Grand Prix in Quebec? C'est Magnifique!

Mao Asada.
Mao Asada. (Getty Images)


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By Laurie Nealin, special to
(11/01/2007) - Quebec City, Canada -- Mao Asada, the world silver medalist from Japan, and her coach Rafael Arutunian had been on the run for 10 days before landing here on Halloween.

On Oct. 22, as the California wildfires raged around their training base, they were told to evacuate immediately from Lake Arrowhead.

"I am very afraid," Asada said after her first practice session at Skate Canada International when asked to recall how the mandatory evacuation affected her.

She hastily packed up her costumes and skates and fled. Arutunian gathered up his important papers, threw them in his car, and, in his words, "escaped from there."

"There were fires everywhere. You could not breathe at all," the Russian-born coach said.

For the next few days, Asada and her coach traveled around the Los Angeles area to find rinks where she could practice. With limited ice time available in the afternoons and on the weekend, the two decided to head to Canada where Asada was able to train regularly for five days before heading to Quebec City.

"I had trouble concentrating in California, but it was okay once I was in Toronto," Asada said in English which is much-improved from last season.

Arutunian, who formerly coached Michelle Kwan and also trains Canadian champion Jeff Buttle, was impressed with how Asada handled the upheaval. "She still did okay. She's a good girl. She's tough. She didn't complain. She is a sportsman," he said.

Everywhere Asada goes, the Japanese media are sure to follow. There were at least 10 journalists, photographers and camera crew grouped around her following Thursday's first official practice for the second Grand Prix event of the new season. One television camera crew was even at the airport to record her arrival here.

That's what you call star power.

Asada is the women's gold medal favorite this week, while world champion Brian Joubert, of France, headlines the men's field. Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and Jessica Dube and Bryce Davison could top the ice dance and pairs events, respectively. Although Germany's world pairs bronze medalists Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, might have something to say about the newly-crowned Skate America champs winning two weeks in a row. U.S. competitors Melissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov could also challenge the fast-rising Canadian ice dancers.

Asada, the 2006 Grand Prix Final champion, tested the ice on Thursday morning along with her teammate Yukari Nakano, fifth-ranked in the world, and Canadian champion Joannie Rochette, who won this event last year. Along with American Emily Hughes , these women will jockey for a podium position this weekend.

Hughes, who looked a little rusty in finishing fourth in Reading, and Dube and Davison are the only competitors here who also competed last week.

Both Asada and Nakano worked on triple Axels Thursday and have planned to attempt the defining jump in their long programs on Saturday. Nakano appeared to get one fully-rotated triple Axel done, while Asada was short of full rotation in her attempts.

Asada first landed the rarely-seen triple Axel in competition in 2004 and has succeeded a handful of times since then. Nakano hit one at Skate America way back in 2002. Nakano's milestone came 10 years after fellow Japanese Midori Ito had landed the last triple Axel in competition.

The Skate Canada ice dance field is lacking a world medalist because of the withdrawal of the reigning World champions from Bulgaria, Albena Denkova and Max Staviski. Staviski was charged with causing a car crash that killed one person in Bulgaria in August.

Coincidently, Japan's Nobunari Oda had also been scheduled to compete here until he was forced to withdraw by his federation; their way of expressing displeasure with Oda's being stopped by police in Osaka for driving a mo-ped while intoxicated. He was not involved in an accident.

Still, with Joubert in town, not to mention 2006 Olympic bronze medalist Buttle, 2007 European bronze medalist Kevin van der Perren, of Begium, and Canada's popular number-two man Christopher Mabee, the men's event certainly will not lack excitement.

Unlike Asada, Buttle had already returned to Canada to appear in Kurt Browning's Gotta Skate television special before the fires hit.

The homegrown contingent here is huge, with 18 athletes competing against some 40 other skaters from 14 countries at Canada's annual fall international.

Competition gets underway on Friday with all skaters competing in their opening rounds.