Japan is sending the strongest group of ladies to the Olympics this season. I could see any one of these women on the medal podium, and frankly will be surprised if there is not at least one Japanese flag being raised to the rafters after the ladies free skate.
Asada gets the headlines, but Miki Ando has been second to only Yu-na Kim in international success this season. And don't forget her 2009 world championships bronze medal.
Ando is the only Japanese lady with Olympic experience; she was 15th in Torino. However, the very next year, she won the world championships. She was forced to withdraw from worlds in 2008 with an injury, so she could not defend her title.
Ando has been a leader on the ladies technical side - years ago she became the first female to land a quadruple jump in competition. She won't likely be attempting one at the Olympics.
Ando has not been perfect this season, but she was good enough to win both of her Grand Prix events, and she came in second to Yu-na Kim at the Grand Prix Final. She was actually leading Kim after the short program - if she could do that and skate a bit cleaner in the free skate with no downgrades, she may actually be able to turn this into a competition.
Choreography and artistry are not necessarily Ando's strengths, although she has some very bright moments in her programs this season where things come together nicely.
The Programs: I really think her short program is a good fit for her, and it's been getting good scores. I don't love her Cleopatra free skate, but I really do like her footwork sequence towards the end. It might be just what she needs to sway the judges over at the end of a long program that would otherwise be quite forgettable.
Latest Performance: This one is hard to judge because it was the Japanese nationals and she already had her Olympic spot secured. However, she has been consistently imperfect this season - but good enough to win and medal in most competitions.
Strengths: Ando has long been known as a technician, so she'll really have to try to be clean and fully rotate jumps in order to take advantage of that.
Weaknesses: Well, hopefully the emotions of the Olympics will help Ando connect better and sell her program more.
It gives me the creeps when: She wears any of the outfits she has worn in her free skate this season. Yikes, cannot wait to see if she changes one more time for the Olympics.
I think it's awesome when: She lands all of her jumps. Even if there is a downgrade here or there, she's been pretty consistent this season.
Outlook: I'd say the outlook is good for Ando to get on the podium. But, her country-mates provide a bit more flair and excitement, and Kim will overshadow her with her technique and artistic prowess. Ando will have to try hard not to fly under the radar.
Before the last Olympics, there was a lot of lamentation that the "best ladies skater" Mao Asada was too young to qualify for the competition; she had won the Grand Prix Final that season and was wowing everyone with her triple axel prowess. Unfortunately, now it is Asada's chance to show everyone what she can do on this grand stage, and I'm not sure if she's prepared for the task ahead.
Asada won the world championships in 2008, and things appeared to be on track. Her rivalry with Yu-na Kim was still very much a rivalry, and she landed two triple axels in the 2008 Grand Prix Final, which was an awesome feat. Unfortunately, it was downhill from there. She came in third at the Four Continents championship and could not even manage a medal at last season's world championships. Then she started out Grand Prix season with a error-ridden second place performance at Trophee Eric Bompard, and then came in fifth at Rostelecom Cup. She did not even qualify for the Grand Prix final.
Many have criticized Asada's programs this season and her strategy of attempting a triple axel in the short program and two triple axels in the free skate. Asada has a lot of beautiful skating qualities - nice line and flexibility, speed and maturity. But she seems weighed down by her depressing programs this season. And her triple axel does not appear consistent enough to warrant using it so much - she often gets downgrades for it.
Asada is coming off of wins in both her nationals and at Four Continents. She was not perfect in either, although it wasn't falls keeping her down, but a popped jump in her short at Four Continents
and her triple axel downgrade in the free skate. The free was great overall, though, and exactly the type of performance she'll want in Vancouver.
The Program: I don't think these programs are the best way to showcase Asada as a skater. They are both kind of depressing to me, but they are both fine as far as skating programs go. I think the wind up to both the triple axels right off the bat in the free skate takes a lot away in the first minute of the program...there is no way to cover that that section is jumping and jumping alone.
Latest Performance: At Four Continents, Asada's short program was a disaster. Her triple axel was downgraded, and her flip only counted as a single. She would have been in way worse place than third if that were the Olympics. However, her free skate was great
- but she left points on the table when she was downgraded on her second triple axel.
Strengths: I believe she's the only woman attempting a triple axel at all at the Olympics...let alone three of them. She's fairly strong on the components side as well.
Weaknesses: Her triple axels have a good chance of getting downgraded, and she doesn't even do a lutz or salchow in her free skate. She is a very unbalanced skater in that way (although she has a history of flutzing, which would explain her strategy here). If she doesn't land those triple axels, everything seems to fall apart. It's truly an all-or-nothing strategy.
It gives me the creeps when: Augh the free skate depresses me.
I think it's awesome when: As much as I disagree with her strategy this season, I can't help but be impressed when she lands (or almost lands) all of those triple axels. I hate that she's pretty much a one-trick pony though because she could still be competitive without leaning on them so much.
Outlook: For Asada I think it's very much up in the air. If she errs, she starts to fall apart. But if she is on, especially if she lands those triples in the free skate, I would definitely watch out for her. There's no reason she shouldn't have a very good chance at being on the podium.
Akiko Suzuki has very quickly become one of my favorite ladies to watch. She has that intangible ability to completely draw me in with her skating. Her programs might not pack the most technical punch, but it's hard not to get into it when she delivers that footwork.
Suzuki has been competing for a very long time, and is an example of hard work finally paying off. After years of hovering around the 10th or worse slot in the Japanese championships, she worked her way down to the silver medal this year.
Her first big international splash came in the 2008-09 Grand Prix season when she won the silver medal at the NHK Trophy. She's followed that up with some successful outings this season - first she won Cup of China. At Skate Canada, she only placed fifth and seemed to lack some of the fire she displayed at Cup of China, but she got that pizazz back in time for the free skate at the Grand Prix final, where she propelled herself to a bronze medal. She recently placed second to Mao Asada at Four Continents.
The Programs: These are both great programs from a spectator's standpoint. It's easy to write off her free skate when you hear she is skating to West Side Story, since it's been done so often, but Suzuki does not disappoint in the program. And I can't help but get into her short program as well. Can't wait to see both at the Olympics.
Latest Performance: Suzuki was not amazing technically at Four Continents. She singled her triple loop in the short program, and she received a downgrade on her loop in the free skate as well when she popped it. She had another wonky landing, too.
Strengths: Like I mentioned above, she can really get you into her performances. I love her footwork.
Weaknesses: She is not technically as ambitious as the other ladies. She only does a triple loop in her short program rather than attempt something more difficult. And she won't be trying a triple/triple combination.
It gives me the creeps when: Akiko does not give me the creeps!
I think it's awesome when: She just relaxes and lights up the crowd like she did at Four Continents - what a show!
Outlook: I think Suzuki is a bit of a longshot to medal, if only because she is going to have a lower technical base than other skaters, I assume. However, if others err and Suzuki is clean, she could very well surprise everyone once again.