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Kozuka scores big win with help from Satos

Coaching the Skate America champ is a family affair

Takahiko Kozuka can thank the whole Sato family for his breakthrough Skate America win.
Takahiko Kozuka can thank the whole Sato family for his breakthrough Skate America win. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(10/29/2008) - The day after his Skate America win, Takahiko Kozuka was in a bit of pain.

It's nothing serious. His legs, which powered him to personal-best scores in both the short and long programs, are fine, but his throat is killing him.

"When I found out I won, I screamed too much and too loud," he said through an interpreter, before breaking into laughter. "I was just so surprised."

The 19-year-old Japanese silver medalist, who won the world junior title in 2006, arrived in Everett unheralded. The Chukyo University student won a bronze medal at the 2006 NHK Trophy and placed a respectable eighth at the 2008 ISU World Figure Skating Championships, helping his country qualify three men for the 2009 worlds. Still, few expected him to out-point America's two top guns, Johnny Weir and Evan Lysacek, at the season's first Senior Grand Prix event.

Is this the start of something big?

"I hope so, but I don't know if I can challenge skaters in my home country like Daisuke Takahashi and Nobunari Oda," Kozuka demurred. "Perhaps I can, if I continue to train hard."

Yuka Sato, who choreographed Kozuka's programs, has fewer doubts.

"I've known Taka since he was a baby," Sato, the 1994 world champion, said. "We still have a picture I took with him when he was only four years old, after I won my world title in Makuhari. He and his mother went to Disneyland in Tokyo, and he has two toys in his hand.

"I've been working with him for the last few years, and this season I felt he was really ready to move up a level and become part of the senior skating scene, so we worked really hard to package him."

Guiding Kozuka's career is a family affair. Both of his parents are skating coaches; father Tsuguhiko competed in figure skating at the 1968 Olympics. The skater's primary coach is Yuka Sato's father, Nobuo, who has trained many Japanese champions. Yuka's mom, Kumiko, is also involved.

"Taka's parents always dropped him off at the skating camp my parents have done, but the consistent working relationship didn't start until he became a little more competitive on the junior international circuit," Yuka explained.

"They don't live in same city. Taka is from the Nagoya area and skates at Nagoya University, where they built a brand new rink and where Mao Asada also trains. My parents live in Yokohoma, which is a suburb of Tokyo, so Taka takes a train ride for an hour and a half or so, and they get together part of the week. Sometimes my parents will go and visit him before a competition."

Kozuka also logged miles flying to Detroit to create his programs with Yuka, who lives there with husband Jason Dungjen, the former U.S. pair champion who was the technical specialist for Skate America's pairs event. Yuka said her choreography, particularly his short program to Dave Brubaker's "Take Five," was difficult for the skater at first.

"He picks up music very well, and he feels the rhythm, but it was really challenging for him at the beginning. He had to learn all of the detailed footwork I had in mind, with the particular lines and turns. It was very hard for him, but he went [back to Japan] after we worked together, and he really worked on it.

"He is still very young, and there's a long ways to go, but I am so impressed with how he is progressing. He is a very intelligent worker; when you share something with him, he understands exactly what you mean and goes home and works on it."

Kozuka's most recent trip to Detroit was in September, when he had his long program costume fitted. The simple, eggplant-colored shirt and pants ensemble stood in high contrast to the far more elaborate creations worn by Lysacek and Weir.

"Usually Kozuka works with Jef Billings, who is also my costume person, but, unfortunately, Jef had heart surgery, and we weren't able to work the schedule out," Yuka said. "So I have to be a designer, how embarrassing. I wanted him to look clean and handsome, because he is handsome boy anyway.

"He's such an elegant skater. If I covered him up with a lot of material, I just felt it wouldn't be as clean looking. He moves across the ice so well and has great lines, why not show that off?"

Yuka isn't planning a full-time coaching career any time soon. She's performed in several Disson Skating specials this fall and begins rehearsals for the Stars on Ice tour next month.

"I'm on my way to Toronto to test out a new program [to '1 2 3 4' by Feist] with [choreographer] David Wilson," she said. "Lea Ann Miller did my other program to 'Long and Winding Road' from the Beatles. It's the last minute, and I'm just figuring out and preparing everything."