Japan's Oda sparkles at Skate America

Nobunari Oda of Japan leads the men's competition at Skate America after posting the second-highest score in a short program at an ISU event.

It wasa good start to the season for Japan, the rising power in men's figure skating, at Skate America.

Nobunari Oda, the fourth-place finisher atthe world championships in March, punctuated his blossoming status Thursday night in Hartford, Conn.,with the second-highest score for a short program at an International Skating Unionevent. His 81.80 points easily beat American Evan Lysacek, the two-time world bronze medallist.

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 Torino Olympics performance by champion Evgeni Plushenko. Lysacek, meanwhile, touched down on his triple axel.

That dropped Lysacek to third behind France's Alban Preaubert, whose lively routine to Bumble-Bee Boogie had the small crowd buzzing in the first event ofskating's Grand Prix series.

The 19-year-old Oda, who wears a smile everywhere, had every reason to beam heading into Friday's free skate.

"I enjoyed my skating today, and the audience was so good," he said. "I'm not [here] just to win, just skating as myself. I
didn't think I could do my personal best."

His score was plenty good enough. 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 surely impressed the judges.

Americans lead after pairs short

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.

Two-time U.S. champions Rena Inoue and John Baldwin won the pairs short program despite a spotty showing in which 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.

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.

"We've accepted the challenge," said Baldwin, who has been a senior level skater, in singles or pairs, since the early 1990s.

"We came to Skate America and we're going to Skate Canada next week. A lot of people would not do that so early in the season. We felt the challenge is better than holding back."

Second heading into Saturday's free skate are fellow Americans Naomi Nari Nam and Themi Leftheris, in their first senior Grand Prix event.

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 Canada's Kurt Browning, lacked spark. He earned 70.35 points.

Preaubert impresses

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."

Lysacek moved up significantly at the Olympics and worlds with solid free skating performances.

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 duo.