Asada strives toward missing gold under massive attention in Japan

Mao Asada

DETROIT — While the four reigning U.S. national champions have solid figure skating followings, arguably the one truly global superstar at Skate America this weekend is Japan’s Mao Asada.

The Vancouver Olympic silver medalist and two-time world champion pleased hundreds of Japan-flag waving fans at Joe Louis Arena, thousands of miles from home. After Asada ended the short program in the lead, three dozen Japanese reporters stood waiting for her off the ice Saturday.

At 23, Asada has said this will be her last season after she wiped the slate clean following the 2010 Games and started rebuilding her skating with a focus on her triple jumps.

“Compared to four years ago, I’ve focused more on the technical aspect of my skating,” Asada said Friday through an interpreter. “I have started from scratch, and now feel like I’m seeing the result of that.”

Asada benefits from her triple Axel, specifically, in the ladies event where it is a rarity. Saturday she hit it — if not perfectly — to help her into first place over two-time U.S. national champion Ashley Wagner.

Wagner, who has publicly been chasing a triple-triple combination herself, said the Axel is what sets Asada apart.

“Mao does triple Axels like nobody’s business,” Wagner said. “It’s inspiring to be around. It makes me want to get better. I definitely think that now that she has her triple Axel back and solid she is a force to be reckoned with. I would like to think that as my programs develop and my spin levels get there I feel like I’ll be able to get closer and closer to her. She’s a strong and solid competitor, so she’s giving me something to work for — I can’t slack off.”

There has been no slacking for Asada since her silver medal in Vancouver, revamping to try to close the gap on reigning Olympic champion Yuna Kim. And while Asada won’t say she wants gold in Sochi, she seems to imply it.

“After Vancouver, part of me that was very happy about [winning silver] and part of me wasn’t happy about it,” Asada said. “Because this is my last season and [it’s] an Olympic season, I’m hoping everything comes together for the best at every event.”

Asada has experience and accomplishments on her side: she won skating’s Grand Prix Final at the Iceberg Skating Palace –- the Sochi Olympic venue –- in December 2012.

“The last time I was there, the result was very good,” Asada said through the interpreter, smiling. “And I was very comfortable. That helps me; I’m looking forward to going back.”

Asada said she notices her picture being taken in public every now and then but isn’t overwhelmed by it. The popularity of figure skating has soared in Japan with Shizuka Arakawa winning Olympic gold in 2006 and Daisuke Takahashi capturing bronze in 2010, the first men’s singles medal for the country.

“When I’m down, fans and everyone are trying to cheer me up,” Asada said of the attention. “Other than that, I have a pretty normal life.”

U.S. men’s Olympic figure skating picture clouded

U.S. women’s rugby team qualifies for 2024 Paris Olympics as medal contender

Cheta Emba

The U.S. women’s rugby team qualified for the 2024 Paris Olympics by clinching a top-four finish in this season’s World Series.

Since rugby was re-added to the Olympics in 2016, the U.S. men’s and women’s teams finished fifth, sixth, sixth and ninth at the Games.

The U.S. women are having their best season since 2018-19, finishing second or third in all five World Series stops so far and ranking behind only New Zealand and Australia, the winners of the first two Olympic women’s rugby sevens tournaments.

The U.S. also finished fourth at last September’s World Cup.

Three months after the Tokyo Games, Emilie Bydwell was announced as the new U.S. head coach, succeeding Olympic coach Chris Brown.

Soon after, Tokyo Olympic co-captain Abby Gustaitis was cut from the team.

Jaz Gray, who led the team in scoring last season and at the World Cup, missed the last three World Series stops after an injury.

The U.S. men are ranked ninth in this season’s World Series and will likely need to win either a North American Olympic qualifier this summer or a last-chance global qualifier in June 2024 to make it to Paris.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Oscar Pistorius denied parole, hasn’t served enough time

Oscar Pistorius
File photo

Olympic and Paralympic runner Oscar Pistorius was denied parole Friday and will have to stay in prison for at least another year and four months after it was decided that he had not served the “minimum detention period” required to be released following his murder conviction for killing girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp 10 years ago.

