Mao Asada details retirement in tearful press conference

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One of Japan’s most popular athletes should have known she couldn’t leave quietly: Mao Asada‘s press conference Wednesday to officially announce her retirement from figure skating attracted some 350 media and was telecast live across Japan.

Asada led her country’s figure skating scene since her teens with her trademark triple axel. She started skating at the age of 5 and won world championships in 2008, 2010 and 2014 in an illustrious career that included a silver medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

The 26-year-old Asada decided to take a break from competitive skating in 2014 and made a comeback the following year.

While she had some positive results, including a bronze at the 2015 NHK Trophy, a career-low 12th-place finish at the national championships last December convinced her it was time to call it a career. Asada had dealt with a reported knee injury in her final season.

“I saw my score in the kiss and cry, and thought, ‘Maybe I don’t have to do this anymore,” Asada said, according to the Japan Times, adding that she made up her mind in February. “I’ve competed at the national championships since I was 12, and I ended with the most disappointing result that I ever had. It factored into making the decision as one of the biggest reasons.”

Asada, who announced her retirement from her 21-year career on her blog two days ago, occupied a special place in the Japanese sports landscape. Her popularity far exceeded that of other figure skaters, even those who won gold medals.

The youngest of two daughters, Asada had a personality that endured her to her legion of fans. Soft-spoken and exceedingly polite, many regarded her as their own “younger sister” and her photogenic looks added to the aura.

“I still have photos of myself as a 5-year-old skating in a crash helmet and knee-pads,” Asada said, according to Agence-France Presse. “It’s amazing I’ve been able to compete for such a long time.”

Throughout her early career, Asada’s mother, Kyoko, was a constant companion, attending all of her competitions and monitoring her progress up the ranks.

Asada qualified for the 2011-12 Grand Prix Final in Quebec City, but had to return home when her mother became seriously ill. Her mother died of liver cirrhosis while Asada was flying back from Canada.

She was in her early 20s at the time and her loss struck an emotional chord with her fans.

“Over my long career, I encountered a lot of mountains,” Asada said. “I was able to get over those mountains thanks to the support of many people and I’m full of gratitude.”

At Wednesday’s press conference, Asada called her performance in the free skate at the 2014 Sochi Olympics her most memorable.

“It’s difficult to pick just one,” Asada said. “But the free skate in Sochi is definitely one that stands out.”

She placed 16th in the short program in Sochi after falling on her triple axel, under-rotating a triple flip, and doubling a triple loop.

But in a stirring free skate, Asada rebounded, earning a personal best score of 142.71 making her the third women to score above the 140 mark after Yuna Kim‘s 2010 Olympics score and Yulia Lipnitskaya‘s 2014 Olympics team event score.

That placed Asada third in the free skating and sixth overall. Even though she didn’t win a medal, it was a performance that many will never forget.

She will long be remembered for her rivalry with Kim.

“We competed with each other since we were about 16 years old,” Asada said, according to the Japan Times. “We really inspired each other, and I think we shook up figure skating together.”

Asada had said at the 2016 World Championships that she planned to compete through the 2018 Olympics.

“I was conflicted because I announced my goal publicly and didn’t carry it out,” Asada said, according to the Japan Times.

As for what’s next, Asada said she is ready to take a new step in her life and will continue appearing in figure skating shows.

“I have no unease about the future,” Asada said. “I want to try new things and keep moving forward in a positive way.”

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Alina Zagitova eyes more gold at worlds; women’s preview

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Alina Zagitova hasn’t lost internationally in 18 months, and that doesn’t figure to change this week at the world championships in Milan.

The 15-year-old Russian is favored to become the youngest world gold medalist since Tara Lipinski (duplicating her feat from the Olympics) and make it five straight Olympic or world titles for Russian women, the longest streak for one country since American Carol Heiss won six straight Olympic/world titles from 1956 through 1960.

Zagitova would also become the first Olympic women’s champion to win worlds the following month since Kristi Yamaguchi in 1992. That’s largely because Olympic champions usually skip worlds in Olympic years. Since Yamaguchi, the only one to compete was Yuna Kim, who grabbed silver in 2010.

Zagitova may be young, but she may not have the longevity of Kim to make it to a second Olympics. Russia turns over a new class of elite women’s skaters every year.

Two weeks ago, 13-year-old Alexandra Trusova won the world junior title as the first woman to land two different quadruple jumps in one program. Trusova isn’t old enough to compete at the senior worlds until 2020.

Zagitova’s current rival and training partner, Olympic silver medalist and 2016 and 2017 World champion Yevgenia Medvedeva, withdrew from worlds due to injury.

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Which leaves the last two Olympic bronze medalists, Kaetlyn Osmond of Canada and Carolina Kostner of Italy, plus PyeongChang fourth-place finisher Satoko Miyahara of Japan as the top challengers this week.

None finished within seven points of Zagitova at any competition this season, the Russian’s first on the senior international level.

Zagitova set herself apart at the Olympics by putting all of her jumps in the second half of her programs for 10 percent bonuses and landing them all with positive grades of execution.

The U.S. contingent includes national champion Bradie Tennell, two-time Olympian Mirai Nagasu and Mariah Bell (replacement for 2017 U.S. champion Karen Chen).

It is the end of a challenging season for U.S. women. In the autumn, none qualified for the Grand Prix Final for a second straight year (after at least one had done so each of the previous seven seasons).

In PyeongChang, no U.S. woman finished in the top six for the first time in Winter Games history. Tennell, who emerged this season after placing ninth at 2017 Nationals, was the top U.S. Olympic finisher in ninth.

Tennell goes into worlds as the top seeded American — seventh — by best international scores this season.

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Olympic golf qualifying, format largely unchanged for 2020

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The Tokyo 2020 Olympic golf tournaments qualifying and format will remain largely the same as they were for the sport’s return to the Games in 2016, according to Golf Channel, citing a memo sent to PGA Tour players.

The format will again be four rounds of stroke play with 60 men and 60 women taken from the world rankings, according to the report.

The qualifying window to determine the rankings will be July 1, 2018 to June 22, 2020 for men and July 8, 2018 to June 29, 2020 for women. That’s a slight change, as for 2016 the dates were the same for men and women.

The 2016 process saw a maximum of two men and two women per country, or up to four if they were ranked in the top 15.

Then-PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said one month after the Rio Games that he hoped the Olympic golf format would be changed to have more medals awarded.

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