Sunday, February 22, 2009

"Challenge" versus "Safety"

Unfortunately, the article is no longer available for free viewing, but I thought it was very interesting that the Chosun Ilbo (a Korean newspaper) characterized the Mao/Yu-Na rivalry this way.

The main body of the article is about the decision by Yu-Na's management for her to remove the triple loop jump, her weakness, and replace it with a double axel, which is very consistent, from now and through the Olympics. Basically, they want her to give up on trying to land it successfully. Because Yu-Na's strategy is "safety/security."

In contrast, it points out that Mao is going to try to do the triple lutz jump, which she doubled at 4CC, and the triple-triple combination, which she has not landed successfully all season. Because Mao's strategy is "challenge." Instead of avoiding the problems in her programs, Mao Asada attacks them.

A new fan video on youtube captures Mao's spirit perfectly, I think.
I find the two quotes from Tatiana Tarasova (Mao's coach) and Mao to be very inspiring:
Tarasova: "To stay on top, you must continue to grow."
Mao: "If you run away from challenges, you cannot grow."

mao asada Challenge & Evolution

Thank you Mao, for inspiring me with your "soul of a challenger."

Monday, February 16, 2009

2009 Four Continents Championship

This is a piece I wrote the week after the Four Continents Championship (Vancouver, Feb. 2-8, 2009). For detailed info about the event and results, see the official website.
The Four Continents Championship.

In most years, the top skaters give it a miss, preferring to rest up and practice for worlds. This year, however, the 4CC was being held in Vancouver, at the Pacific Coliseum, as the test event for the 2010 Olympics. Furthermore, because Mao and Yu-Na would be competing head-to-head, it was deemed a major competition.

Mao Asada's said her goal for 4CC was to "do all my elements fully" and "find the problems in my programs so that I can them for Worlds." Yu-Na's goal for this competition was revenge. After losing to Mao at the Grand Prix Final in her home country of Korea and in front of a wildly supportive crowd, Yu-Na Kim vowed to "never show tears again." In Vancouver, in her second home country, Yu-Na and her coach, Brian Orser, thought "this is our chance to beat Mao."

Going into the competition, everything seemed to be going wrong. News reports from the beginning of the year said that Mao would go to Russia after she finished her ice shows in Japan and then would head straight to Vancouver from Moscow. But days before 4CC, inexplicably, she was shown leaving from Nagoya, Japan. She arrived in Vancouver just two hours before the first official practice and went straight from the airport to the ice rink. There, things got worse. First, the rink turned out to be an NHL-sized rink (61 meters x 26 meters) versus the Olympic-sized rink (60 meters x 30 meters) to which Mao was accustomed. With 2 meters less space on either side, Mao had to rework some of her skating patterns and adjust her jump approaches across the width of the rink. In fact, at the first practice, Mao didn't jump at all. She just skated around, trying to get used to the narrow rink.

The second big shock was that inexplicably, Mao's coach, Tatiana Tarasova, was not there, and not planning to come either. Mao would not explain the reason, but simply said that Tarasova told her to do all her elements properly.

Next came the reports that Mao's condition was not good; she was having problems landing her jumps, especially the triple-triple combination that she hadn't received full credit for all season, and the triple lutz, which Mao had re-learned over the summer and which seemed to be fine after Mao's first disastrous competition.

So heading into the short program, I was quite nervous.

Out of the 36 competitors in the ladies' discipline, Mao was skating 33rd, right before Yu-Na Kim. On the combo jump, Mao landed the first jump, went up for the second, rotated it, but stepped out on the landing. Not good. Then, Mao doubled the triple lutz, as she had been doing in practice. The rest was okay, but Mao seemed awfully slow and uninspired in her skating. She scored 57.86, her second worst score ever, and fell into fourth place with two skaters to go.

Then Yu-Na Kim was up, and perhaps knowing that Mao had messed up, she went out and skated perfectly. Standing ovation and a new world record score - 72.24. Finally, the last skater, Joannie Rochette of Canada, went out and skated well, putting up a good 66.90.