The parole board ruled that Pistorius would only be able to apply again in August 2024, South Africa’s Department of Corrections said in a short, two-paragraph statement. It was released soon after a parole hearing at the Atteridgeville Correctional Centre prison where Pistorius is being held.

The board cited a new clarification on Pistorius’ sentence that was issued by South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal just three days before the hearing, according to the statement. Still, legal experts criticized authorities’ decision to go ahead with the hearing when Pistorius was not eligible.

Reeva Steenkamp’s parents, Barry and June, are “relieved” with the decision to keep Pistorius in prison but are not celebrating it, their lawyer told The Associated Press.

“They can’t celebrate because there are no winners in this situation. They lost a daughter and South Africa lost a hero,” lawyer Tania Koen said, referring to the dramatic fall from grace of Pistorius, once a world-famous and highly-admired athlete.

The decision and reasoning to deny parole was a surprise but there has been legal wrangling over when Pistorius should be eligible for parole because of the series of appeals in his case. He was initially convicted of culpable homicide, a charge comparable to manslaughter, in 2014 but the case went through a number of appeals before Pistorius was finally sentenced to 13 years and five months in prison for murder in 2017.

Serious offenders must serve at least half their sentence to be eligible for parole in South Africa. Pistorius’ lawyers had previously gone to court to argue that he was eligible because he had served the required portion if they also counted periods served in jail from late 2014 following his culpable homicide conviction.

The lawyer handling Pistorius’ parole application did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.

June Steenkamp attended Pistorius’ hearing inside the prison complex to oppose his parole. The parents have said they still do not believe Pistorius’ account of their daughter’s killing and wanted him to stay in jail.

Pistorius, who is now 36, has always claimed he killed Steenkamp, a 29-year-old model and law student, in the pre-dawn hours of Valentine’s Day 2013 after mistaking her for a dangerous intruder in his home. He shot four times with his licensed 9 mm pistol through a closed toilet cubicle door in his bathroom, where Steenkamp was, hitting her multiple times. Pistorius claimed he didn’t realize his girlfriend had got out of bed and gone to the bathroom.

The Steenkamps say they still think he is lying and killed her intentionally after a late-night argument.

Lawyer Koen had struck a more critical tone when addressing reporters outside the prison before the hearing, saying the Steenkamps believed Pistorius could not be considered to be rehabilitated “unless he comes clean” over the killing.

“He’s the killer of their daughter. For them, it’s a life sentence,” Koen said before the hearing.

June Steenkamp had sat grim-faced in the back seat of a car nearby while Koen spoke to reporters outside the prison gates ahead of the hearing. June Steenkamp and Koen were then driven into the prison in a Department of Corrections vehicle. June Steenkamp made her submission to the parole board in a separate room to Pistorius and did not come face-to-face with her daughter’s killer, Koen said.

Barry Steenkamp did not travel for the hearing because of poor health but a family friend read out a statement to the parole board on his behalf, the parents’ lawyer said.

Pistorius was once hailed as an inspirational figure for overcoming the adversity of his disability, before his murder trial and sensational downfall captivated the world.

Pistorius’s lower legs were amputated when he was a baby because of a congenital condition and he walks with prosthetics. He went on to become a double-amputee runner and multiple Paralympic champion who made history by competing against able-bodied athletes at the 2012 London Olympics, running on specially designed carbon-fiber blades.

Pistorius’ conviction eventually led to him being sent to the Kgosi Mampuru II maximum security prison, one of South Africa’s most notorious. He was moved to the Atteridgeville prison in 2016 because that facility is better suited to disabled prisoners.

There have only been glimpses of his life in prison, with reports claiming he had at one point grown a beard, gained weight and taken up smoking and was unrecognizable from the elite athlete he once was.

He has spent much of his time working in an area of the prison grounds where vegetables are grown, sometimes driving a tractor, and has reportedly been running bible classes for other inmates.

Pistorius’ father, Henke Pistorius, told the Pretoria News newspaper before the hearing that his family hoped he would be home soon.

“Deep down, we believe he will be home soon,” Henke Pistorius said, “but until the parole board has spoken the word, I don’t want to get my hopes up.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!