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Suguri and Oda get down to work

Japanese skaters join Ando at Ice House

Nobunari Oda
Nobunari Oda (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(07/23/2008) - At 27 years of age, Fumie Suguri still has Olympic dreams.

The graceful skater from Chiba, a five-time Japanese champion and three-time world medalist, moved to Hackensack, N.J.'s, Ice House in late May to train with Nikolai Morozov.

"Last year I did not do well at my competitions; I did not make the world team," Suguri said, referring to her fourth-place finish at Japanese nationals. "Now I have very little time left. I need to push myself to keep up with the younger skaters.

"It was a difficult decision, but I really have to have some top coach. I have no time, just this season, because during the Olympic year you cannot change many things. I think I have to make something happen how. I felt I had no choice."

This is not the first time Suguri has left Japan to train abroad. In 2004, she briefly moved to Chicago to work with Oleg Vasiliev; in 2006, she turned to Alexander Zhulin.

"Looking back, so many people have helped me in my career," she said. "But this might be my last coach, and I needed a great coach. I have to try."

At the Ice House, Suguri joins long-time Japanese rival Miki Ando, who won the 2007 world title, as well as former world junior champion and two-time Japanese silver medalist Nobunari Oda.

"Maybe Miki does not like this situation," Suguri admitted. "Maybe it is a bit difficult. My agent suggested to me to have lessons from Nikolai. At first, I did not think this way, but now I am very happy I am here. Before I came, we talked to Miki and her mother about having me here."

Morozov said he consulted with Ando prior to taking on Suguri as a student.

"When Fumie asked me, I asked Miki, and she said it's okay because when [Miki] was in Japan, she used to skate at the same rink as Fumie, [2006 Olympic champion] Shizuka Arakawa, everybody," he said.

On this day in mid-July, Ando -- who withdrew from the 2008 ISU World Figure Skating Championships during the free skate after placing eighth in the short program -- declined questions, but Morozov said she is training well.

"She had shoulder and leg injuries at worlds, but she is better now. She is even doing quad Salchows," he said.

Suguri's new short is choreographed to the soundtrack of Fanfan, a 1992 French comedy romance. Suguri called it "little-known music." As for the long, she said, "We don't know yet. Nikolai has lots of ideas. We're thinking about different music."

Technically, she is working to perfect a triple-triple combination as well as the triple loop, a jump she has not landed in recent competitions.

"Nikolai has fixed [the loop] a lot," Suguri said. "I wish to have the loop this season and also maybe a triple Axel."

"She landed loop a couple of times [in practice] already," Morozov confirmed. "I like to work with Fumie; she is a very nice skater."

Suguri, who is scheduled to compete at Skate Canada and Cup of Russia this fall, especially enjoys sharing the ice with another of Morozov's pupils, world junior champion Adam Rippon.

"I need someone to push me; I'm so glad I'm skating with Adam," she said. "Boys jump harder than girls. It keeps up your motivation. It's so much different from the way girls practice."

Suguri is also able to test her mettle against her countryman Oda, who began training at Ice House this spring.

"This is a very nice place to train. The coach is great, and the other skaters are also great, so I am very happy here," the 21-year-old said. Both he and Suguri have settled in to apartments just 10 minutes from the rink.

The 2008-09 season is a comeback for the diminutive Japanese athlete. In July 2007, while in his hometown of Osaka, he was cited by police for driving his moped under the influence of alcohol. The Japan Skating Federation suspended him from international competition until December 2007. Oda apologized for the incident, paid a fine and accepted the suspension. Although he could have competed at Japanese nationals for a spot on the world team, he elected to skip the season.

"I was not glad to take off last year," he said. "But I think it was a very good time to think, 'Who am I? What should I do for the future?'"

In his down time, Oda turned to Lori Nichol to choreograph two new programs. His short, set to Khachaturian's "Masquerade Waltz," was created in November 2007; his free to "Warsaw Concerto," a virtuoso piano piece, was done in February. Like Morozov's other pupils, Oda is planning to compete at the Moran Memorial Championships, held at Ice House in August.

Because Oda did not compete last season, he is entered in just one fall Grand Prix event, Japan's NHK Trophy, in November.

"I don't have two Grand Prix, only one, but I am also doing the Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany in September. I need the points," he explained.

"My goal is, first of all, the podium at [Japanese] nationals. I want to make the world team. [Japan qualified three men for 2009 worlds.] After that, my goal is to do as many international competitions as possible and skate as well as I can. I would like to put the quad toe loop in both the short and long programs, if it goes well in practice."

"Oda will do a quad this season; it is very close," Morozov asserted.

A student at Osaka's Kansai University, Oda has halted his schoolwork to concentrate on training.

"After the [2010] Olympics, I will go back," he pledged.

The skater's arrival in Hackensack raised eyebrows, since Morozov coached his rival, three-time Japanese champion Daisuke Takahashi, for several years. Under Morozov's guidance, Takahashi won the 2007 world silver medal; last season, he set a new record for points (264.41) winning the ISU Four Continents Figure Skating Championships.

Oda said he thought he could train alongside Takahashi, with Morozov coaching both.

"I was hoping so. I think he is a very good skater, and I [thought] if I could train with him in the United States, it would be very good for both of us."

Takahashi, however, thought differently. He announced his split with Morozov in May and has been training this summer at the Detroit Skating Club, working on new programs with Pasquale Camerlengo.

According to Morozov, his relationship with Takahashi had soured prior to his taking on Nobunari.

"I didn't feel comfortable working with Daisuke anymore, because his agent really made everything so that he [the agent] could control the situation," Morozov said, cited scheduling conflicts.

"I decided this before [taking on] Nobunari. It was not after Nobunari. I was actually very happy to end up with Nobunari because I had been thinking to stop working with Takahashi anyway."

It is likely the skaters' paths will still cross prior to NHK Trophy, where both are slated to compete.

"When I am back in Japan, my mom [Noriko Oda] is coaching me at the Kansai University rink, where Daisuke also trains," Oda said. "I see him there a little bit, but we skate at different times. Many good skaters train there."