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Asada sets pace, world record in boffo ladies short

Sublime Kostner close behind in second; Gold leads U.S. trio in fifth
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With redemption on her mind, Mao Asada put on an unforgettable show for the Japanese faithful. The two-time world champion, who finished a disheartening sixth at the Sochi Olympics, broke Yu-Na Kim's world scoring record for the short program, racking up 78.66 points and topping the field. -Getty Images

Nowhere in the world is the enthusiasm for figure skating is as great as it is in Japan -- or "Mao country" -- especially for the ladies and men's events.

Thursday's ladies short program at the world championships in Saitama was a good example. There were six standing ovations for excellent performances, including those of three non-Japanese skaters. The 20 flower girls sometimes took two minutes between skaters to collect the hundreds of flowers and other presents thrown on to the ice. The 18,000 spectators cheered the skaters as if they were pop stars and waved thousands of flags.   

To the delight of the large majority, Japan's brightest star, Mao Asada, delivered an outstanding performance and took the lead with a short program world-record score of 78.66 points.

Asada is the only lady in the world who includes a triple Axel in her programs, and she opened her short to Frédéric Chopin's "Nocturne in E flat major" with an excellent one that earned 10.36 points, including 1.86 grade of execution points (GOEs) from the judges. To contrast, a very good double Axel is not worth more than 4.5 or 4.7 points.

The rest of her program was solid as well, including a triple flip, triple loop-double loop combination, three Level 4 spins and a dynamic step sequence. The program components scores (PCS) averaged 8.9.

"I think that today's short program was probably one of the best three programs that I skated in my whole career," Asada said. "Before coming to Saitama and ever since the Sochi Games, I was full of regrets about my bad short program there. I said that I will never do that again. When reporters told me today that it was a world record, I was very surprised and very happy of course."

Asada can't be confident about winning because Olympic bronze medalist Carolina Kostner was at her best as well and gained the same huge standing ovation as Asada. Kostner is only 1.4 points off the lead with 77.24 points.

The 27-year-old Italian from the area of Southern Tyrol interpreted Franz Schubert's "Ave Maria" so beautifully, and the program was so well-choreographed, that she got the highest program components of the evening, including three 10's for interpretation (no judge assigned lower than a 9.5 for interpretation). Her PCS averaged 9.4.

These scores are a big compliment for Kostner's longtime Canadian choreographer, Lori Nichol, who went to work with her and other skaters in Kostner's training rink in Oberstdorf, Germany, only last week.

Six of Kostner's seven elements were excellent, especially a combination of triple flip and triple toe loop as well as an outstanding step sequence for which eight of the nine judges awarded her +3 GOEs.

"I feel great; it felt as if it went by so fast today," Kostner said. "I kept on thinking about the Japanese audience. They have been waiting since 2011 to have this world championship here, so for me it almost felt like an honor to go on the ice and skate, and I felt the appreciation of the people.

"When I saw all these little girls collecting the flowers for the skaters before me, it popped into my mind that I was a little girl once," she continued.

Russia's Julia Lipnitskaia is third with 74.54 points. She performed five very good elements and two outstanding spins, which gained +3 GOEs from all nine judges.

"I had the best performance of the season; all my elements were clean," Lipnitskaia said. "I am very pleased that the audience appreciated my performance."

The second Japanese skater, Akiko Suzuki, is fourth with 71.02 points, which may have reflected a bit of a home advantage. The step sequence and the combination spins were her highlights. The jumps were good but not spectacular.

U.S. champion Gracie Gold was the best of the three Americans and sits fifth with 70.31 points. She was near her best in most elements, especially a good combination of triple Lutz and triple toe loop and an excellent layback spin (five +3 GOEs). The student of Frank Carroll skated to Edvard Grieg's "Piano Concerto," and her components averaged 8.2.

"I was really happy with how I skated, and I did just what I trained to do," Gold said. "I really enjoyed the performance and did a solid job. There were a couple of little points which I left on the table. I think I could be a little higher in the placements and in my score, but breaking 70 for the first time is exciting."

Gold also spoke about her free program, which she will skate Saturday.

"I'm looking forward to skating it clean and being on my feet for all my jumps and really nailing the spins, especially the last minute of my program when all the hard tricks are done and I am just enjoying myself at my second worlds," she said.

Anna Pogorilaya of Russia, who competes here as a substitute for Olympic champion Adelina Sotnikova, sits sixth with 66.26 points after a strong and dynamic performance.  

American Ashley Wagner is seventh with 63.64 points. Her step sequence was the best element, and her three spins also gained Level 4's. Her triple loop and her double Axel were solid, but in her triple flip-triple toe combination, the second jump was landed forward and downgraded by the technical panel. 

"It's been a long season, and I'm exhausted," Wagner said. "Mentally, it's tough to go out and compete after I've given all I could this season. There were some little mistakes, the same as usual. I'm happy with that program.

"I'm ready to wrap up this season, go home and start working on some stuff next season when I want to come back stronger than ever," she continued.

With Gold sitting fifth and Wagner seventh heading into the free skate, the U.S. is in position to again qualify three ladies to compete at worlds.

"I feel the world championships are very important," Wagner said. "There is also a lot of pressure for the United States to keep the three spots we already have. I'm thinking about everybody else who might be going to worlds next year."

Polina Edmunds, the 15-year-old from California, is 12th with 60.59 points. The U.S. silver medalist skated her Latin mix free in an elegant and balletic style. Although not as mature as some of the older skaters, she has great potential for the future.

After a good triple Lutz, she stepped out of the triple toe loop of her combination. The triple flip and other elements were good, and two of the three spins were excellent.

"My short program was OK," Edmunds said. "I made a mistake at the beginning, but the rest was pretty solid. I think I'm in a good position.

"The competitions this year have given me so much experience internationally," she continued. "This is my fourth competition in a big arena like this with a huge crowd, so I feel comfortable. I like it here in Japan. Everyone is so nice and excited about skating. It's great to be in a place where skating is very popular."

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