Welcome back, Mao Asada

Welcome back, Mao Asada, if indeed you are back.

It won’t be easy for you to return after a year away and news of a pack of young figure skaters intending to try out your triple Axel and even quads in the future. (Training those things is one thing.  Producing them in competition is another, as Asada well knows.)

But Asada has never been one to back away from a challenge, insisting throughout most of her career on including a triple Axel that was often underrotated, a jump that seemed to cost her more than it helped her. Never mind. It’s higher, faster, stronger with Asada.

Asada doesn’t seem to be returning because she’s trying to avenge her Olympic losses in Pyeongchang three years hence. She’s coming back, she says, because she has found that figure skating is “essential” to her life. Something in her bones. It’s something that makes her feel good, to accomplish something. It gives her happiness. At times, however, skaters cannot leave what they know and press on with their lives to achieve other things, but Asada is still only 24 years old.

It seems as if Asada has been around forever, but she was such a tiny, smiling prodigy when we first saw her. She was apparently named after Japanese actress, Mao Daichi, although it is said that her mother, Kyoko, who loved ballet, named her after legendary Russian ballerina Maya Plisetskaya. She started skating at age 5, tagging along with older sister, Mai,  and eventually began to train with Machiko Yamada, the coach of Midori Ito.

Ito was an entirely precocious skater. So was Asada, who was given special permission to compete at the senior national championships when she was only 12, at a time when she was still too young to compete on the Junior Grand Prix circuit. And she was astonishing. Wearing a mauve costume – that actually belonged to Ito when she landed a triple Axel – smiley little Asada landed a badly rotated triple Axel and a formidable combination: a triple flip- triple loop –triple toe loop combo, although underrotating those jumps, too. But she was charming, even down to the wonderful layback spin. She skated with joy, and ended her routine while a girlish smile.

Finally, she was old enough to compete on the junior circuit in 2004, and swept all events, including the Grand Prix Final, 35 points ahead of Yu-Na Kim. In the spring of 2005, Asada was the first female to land a triple Axel at the world junior championships, again defeating Kim by more than 20 points. Her mother promised her a dog if she won, and that’s how she got Aero, a toy poodle.

All three of the Olympics she contested came at the wrong arc of her days. She was too young to compete at the Turin Olympics although she had easily dusted off all senior-level competitors at the Grand Prix Final a couple of months before. In Vancouver in 2010, Asada became the first female to land three triple Axels at a competition, but after a few fumbles in the long program, Asada finished second to Kim.

After Vancouver, Asada did the gutsy thing and why should anybody be surprised? She completely relearned her jump technique, right from the basics, and it contributed to a slump in years following. At the Sochi Olympics, after beginning to regain her power, Asada met with disaster, falling on her triple Axel, and dropping to 16th place after the short program, where it is very risky to do such a jump. The tweets flew from all manner of top figure skaters to console her.  “Mao – you were great. Special thanks for the 3.5 Axel! You’re a real fighter!” said Evgeny Plushenko. “Mao Asada – heartbreaking,” tweeted Michelle Kwan. “Hard day for Mao –But still you are amazing!!One of my favs,” said Javier Fernandez. “Mao has a gentle grace that you cannot teach. I’d have watched it if she marked all three jumps,” said John Coughlin. “Omg. So much respect for Mao. Pushing the boundaries not only technically, but artistically as well.” quoth Jeff Buttle.

Asada triumphed with a supreme effort in the Olympic free skate, finishing third and sixth overall. She was mesmerizing in her courage, going after that troublesome triple Axel and landing it. At the world championships that followed, at home in Saitama, Japan, she won her third world title, setting a world record for the short program with 78.66 points, finally breaking Kim’s four-year-old mark of 78.50.

Asada announced her return earlier today, first in a blog on her website, than in a press conference that was to showcase her show “ The Ice” that will take place next month in Japan. She said that while the 2014 world championship was to have been her swan song, she needed to take a physical and mental break. She earned a university degree from Chukyo University, and appeared in glorious attire upon graduation, dressed in a kimono, with long navy skirt and pink floral top in March.

Then she started to work with Nabuo and Kumiko Sato – her coaches from 2010 on, again. In her blog, she said she started to think she could still do it, and felt a void. “And then the idea came to my mind that I wanted to return,” she wrote.

So should Asada return, she will have much to live up to, including her own previous efforts. There is still no guarantee that she will be back. She says she must get herself back to the shape she was in when she won her most recent world championship. If not, she won’t be ready. In other words, she’ll be back when she’s ready.

It’s doubtful we’ll see her during Grand Prix season. She might show up at Japanese nationals this year, and then perhaps worlds in Boston. She knows the bar has been set higher now by young Russian girls and a host of others who are rushing to the triple Axel. She’s coming to Canada for choreography. Sounds serious.

If she can return to her former glories, it will be a huge shot for skating in Japan. While Midori Ito started the ball rolling, Asada made the sport outrageously popular in Japan, where she is still the most recognizable athlete in the country.

Asada ranks extremely high on the DBI or the David Brown index, which evaluates the marketability of athletes – and it has done so for more than 7,000 of them. If you get a zero on this index, you are in trouble and need to find another line of work. A score of 100 is tops.

On the DBI, Asada gets an 88.83, higher than most other female athletes such as Mexican golfer Lorena Ochoa, Venus Williams, Steffi Graf and Carolina Kostner (who also ranks quite high with 86.45). Asada has an awareness factor of 99 per cent from the Japanese population. Who in Japan does not know about here? Incredible.

At the Sochi Olympics, Asada attracted the most twitter mentions, more than her archrival Kim and American snowboarder Shaun White, a two-time Olympic gold medalist.  It seems that when Asada makes a misstep, the world feels  her pain.

So welcome back, Mao. We need your pioneering spirt, your lovely touch on the ice, your soul.


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