Oda enters Olympic year with strong programs

Biggest challenge could be reining it all in

Nobunari Oda with training mate Miki Ando at <i>Stars, Stripes and Skates</i>.
Nobunari Oda with training mate Miki Ando at Stars, Stripes and Skates. (Lynn Rutherford)


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By Lynn Rutherford, special to
(10/05/2009) - Nobunari Oda thinks he's got this whole competitive thing nailed down, except for maybe one detail.

Consistent triple Axel? Check. Solid spins? Got 'em. Quad? It's coming along.

"The most important thing for me is just calming down," the 22-year-old from Osaka said. "I am always so excited and always doing too much. That's why I crashed into the boards last season."

Overdoing it cost Oda big time at the 2009 World Championships in Los Angeles this March, where he skated two otherwise fine programs. In the short, too much speed on his triple Lutz-triple toe combination sent him flying into the barrier. In the free, he improvised an extra combination and gained no points for the illegal jumping pass.

"When I get too excited, I can't control myself," he admitted.

Of course, sometimes excitement works. Both Oda and his training mate, 2007 world champion Miki Ando, wowed the crowd at Stars, Stripes and Skates in Danbury, Conn., on Sept. 26 with knockout exhibitions of their new free skates.

Performing to a medley of Charlie Chaplin tunes, Oda reeled off eight triples, including two triple Axels, one in combination with a triple toe. All of this on a small surface in show lighting.

"I choose this music because I think the character really suits him," Oda's coach, Nikolai Morozov, said. "I like it. I did see the [Robert Downey, Jr.] movie Chaplin, but I already knew Chaplin, because he is a very famous person.

"Nobu's training is going good, not bad at all. It will be [an] interesting Olympic Games. I think he is in one of the best positions because he's really not going in at the very top, when people can get very nervous. You can see how great he skated here [in Danbury]."

The diminutive Oda isn't the first skater to channel The Little Tramp. Ryan Bradley and Todd Eldredge, among others, have performed competitive free skates to Chaplin medleys. Chaplin himself did a few pirouettes in his 1916 film The Rink. But he was most inspired by Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze's "Chaplin" program.

"I watched them at the Grand Prix Final in Tokyo in 2001," Oda said while sitting backstage with pals at Stars, Stripes and Skates. "I was 13 or 14, and it was so exciting. "

"We also watched the DVD of Chaplin together, remember?" nudged Ando.

"Right," Oda said. "I watched it to learn more about the character. The program is a lot of fun; I am playing Chaplin, with no mustache, or hat, or [walking] stick, but a tie and suit."

The skater's other competitive program couldn't be more different than his lighthearted free skate.

"This season I got two new programs, and my short is "Totentanz" [or "Dance of Death," by Franz Liszt]. It's the music Irina Slutskaya skated to it at the last Olympics. I think it's good to have two things that are so different."

Oda, who won the junior world title in 2005, splits his training between the U.S. and the Kansai University rink in Osaka, Japan. In Hackensack, N.J., he shares the ice with Ando; Daisuke Murakami, who placed fifth at Japanese nationals; Javier Fernández of Spain; and other Morozov students, as well as top U.S. junior Angela Maxwell and Georgia's Elene Gedevanishvili.

Back home, he trains with his mother, Noriko. This Olympic season he is taking time off from classes at Kansai University, where he studies languages. He plans to resume school after the Games.

"I was working with Nikolai the whole of July. I went back to Japan the whole of August and came back in September. Training has been very good," he said.

"If I make the Olympics, it is going to be my first time, and Olympics are the greatest thing for an athlete. I just want to make sure that I go."

If he wins a ticket to Vancouver, which seems likely, Oda wants a quadruple toe loop in his pocket when he gets there. "I did quad at worlds, but I have to make [it] more consistent," he said.

"In Japan I did so much off-ice training and I got so much energy. I feel stronger. Sometimes I lost energy last season; I did a good quad or triple Axel and then I do level two spins. It's very important to get each level on spins."

Unlike his countrywoman Ando, who prefers training in the relative anonymity of the U.S., Oda says he's more comfortable at his home rink.

"In Japan, I focus on working off ice more than skating. In U.S., I focus on skating with Nikolai and more choreography and jumps," he explained.

"In the U.S., I always think about skating too much. I get crazy sometimes and can't sleep. For me, Japan is more relaxed. My home and everything is there. But I have to focus on my skating, so that's why I'm in the U.S."

If he skates well in Vancouver, Oda may erase some bitter memories.

During the 2005-06 season, Oda and his biggest Japanese rival, Daisuke Takahashi, had similar finishes at Grand Prix events and split their head-to-head meetings, so the single Japanese Olympic berth was very much on the line at Japanese nationals. Oda appeared to have won and was presented with the gold medal, only to have a scoring error reveal Takahashi as the true victor.

Although Takahashi won the coveted trip to Turin, where he placed eighth, the Japanese Skating Federation sent Oda to worlds. He performed two solid programs and barely missed the podium, finishing fourth. Oda placed seventh at worlds in 2007 and 2009. (He sat out 2008 after serving a five-month suspension from the Japanese Skating Federation for being ticketed for driving a moped while under the influence of alcohol).

Last season, with Takahashi injured, Oda won his first national title. Another fine Japanese skater, 2008 Skate America champion Takahiko Kozuka, notched a sixth-place finish at worlds, so three Japanese men will compete in Vancouver. Plus, with Takahashi back in the fray, Japanese nationals promises to be even more competitive.

"I am glad [Takahashi] will skate this season," Oda said. "I think its very good for me, actually, so we can get better [by competing with] each other. It's a great thing to compete at the national level [against] so many good skaters.

"Plus, Stéphane Lambiel and Evgeni Plushenko are coming back also. I think it's very good for me to just focus on myself. That's all I have to do. And just stay calm and in control."