-old at the 2002 Junior Grand Prix Final. After a stellar junior career, including the 2004 world junior title, and wins at her national championships in 2003/2004 and 2004/2005, she fell to sixth place in Japan. A controversial selection to the Olympic team, she placed 15th in Turin and withdrew from the 2006 worlds.

After moving to the U.S. to train with Morozov, Ando fought back to place second at her national championships despite a shoulder injury. Her crowning moment came in Tokyo when she won the 2007 world title over three-years-younger teammate Mao Asada.

But injuries caught up with Ando during the 2008 worlds in Gothenberg, when she tearfully withdrew during her free skate after placing eighth in the short.

During the difficult 2007/2008 season, Ando told the press, "I was questioning myself during the summer on why I was doing all of these competitions and practice. It is not that I want to quit, but my body and mind are not in unison."

Last season, the skater rebounded yet again; at the 2009 worlds, she performed two fine programs to claim bronze behind Yu-Na Kim and Joannie Rochette.

"That was for my fans," she said. "They are so nice. Fans in Japan, U.S., Europe. If I don't have fans like this, I would already have quit skating. They gave me the power to skate."

Ando knows maintaining her positive attitude will be tricky.

"Right now, I feel like it is not the Olympic season," she said. "I feel nothing too special. Every day is a new day and every year is a new year. I have my Grand Prix events [Rostelecom Cup and NHK Trophy] and Japanese nationals in December.

"Of course [I am] looking forward to the Olympics, but I just want to concentrate on my Grand Prix [competitions] to make sure my program is tough enough and looks great. I also have to think about nationals because that is where the final decision [on the Japanese Olympic team] is made. I have to skate my best there."

While considered a virtual shoo-in for the Japanese team, Ando last won her national title nearly five years ago. This time around, she again faces stiff competition from Asada, veteran Fumie Suguri, Yukari Nakano and a host of young challengers.

"I never think about the other girls," Ando claimed. "I have to concentrate on myself. But I know the Japanese team is so strong. It will be hard to make the Olympics, but I don't care how hard it is. It is good to push myself."

Improved style may be at the forefront of her new programs, but jumps still come first. Ando last attempted the elusive quad Salchow at the Grand Prix Final last season, falling on the attempt. Trying, and missing, the jump also cost her at the 2006 Olympics. Now, she is uncertain she will attempt it again.

"I can't practice quad now because I have new boots," she said. "Before I got new boots I try a couple in practice and I feel okay. I am not sure if I will do in competition or not. It depends on how my body feels. I don't want to try it if my body feels tired. It is going to be difficult but I will keep practicing it."

Ando's triple Lutz-triple loop will again figure into her programs, and she has a training trick to help her fully rotate the difficult combination.

"I do my combination, and also just for fun I put triple loop after each of my jumps, the Salchow, toe and Axel," she explained.

"My flip, it's not so good. I [am trying] to change from the outside to inside [edge take-off] so I do not get the "e" from [the technical] controller. This is really hard. It is not 100% but I think it is getting better. I never got any problem on it until they changed the rules."

A huge star in her home country, the skater is occasional fodder for Japan's many tabloids and gossip weeklies, with sometimes unwelcome intrusion into her private life. She seems conflicted with her celebrity status, at time embracing it, at times pulling back.

"Training in the U.S. is so much more relaxing than in Japan," she said. "Finally, I understand that everyone in Japan knows me, and I can't change that. Before I didn't want to be famous, because I was young. I wanted to be a normal girl and live a normal life. That is not possible for me in Japan. In the U.S., if I am in an ice rink, people know me but if I am out shopping, they don't.

"I did not start skating to be famous. I compete because I love figure skating. So it is good to be famous, because it means I am skating."