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Suzuki, Asada face off at Four Continents

 Akiko Suzuki of Japan performs during a practice session at the ISU Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in Jeonju, South Korea, Thursday, Ja...

South Korea Four Continents Figure Skating

Akiko Suzuki of Japan performs during a practice session at the ISU Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in Jeonju, South Korea, Thursday, Ja...

Japan may have a new darling in figure skating if Akiko Suzuki continues to slip out from Mao Asada's shadow and steal the limelight at the Four Continents.
Suzuki is the surprise leader going into Friday's women's free skate.
Asada, the 2008 world champion and current Japanese champion, had been the favorite going into the Four Continents, her last skating competition before the Vancouver Olympics.
With the world's No. 1, archrival Kim Yu-na of South Korea, controversially skipping the event in favor of training, Asada was expected to collect a much-needed gold to cement her standing in the weeks before the Winter Games.
During practice, Asada nailed her trademark triple axel _ the one jump in her arsenal that Kim doesn't have _ but stumbled on the jump in the short program late Wednesday. An under-rotated landing cost her credit for it, and moments later, she botched a triple flip.
When the scores came up, it was Suzuki at the top of the list _ not Asada.
Suzuki's short program wasn't perfect, either. She tried out a new jump, a triple toe loop, and ended up doing just one rotation. But skating to a fiery Andalusian tune, she displayed spectacular footwork that buoyed her score.
The Four Continents title _ and the Olympic gold _ may come down to the triple axel. Asada is the only woman in skating history to land it twice in competition, and that achievement won her the Grand Prix championship over Kim in 2008.
She has not beaten Kim since. Landing the triple axel cleanly in the free skate could mean victory for Asada in Jeonju and boost her confidence for Vancouver. It will be the 19-year-old's Olympic debut since she just missed the age cutoff for Turin.
"After this competition, I will go back to Japan and make sure all of my contents, my entire program, is good for the Olympics," she said on Wednesday.
A determined Asada refused to quit. After the short program, which ended well after 10:30 p.m., she went straight to the practice rink to go over the jump with her coach, according to Seoul's SBS television.
She also hit the rink on Thursday, trailed by the legions of cameras that follow the superstar's every move in Japan and South Korea.
Footage of Asada checking into her Jeonju hotel, reportedly taken by a hotel employee who uploaded the clip to the Internet, outraged fans. The clips eventually were removed, South Korean media reported.
Suzuki has had a much quieter path to the Olympics. At 24, she was five years older than Asada, and even stopped competing during the 2003-2004 season before returning to the rink and slowly rising in the standings.
She has posted two impressive first-place wins this season and secured her spot at Vancouver by finishing second to Asada at the Japanese nationals last month. Along with Miki Ando, the three Japanese women make up a formidable team.
On Friday, Suzuki and Asada must also fend off young Americans Amanda Dobbs and Caroline Zhang. Dobbs, 16, beat Asada for second place in the short program while Zhang, also 16, was in fourth.
The contest, though, likely will come down to Asada and Suzuki as the two leading skaters grapple with the big jumps they plan to unleash at the Olympics.
Asada has the chance to show the world she's ready to take on Kim and claim Olympic gold. But if she slips, it could again be Suzuki's turn to shine.
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Associated Press writer Esther Hong contributed to this report.