Asada, After a Struggle, Is Soaring Over the Ice Again
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By JERÉ LONGMAN
Published: December 27, 2013
DETROIT — Figure skating’s kiss-and-cry area is designed for sequined emotion. But when Mao Asada of Japan received her composite score at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, her expression remained as flat and neutral as the ice.
Mark Baker/Associated Press
Later, she appeared near tears before receiving her silver medal. It was a moment of joy and disappointment. While Asada was both delicate and powerful, one of a handful of women ever to land a triple axel, her jumping technique had eroded. And she had finished far behind the elegantchampion Kim Yu-na of South Korea.
“The silver medal was nice, but my jumps were falling apart,” Asada, 23, a two-time world champion, said in October at Skate America, speaking through an interpreter. “There was a time when I just couldn’t forgive myself.”
In 2006, Asada was perhaps the best female skater in the world but, at 15, was too young by international rules for the Turin Games. Four years later, at 19, she found herself struggling with the lutz, salchow and toe loop, curious given that she had mastered the most difficult jump for women, the triple axel.
What followed was a ruthless self-examination. After Vancouver, Asada started from scratch, taking a mechanic’s approach to a frilly sport. She stripped her triple jumps to their rudimentary parts and relearned each takeoff and landing, beginning with a single rotation.
For about two years, Asada struggled to regain her consistency. She considered retiring after her mother died of chronic liver disease in December 2011. But another Olympics approach, in February in Sochi, Russia, and Asada has restored herself among the gold medal favorites.
In early December, she won the Grand Prix Final, an important Olympic tuneup in Fukuoka, Japan. The stoicism in her skating has bloomed with newfound feeling, interpretation and creative movement, born of grief and maturity.
“To experience the passing of her mom made her deeper emotionally, made her question a lot of things,” said Lori Nichol of Toronto, Asada’s longtime choreographer. “When she did that, she became more open to living life and appreciating life. That included exploring movement on the ice, hearing music more. Before, she was a very disciplined skater who did what she was told, but she didn’t invest a lot of herself emotionally.”
This will be her final competitive season, Asada has said. She is one of Japan’s most popular athletes. A gold medal would bring a glorious and redemptive conclusion to a celebrated career. But her chances could go skidding with the slightest of mistakes.
Kim, the reigning Olympic champion, has seldom skated in recent years, but she won the 2013 world title while Asada finished third. After her current Olympic season was disrupted by a foot injury, Kim has returned to competition. The technical skill of her helicoptering jumps and her speed and airy presence are unmatched. If Kim is at her best in Sochi, she is widely expected to become the third female skater to win consecutive gold medals after Sonja Henie of Norway (1928, 1932, 1936) and Katarina Witt of the former East Germany (1984, 1988).
“Yu-na has become a megastar,” said Tara Lipinski, the 1998 Olympic champion. “She has that Olympic title and that puts them in a slightly different category than they were in before. Now, Mao is a bit of an underdog, pushing to grab that medal. Yu-na has only gotten more confident.”
Surprisingly, Asada finished only third at the recent Japanese national championships. And she has lost reliability in her signature jump, the triple axel, a move as singularly recognizable as it is arduous. It is the only jump launched from a forward position, and it requires three and a half rotations in the air. Asada landed two triple axels in her long program at the Vancouver Games, but lately has fallen on the jump, put her hands to the ice or prematurely ended the maneuver short of the number of intended rotations.
Some commentators have advised her to discard the wobbly jump in Sochi and try to defeat Kim with an otherwise clean program. Otherwise, this theory goes, point deductions could cost her a shot at any medal.
“Mao’s obsession with the triple axel has clearly gone too far,” the columnist Jack Gallagher wrote in The Japan Times. “She is such a gifted and beautiful skater and so beloved by her fans that they are all being set up for a huge letdown in Sochi. Here is the dilemma: If she could not beat Kim Yu-na in Vancouver when she was hitting the triple axel, how is she going to do it in Sochi while not being able to land it?”
At Skate America, though, Asada said self-satisfaction would trump any rivalry with Kim in Sochi. She is skating more for herself than a particular spot on the medal podium, she said.
“Obviously a lot of people would be happy to have a silver medal in the Olympics,” Asada said. “But that season, most of the jumps I couldn’t do. I wasn’t happy about it. That’s why I came back, to be perfect for myself, the jumps and everything.”
Shizuo Kambayashi/Associated Press
After the Vancouver Games, Asada essentially began to learn to jump again. She had grown taller; her body had changed. As a girl, she had been uninterested in the easier jumps, devoted instead to refining the more challenging axel. But the current scoring system demands precision in every jump and spin and connecting footwork to amass points. Small lapses can make a medalist an also-ran.
In September 2010, Asada began working with the renowned Japanese coaches Nobuo and Kumiko Sato, a husband and wife whose daughter, Yuka, is a former world champion. It was at times a tedious and frustrating transformation.
“My father is always positive, and he encourages his skaters, but he never lies,” Yuka Sato said. “Facing reality, and not sugarcoating it, is something of a harsh, tough love. I’m sure he doubted at some points, but he didn’t give up.”
It was Asada who considered quitting. In December 2011, she was in Quebec City to compete in the Grand Prix Final when she learned that her mother, Kyoko Asada, was gravely ill. Mao withdrew from the competition and flew home to Japan. Before she arrived, her mother died of cirrhosis of the liver.
The two had been extremely close. For a brief period, Kyoko Asada had even coached her daughter. Several months after her mother’s death, Asada finished a disappointing sixth at the 2012 world championship. Her sense of personal loss, along with the vexation of learning to jump again, left her despondent.
Her agent, Mariko Wada, said Asada told her, “I cannot do this anymore.”
In May 2012, Asada traveled to Toronto to visit Nichol, her choreographer. She was seeking an exhibition program, debating whether to give up competitive skating. For several days, Asada played tennis, went canoeing, skated and listened to music with Nichol, who suggested upbeat pieces, including “I Got Rhythm” and music from “Mary Poppins,” that might lift the skater and help her pay tribute to her mother.
“I knew she was considering not competing,” Nichol said. “Her mother dying, and Mao perhaps giving up all she had known since she was small, I was concerned what that would do to her.”
Skating to the lighthearted music, Asada began to lose her mournfulness, to smile and grow buoyant and rekindle her love for the sport, Wada said. “She realized she still liked skating,” Wada said. “She needed skating.”
The transformation in Asada since Vancouver is particularly evident in her ethereal short program this Olympic season, skated to Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat major, Op. 9 No. 2. To win gold in Sochi, Asada will have to recover the steadiness of autumn that has grown elusive in early winter.
“Let’s say she doesn’t win gold,” Nichol said. “She will still know that she can have happiness after sadness, that life is ever-changing and that she is strong enough to handle it. That is something important to know as you grow up.”