Inoue, Baldwin Win Short Program

Friday, October 27th 2006, 9:01 am
By: News On 6

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ After their stunning fourth-place finish at the world championships, Rena Inoue and John Baldwin thought they'd capped their career in style. Then they sat down to discuss leaving the sport, and they couldn't do it.

Instead, the two-time U.S. champions, at the ripe old ages _ for figure skating _ of 30 and 33 decided to keep going.

``We're not going to let the Chinese dominate the podium at worlds,'' Baldwin said Thursday night after he and Inoue won the short program at Skate America, the opening event of the Grand Prix series. ``That's one goal.

``It's for the challenge of it. After last year's season, a lot of people would say it's time to retire. I thought it was. But we said we have more to accomplish. It's a challenge to us and we want to meet it.''

They met the first challenge, although a mild one, at Skate America. None of the Chinese pairs is at the Hartford Civic Center: Indeed, it's not a strong field that Inoue and Baldwin lead.

And their performance in the short program wasn't great, but both are battling injuries. Inoue is skating with a swollen right ankle: She injured it two weeks ago. Baldwin has been bothered by a groin problem since last November, but only began therapy on it a few months ago, well after they finished a surprising fourth at worlds.

She singled a side-by-side double axel and also two-footed their trademark throw triple axel _ a move only they have done in competition.

``We're just into the season and we can't afford any more time off from training,'' Inoue said. ``Everything already has been late in preparing for this season.

``So I'm proud of what we were able to do, I think we should be happy with it. It's the first major competition after a tough summer.''

Second heading into Saturday's free skate are fellow Americans Naomi Nari Nam and Themi Leftheris, in their first senior Grand Prix event. They have 57.32 points to Inoue and Baldwin's 59.28.

Japan's rising star in men's skating, Nobunari Oda, won the short program. The fourth-place finisher in the world championships in March got the second-highest score for a short program at an ISU event. His 81.80 points easily beat American Evan Lysacek, the two-time world bronze medalist.

Oda, who won the world junior title last year and Four Continents earlier in 2006, didn't miss an element, and his score fell short only of the Turin Olympics performance by champion Evgeni Plushenko.

``I am very proud and happy to get a personal best like that tonight,'' Oda said. ``It is not something I thought about being able to do, but am very happy about doing.

``I enjoyed my skating today, and the audience was so good,'' he said. ``I'm not (here) just to win, just skating as myself.''

The 19-year-old Oda, who wears a smile everywhere, had every reason to beam heading into Friday's free skate. He hit a huge triple axel to open his program, then a precise triple lutz-triple toe loop combination. His footwork to ``Fly Me to the Moon'' was celestial, and he finished with a series of quick spins that obviously impressed the judges.

Japan already has made its mark in women's skating, with Shizuka Arakawa winning the Olympic gold medal. Oda is one of several young Japanese men who bear watching.

``I think Japanese skating is very strong today,'' he said.

Lysacek, meanwhile, touched down on his triple axel. That dropped the 21-year-old American to third behind France's Alban Preaubert, whose lively routine to ``Bumble-Bee Boogie'' had the small crowd buzzing.

Lysacek admitted there is work to be done on his routine, to Peter Gabriel's ``Last Temptation of Christ.'' He slipped a bit in his footwork after messing up the axel, and the program, choreographed by Kurt Browning, lacked spark. He earned 70.35 points.

But it's very early in the season, and Lysacek's free skates tend to be his strongest event.

``I felt good and went and fought and gave it all I had,'' he said. ``As an athlete, you give it a shot and sometimes it comes out well and sometimes not. It's a start to the season, not a perfect start. It's full steam ahead.''

Preaubert was eighth at worlds _ like Oda, he did not compete in Turin _ and is trying to build a resume. Thanks to energetic choreography and strong jumps, he made everyone take notice Thursday with 73.80 points.

``Everything was good for me today,'' said the 21-year-old student majoring in school management in Paris. ``Jumps, steps and spins, and I think the audience enjoyed it. I like to share with the audience, to play with them. There was a lot of noise.''

American Ryan Bradley was fourth with 64.44, well behind the top three.

World champions Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviski won the compulsory dance ahead of Americans Melissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov. The Bulgarians earned 39.19 points to 35.02 for the Gregory-Petukhov.