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Figure skating: Can Mao Asada top Kim Yuna with her triple Axel?

South Korea's Kim Yu-Na has a big lead on Mao Asada of Japan heading into the free skate of the women's figure skating competition. But Asada's triple Axel is the women's answer to a quad.

By Staff Writer / February 25, 2010

This composite sequence of photographs shows Mao Asada performing her trademark triple Axel jump, followed by a double toe loop, during the women's figure skating short program at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, Tuesday.

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Vancouver, British Columbia

Kim Yu-Na has staked herself to a commanding 4.72 point lead heading into the figure skating free skate tonight. But second place Mao Asada has one weapon that Kim cannot match: the triple Axel.

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Realistically, a triple Axel is the only thing in the Pacific Coliseum tonight that threatens Kim’s grip on gold, a historic feat that would thrill her countrymen. It is the women’s version of the quad, although in tonight’s scenario, it is the woman chasing the leader – and not the leader herself – who will attempt it.

Asada is the only woman who will try the jump, which is the highest-scoring in the women’s competition – and she plans to do it twice.

How Asada can win

In fact, on this same Pacific Colisuem ice almost exactly a year ago, Asada used her triple Axel to do what she needs to do tonight to win gold: beat Kim in the free skate.

Yet even then, in the 2009 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, she lost – Kim’s typically huge short-program staking her to a huge lead.

Tonight, she will need to go one better, and despite the result, last year’s Four Continents shows how it could conceivably be done. Asada will need help from Kim, who faltered in the Four Continents free skate final, and she will need to skate the program of her life, which she could not manage last February.

Still, with several mistakes, Asada made up 1.83 points on Kim. With a perfect performance tonight, 4.72 points is not out of the question – though nearly. Third-place Joannie Rochette could find it almost impossible to make up 7.14 points on Kim without a big-scoring trick like Asada’s triple Axel.

Gold medalist Evan Lysacek, by comparison, was only 0.55 points behind Evgeni Plushenko heading into the men’s free skate. (For how Lysacek was able to beat Plushenko's quads, read more here.)

Kim's perfection

The problem (from other skaters’ perspective) is that Kim is a craftsman, carving each jump and turn across the ice with unrivalled precision. Judges are allowed to add or deduct two points from any trick based on its grade of execution [GOE].

No one gets higher grades for her execution than Kim, who picked up 2.7 points on Asada in the short program on GOE alone – a stunning margin.

“In her triple-triple combination, she comes out with as much speed as she had going in,” says Camie Doyle, a former competitor on the women’s national circuit who is now a coach. “Kim makes jumps look incredibly easy.”

That is not likely to change tonight. Where Asada must make up points is with her raw athleticism, and the triple Axel is central to that.

Japanese skaters “are known as being a little less clean around the edges, but they’re very athletic and very strong skaters,” Doyle says.

If Asada can land her two triple Axels and keep the rest of her free skate clean, says seven-time Austrian women’s figure skating champion Julia Lautowa, she should have “huge scores.”

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