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Ando rounds into top form for Vancouver

Coach: "Miki can beat Yu-Na Kim"

Miki Ando has high hopes for Vancouver after taking the silver medal at the Grand Prix Final.
Miki Ando has high hopes for Vancouver after taking the silver medal at the Grand Prix Final. (Lynn Rutherford)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(02/02/2010) - Miki Ando has learned how to deal with the pressure.

Friday, at a media day in Simsbury, Conn., she finishes up a 45-minute practice for a few U.S. media outlets, deals with the usual gaggle of television and internet photographers from Tokyo. While her legs feel fine, she's nursing a serious cramp in her writing hand.

"I just finished 300 cards for fans," Ando said. "Some of them are from Canada, from Europe -- I don't know where -- and mostly Japan."

Ando's fans, like those of other Olympic favorites Yu-Na Kim and Mao Asada, are fiercely loyal. They've seen the Nagoya native through early triumphs in the junior ranks to a disastrous 15th-place finish at the 2006 Olympics; from the 2007 world title to an injury-plagued collapse the next year and last season's rebound to world bronze.

"I love my fans," Ando said. "They kept me skating."

She also likes training in the peace and quiet of Simsbury, Conn., where her coach, Nikolai Morozov, has moved to take advantage of Olympic-sized ice in the weeks prior to Ando's departure for Vancouver on Feb. 14.

Morozov must hope the relocation brings his skater luck. He helped Tatiana Tarasova train 2002 Olympic champion Alexei Yagudin here, and also coached 2006 Olympic champion Shizuka Arakawa in Simsbury.

"I liked training here before," Ando said in rapidly improving English. "After [the 2006] Olympics and I started working with Nikolai, I came here first. So I feel comfortable training here.

"Of course I love Japan, and I like training in Japan too, but here it's [easier] for me to concentrate on the skating and show my feelings."

Many in Japan expect medals, perhaps gold, for Ando and her three-years-younger Japanese rival, Mao Asada, who recently defeated her at their nationals. Surprisingly, Ando said she's comfortable with the expectations.

"Four years ago it was more pressure," she said. "I was 18 years old, and it was my [first] Olympics. I didn't know what to do, and I didn't know why so many people came to me every day recording my practices, talking about me. Of course I [had done a] quad before [in 2002] and everybody asked about it."

Ando crumbled, dissolving in tears at a press conference when a reporter fired off a question about her late father. This time around, she said she's more mature, and has used her past experiences to build strength.

"[In Torino], I talked to [Arakawa], because she was at the Olympics for the second time. I [asked], 'Did you feel different the first time?' She said yes, the first time I was just enjoying it and skating for myself; this time, she said she understood what she needed to do.

"It is the same for me. This time I know what I have to do; I know what the goal is, so of course it's different."

Ando hopes she's bringing this maturity, and a new-found sense of artistry, to this season's programs, especially her portrayal of Cleopatra in a free skate to a medley of soundtracks. Despite her success -- two golds at her Grand Prix events, plus a silver medal at the Grand Prix Final -- she sounds uncertain.

"I try, but it's not enough yet," she said. "I never think it's enough, or it's great, what I'm doing. I have to do a lot more.

"I saw a Cleopatra movie, an old one [Elizabeth Taylor's, from 1963], and I know that Cleopatra was a strong woman, a strong queen, but for everybody -- for example, me -- I'm kind of a top skater, but I'm girl, too, before I'm a skater. [With] Cleopatra it's the same thing, she has feelings, she has a love, she has a kid, like a normal person. She has a strong heart."

Morozov, a master at racking up points under the International Judging System (IJS), is tinkering with Ando's jump layout, devising two alternatives for her free skate.

"The difficult one [opens with] a triple Lutz-triple loop combination, and goes into double Axel-triple toe, and then a [triple] flip," Ando said. "The second half is triple Lutz; triple Sal; and triple toe, and double Axel- double loop-double loop. That is the highest point [total] I can get."

Depending on how her practices go, Ando had an easier fallback, without her triple-triple or triple flip, which has drawn "edge" calls in the past. There's less concern about possible downgrades of the triple-triple.

"I was frustrated with that before, for example at [2008] Skate America, but now the rules are changed," Morozov said. "Even if it is downgraded, she will not lose many points. The judges used to see the sign for downgrades [<], now they don't. So she will still get credit for a triple Lutz, double loop."

In 2006, in Torino, Morozov told Arakawa not to bother with triple-triples; he'd watched the ladies' practices, and thought she didn't need them to win. He's taking the same tact this time around.

"It depends on how she is practicing [in Vancouver], how the other ladies are practicing," he said.

Ando's famed but elusive quad Salchow, ratified at the Junior Grand Final in 2002, will not make a competitive appearance.

"She still practices it, but she doesn't need it in Vancouver," Morozov said. "It's a little difficult. We'll see it again sometime."

Without the quad, which Ando occasionally shows off in competition practices, won't it be a tough order to defeat the heavily favored Kim, the world champion who has won her last five international competitions?

"Miki can beat Yu-Na Kim," Morozov said. "She beat her in the short at the Grand Prix Final. She lost the free by a few points.

"The last Olympics, [Irina] Slutskaya was supposed to win. The two before that, Michelle Kwan was supposed to win. Everyone asks the same question, especially in Japan: 'Does Miki have a chance?' They were 100 percent sure Mao [Asada] would win, but at the past three worlds, Miki beat Mao twice. They all have a chance; it depends on the preparation; it depends on who is healthy, if it all comes together on the day."

Both Morozov and Ando shrug off Ando's fourth-place finish at the Japanese Championships in December, saying she was not fully prepared. (Asada won the event for fourth time.)

"She was not really practicing for the nationals, because she had already qualified [under Japanese Skating Federation rules] for Olympics, with her silver medal at the Grand Prix Final," Morozov said, adding that Ando was also breaking in new boots.

Ando, who won her nationals in 2004 and 2005, said the competition wasn't a total loss.

"For my short program [to Mozart's "Requiem"], it was great," she said. "Finally, I really could hear the music, and I skated to the music. Before, I didn't feel comfortable with it. I feel much better about my short program now."

Ando and everyone else will need strong shorts to keep pace with Kim, who racked up a world-record 76.28 points in the free skate at 2009 Skate America.

"I'm not thinking about it too much," Ando said. "I just want to be there in good shape and skating great. I don't know [whether] the judges [will] give me the points to get a medal. It depends on the judges, it depends on how I skate."