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Mao Asada: 'Not performing well ... makes me question whether I can really do it'
Japan's World Champion figure skater Mao Asada goes through a crisis of confidence and reveals the dynamic of 'that' rivalry with Kim Yu-Na, in this exclusive interview
It is hard to forget the images of tears on Mao Asada’s face that broadcast around the world when her triple axel jumps failed her during this year’s Winter Olympics.
Japan’s darling world champion figure skater brought home the silver from Vancouver after her long-time rival Kim Yu-Na of South Korea snatched up the gold.
Since, Asada has been plagued with disappointing performances, and her season is off to a slow start. Indeed, just 10 days before she competes at Japan’s National Championships, she says her season has yet to begin.
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Bright-eyed and focused
There are no signs of worry on Asada’s face. At 20, she looks even younger in person than on television. In a hot pink fleece and black pants -– having arrived straight from her morning practice at the Shin-Yokohama Skate Center –- Asada is relaxed; her smiles come easily and quickly. Her gestures are animated; her eyes bright and focused.
She could be any young Japanese woman who loves shopping, eating good food, traveling and listening to Ayumi Hamasaki and Mika Nakashima on her iPod.
But while she appears young, she discusses her extensive skating career with surety, and her recent setbacks with a maturity and grace, as natural as that of her skating.
“When I couldn’t do the two jumps in the last half, I was extremely frustrated,” says Asada about her Olympic performance.
“That’s all I could think about … until I stood on the [rostrum] to receive my medal. In that moment, I thought, ‘Wow. This is an Olympic medal.’ And I felt good about what I had achieved … and the fact that I was able to pull off three triple axel jumps,” she says. “I knew that I had to be proud of that.”
Known for her triple axel and cross-grab Biellmann, Asada gave an unprecedented performance at the Olympics: three signature triple-axel jumps in a single competition (one in the short program and two in the free skate).
She says that she skates for the joy of performing well during competition, and for nailing her jumps during practice –- to which she devotes four hours every day.
But the joy of skating isn’t the only thing fueling Asada’s performance. She says that her rivalry with Kim is also an important source of motivation in the rink.
“I’ve been competing with her since junior competitions,” says Asada. “I knew at the time that she would become a good rival. I have many memories with her, and I think that we share commonalities that have helped us to mature.”
National Championship challenge
While Kim, who retains the No. 1 spot in women’s singles, focuses on the World Championships in March, Asada will be up against Miki Ando and Olympian Akiko Suzuki during Japan’s National Championships on December 25 in Nagano.
In her hometown of Nagoya, Aichi prefecture, Asada began in ballet before switching to figure skating, following in the footsteps of her older sister Mai.
In her early teens, she was already winning national competitions and won the first international event of her career in the 2003-2004 season. The next year, she beat budding rival Kim at the Junior Grand Prix Final.
Going on to win everything on the junior level, she advanced to senior competitions, ranking higher than the likes of Sasha Cohen and Irina Slutskaya, who both soon won Olympic medals.
Asada, however, was still too young to compete. (The minimum qualifying age for Olympic figure skating is 16.) But numerous international wins throughout the years soon led her to compete in the Winter Olympics, where she took home a silver for Japan.
Since her win in Vancouver, Asada has competed in the NHK Trophy, in which she placed eighth overall, and the 2010 Trophée Eric Bompard competition in Paris, in which she placed fifth.
With those scores, Asada did not advance to the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final in Beijing in early December, where Japan had a record six skaters in the event. It is clear that Asada, a two-time world champion, is less than satisfied with her standing.
“Not doing well in one or two competitions is one thing … not performing well in a third makes me question whether I can really do it. Recently, that’s how I’ve been feeling,” she says. “In France [at Bompard], I couldn’t perform what I’ve been practicing. I couldn’t make the jumps.”
When asked about what is now her greatest source of stress, she replies: “I don’t feel pressure from around me. I feel pressure from what I expect of myself. When I practice something, I expect to be able to do it in competition. And if I don’t, that memory stays with me.”
Asada has also had four coaches in as many years. Her temperament, the distance between coach and rink (Tatiana Tarasova lived in Russia while Asada practiced in Nagoya), and other reasons have been cited for the changes. But Asada says that what is now most important for her when under a coach is their ability to communicate.
“When I want a coach, it is because I want to do something better. I want to improve something. And they need to be able to help me create an environment that is creative enough for my skating,” says Asada. “Recently, for me, words … quick, precise communication is important. I want to be able to discuss very specific areas of my practice.”
Nobuo Sato has occupied the role since September 2010 and Asada is hopeful that he will help her to find success.
Always looking forward
During her practice, Asada is often reminded of what her Japanese language teacher Mr. Migita told her at Chukyo High School. He used the phrase "nisshin geppo," loosely translated as “always moving forward.” Says Asada, “I remember it because I liked the phrase. If you try, everyday, you can progress little by little.”
After her experience in Vancouver, she says she is eager to continue competing in the Olympic Games, and to make it to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia.
“Later in my career –- I know I am still young for this –- but my experience was so great that I want to help other skaters to be able to compete and to realize their goal of being in the Olympics.”
Asada’s wish for the new year is to compete in the Tokyo World Championships this coming March. That means she needs to clinch the National Championships on Saturday.
When asked about what she is doing to prepare, she responds, “All I can do is continue to practice and focus on putting my best into what I perform.” As for this season, she says, “I’m just getting started.”