It's early days, but Miki Ando is getting ready for her Olympic close-up.
"I feel maybe a little stronger than last season, and I think I can improve more," she said.
Since the Japanese siren won world bronze last season, "stronger" could mean a podium finish in Vancouver next February. The 21-year-old from Nagoya dazzled with a polished exhibition to her new free skate at Stars, Stripes and Skates on Saturday, sporting an eye-popping gold dress and hitting tough triples, including two Lutzes, despite a shortened rink and show lighting.
"She looks different with this program," said Ando's coach, Nikolai Morozov.
"When she won worlds [in 2007], she improved so much. Everybody was very surprised. Then the last two years, she was kind of doing the same things. So this year she is improving again. She skated with lights and she was already basically better than she was at worlds, except for no combinations."
The two-time Japanese champion, known for her strong jumps, spent the summer at her training rink in Hackensack, N.J., polishing her routines. She hopes to impress judges by infusing her athleticism with a bit of storytelling.
"My free skate at worlds last year [to Saint-Saens' Symphony no. 3] didn't have any story. It was classical, just my feelings," Ando said. "This year I have a story. I am playing [the role of] a woman and I try to show the audience her life and how she feels inside. But I can't say the music yet."
Ando was gently reminded by training mate Nobunari Oda that fans would post videos of her performance on the internet before she had taken her final bow. Sure enough, word got out: her free skate is to a medley of the theme from HBO's Rome and music from the mini-series Marco Polo. Her short program music, though, is still private.
"My new short is also very different than last year's [to Memoirs of a Geisha," she said. "It is more powerful, a new style for me. My programs, I think, are kind of exotic. I hope they will show the audience I'm a completely different person."
Ando has had ups-and-downs almost as dramatic as the quad Salchow she landed as a 15-year-old at the 2002 Junior Grand Prix Final. After a stellar junior career, including the 2004 world junior title, and wins at her national championships in 2003/2004 and 2004/2005, she fell to sixth place in Japan. A controversial selection to the Olympic team, she placed 15th in Turin and withdrew from the 2006 worlds.