Figure Skating

Winter Olympics: Figure Skating

Winter Olympics: Figure Skating

Jason Coskrey

With the notable exception of the 1998 Nagano Games, the Winter Olympics hasn't left many warm feelings in the hearts of Japanese fans.

The nation has participated in all but two Olympiads since 1924 but has managed to capture just nine gold medals (five coming in Nagano) and 32 medals overall. Recent history hasn't been much kinder, with just three medals won in 2002 in Salt Lake City, U.S. and 2006 in Turin, Italy.

The nation's lone medal in 2006, however, was the gold won by figure skater Shizuka Arakawa, who became the first person born and raised in Asia to become the ladies' Olympic Champion.

As the nation's gears up for the 2010 Vancouver Games, figure skating may again represent the best chance at gold.

Leading the charge is 19-year-old Mao Asada, a multiple-time national champion regarded as one of the world's premier skaters.

Asada is a two-time Grand Prix Final champion (2005 and 2008), three-time Japanese national champion (2006-08) and has was 2008 Four Continents champion, the 2005 the Junior World Champion and 2008 World Champion.

Elegant and fluidly, Asada glides her slender 5-foot-4 frame around the ice with an ease beyond her years. She has an easy smile and youthful exuberance that serves her well in a sport that is as much about appearance as athleticism.

Figure skating in Japan.

Asada's movements are graceful and her jumps powerful and complex, which serves as a nice contrast during her programs.

At the 2005 Japan nationals, Asada became the first female in history to nail a pair of triple axels in the same program. Three years later she repeated the feat in the Grand Prix Final to become the first and only woman to land two triple axels in the same program during an ISU-sanctioned event.

Asada hit a rough patch in her buildup to the games after a shaky 2009 season. Her year got off to a rough start with a second-place finish at the Trophee Eric Bompard, where she finished 36.04 points behind winner Kim Yu Na of South Korea.

She then stumbled to a fifth-place finish at the Rostelecom Cup. That cost her a spot in the 2009 Grand Prix Final. She appeared in just two events during the '09 season. Her recent troubles have led some to call for a split from coach Tatiana Tarasova.

Asada's recent results are troubling for skating officials, especially given Kim's rapid rise through the ranks. Kim was once considered Asada's main rival, but the table have turned as the Korean has taken the skating world by storm.

Kim is the 2009 World Champions and won the Four Continents during the same year. The 19-year-old won the Grand Prix Final in 2006 and 2007 and, like Asada, was only kept out of the 2006 Olympics due to her age.

Kim is the clear favorite to win gold when the Olympics begin in Vancouver. Asada, meanwhile carries the hopes of Japan on her shoulders as the Olympics creep closer and closer.

Compatriot Miki Ando figures to be the country's best bet after Asada. Three-years older than the more decorated Asada, Ando has come into her own as of late.

Ranked sixth in the world as of October 2009, Ando was the World Junior Champion in 2004 and World Champion in 2007. She's also a two-time Japanese national champion, winning in 2004 and 2005.

Ando is also the only woman to successfully land a quadruple jump in competition.

Listed at 5-foot-4, Ando has a slightly more muscular and toned body than Asada and possesses more of an edge in her programs.

Ando wears her heart on her sleeves which leaves emotions on display for the world to see when she's on the ice. Though it's not always a good thing as Ando has on occasion let her frustrations mar her performances.

Unlike Asada, Ando has taken her fair share of criticism over the years but is still one of Japan's most popular female athletes.

Ando competed in the 2006 Winter Olympics alongside the now-retired Arakawa. Her experience there was one she would rather forget, falling to a disastrous 15th-place finish.

Largely skating in the shadow of Japan's two most popular skaters is Konan City native Yukari Nakano.

At 24-years-old, Nakano is older than both Asada and Ando, but has yet to reach the heights of her countrywomen. Nakano won silver at the 2006 Four Continents and bronze at the Japanese nationals in 2007 and 2008.

Five-time Japanese national champion Fumie Suguri could also find her way onto the team. Suguri is 28, but has won the Four Continents three times and Grand Prix Final once during her career.

No matter who makes the Japanese team in 2010, they'll face a big challenge from South Korean Kim Yu Na.

On the men's side, Daisuke Takahashi is regarded as Japan's best shot at gold.

Takahashi is a three-time national champion (2005-2007), won the four continents in 2008 and won silver at the 2007 worlds. Takahashi competed in the 2006 Winter Games, placing eighth.

Takahashi missed the 2008 season after undergoing surgery to repair ligament damage and his right meniscus.

The 2010 Winter Olympics begins on February 12.

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