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20th WINTER OLYMPIC GAMES

Land of Rising Stars

Arakawa becomes the first Japanese gold medalist in Olympic figure skating with a solid, stays-on-her-skates performance that pushes former world champion past Cohen, Slutskaya

February 24, 2006|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

TURIN, Italy — In rallying to defeat Sasha Cohen of the United States and Irina Slutskaya of Russia, Shizuka Arakawa on Thursday became the first Japanese figure skater to win an Olympic gold medal.

She almost surely won't be the last.

"I hope this will be inspiration for the future generations of skaters," she said.

They're already in the pipeline.

Japan's women's team at the Turin Games was diverse, deep and impressive. And there's more like them at home, including perhaps the most sensational skater of the season, 15-year-old Mao Asada.

A jumping prodigy and one of the few women who has landed a triple axel in competition, the precocious Asada defeated Slutskaya to win the Grand Prix Final this season. However, she was 87 days too young to meet the International Skating Union's requirement that a skater must be 15 by July 1 of the year preceding the Olympics to be eligible for the Games.

In choosing its Turin team, Japan's skating federation used a complex formula that weighed results from competitions over several years. One of only three federations entitled to send three female skaters -- the U.S. and Russia also earned three berths each based on their skaters' results at last year's world championships -- Japanese officials had some difficult decisions.

They chose Arakawa, who won the 2004 world championships but dropped to ninth last year, two-time world bronze medalist Fumie Suguri, who is 25, and 18-year-old Miki Ando, the only woman who has landed a quadruple jump in competition.

Thursday's results proved them right. Arakawa, 24, was the class of the field when the women presented their long programs at the Palavela. She wasn't perfect, but her performance skills, stunning spirals and classic line lifted her well above a shaky Slutskaya and a stumbling Cohen.

Suguri finished fourth, six points out of the medals, and Ando finished far back in the pack. The next generation is pushing them, led by Yoshie Onda, who landed seven triple jumps at the Japanese national championships but didn't make the Olympic team, and Yukari Nakano, who was third in the Grand Prix Final.

Asked about Asada on Thursday, Arakawa's response, through an interpreter, was somewhat cryptic.

"I believe that Mao Asada has the potential to become a world champion and Olympic champion," Arakawa said, "but the champion each year has to have luck and the same time with their skills."

Japanese skaters are also getting more support from skating officials, Suguri said last week in explaining the rise of skaters from her country.

"It is the Japanese federation's effort and a lot of coaches' effort," she said. "Also, our situation at the rink is not very good, but we manage to practice in a little time. Also, we Japanese are very strong and many skaters bring the level higher, and other skaters want to catch up."

Japan celebrated Arakawa's gold medal early this morning. Newspapers released special editions and television stations repeatedly featured Arakawa's winning performance.

Arakawa was cheered by an audience at Tohoku High in Miyagi prefecture, where she skated and studied for three years.

"I am so glad," said Kazuya Igarashi, the school's vice principal. "Even [though] it was early in the morning, about 120 students, teachers and staff got together in a music room at 5:45 and we were watching her skate."

At the Takanawa Prince Hotel in Tokyo, a giant TV was brought into a reception hall so hotel staff members could watch Arakawa. She belongs to a skating club that is sponsored by the hotel.

"It was so exciting and I was touched," said Yoshihiro Tatara, a public relations official for the hotel.

*

Hisako Ueno of The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.

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