At the end of the short program, Mao was in sixth place, almost 15 points away from 1st and almost 7 points out of second place. And I was crushed.

Yes, Mao has had amazing comebacks.

At 2007 Worlds, something very similar occurred. In the short program, Mao made a mistake on her triple-triple combo, popping the second jump. She scored only 61.32, her lowest score of the season. Yu-Na Kim, on the other hand, set a world record in the short program with a score of 71.95, and Mao found herself in 5th place, more than 10 points behind first and almost 6 points behind second. But in the long program, Mao fought back with everything she had, scored a new world record, and rocketed into second place, just barely missing gold.

Similarly, at the 2007 Grand Prix Final, Mao had another disastrous short program - she put her hand down after her triple-triple combo and then slipped on the approach for the triple lutz, skipping it altogether. She ended up in last place (6th). The next day, however, she put out an almost perfect program, very nearly hitting her personal best score, and finished second.

So a huge comeback was not out of the question. But Mao had never been 15 points behind before, and her condition didn't seem good. This was not good-condition Mao who made an unexpected mistake in the short, and got rid of all the jitters in time for the long program. No, this seemed like the bad-condition Mao who had a disastrous short program at her first competition of the season (the Trophee Eric Bompard) and couldn't pull it together for the long program.

Indeed, after the short program, in interviews, Mao revealed that her condition had been bad from before she came to Vancouver. She denied that the smaller rink was a problem, and she denied that Tarasova's absence was affecting her.

The practice reports from the following days were not more positive. Not only was Mao's condition not improving, but there was talk about only doing one triple axel and doing only a triple-double combo instead of a triple-triple.

And that is when I started to wonder if Mao was injured or sick. Backing down from a challenge is not Mao's style at all. No, when Mao is far behind and there is nothing to lose - that is precisely when Mao goes for the hardest program she can manage and takes the big risks. And then there was the aborted trip to Russia that was not explained - could that have been because of an injury? It would be just like Mao to say nothing even if she were injured, because she absolutely hates saying anything that could be construed as an excuse.

So then my thinking about the competition changed. Forget winning, forget coming back from behind; I just wanted Mao to finish the competition without (further) injury. Surely Mao would rebound from whatever happened here and be super motivated for Worlds. Of course, I was worried too - what would it do to Mao's confidence if she finished off the podium? Moreover, since the 4CC was being held at the 2010 Olympic venue, would two bad skates leave a bad memory in Mao's head for the Olympics? And what about the judges? Would Mao's reputation in their minds be damaged by a poor showing here?

So going into the long program, I was worried, but also subded, because a big comeback was looking impossible. There was no reason to be excited.

Mao was scheduled to skate first in the final group--right after the warm-up. The first jump of her long program, the triple axel--she popped it. For the first time the whole season, Mao messed up her first jump, and I thought "Oh no, this is the end." A huge comeback now out of the question, I thought Mao would give up, and I prepped for disaster.

But here Mao surprised me. Having missed the first triple axel attempt, Mao attacked the second one and landed it beautifully. Then came the triple flip-double loop-double loop combo. Gorgeous as usual. And then instead of the problematic triple salchow, a lovely triple loop. She did change the triple-triple combo into a triple-double combo, and she doubled the intended triple toe loop, but the rest of Mao's program was clean.

Battling a number of obstacles--a narrow rink, no coach, a real chance of not medaling--Mao did the best she could. She didn't look happy after she finished, but she didn't look defeated either.

And despite the errors, Mao's scores were quite satisfying: 118.66, only about 8 points below her season's best score, and about 15 points below her personal best. Probably not good enough to challenge for gold or even silver, but not bad.

Next up was Joannie Rochette, in second place after the short. She skated what I thought was a nearly flawless program--the only mistake I saw was one popped jump. I figured Joannie would score in the 120s, but I was wrong! She scored only 117.01. Below Mao! Unbelievable!

The following three skaters did pretty well too--a few errors, but no falls--but they all scored below 115. And then I was truly excited--with only Yu-Na left to skate, Mao was guaranteed at least a bronze!

High off her overwhelming victory in the short, with a huge lead, and with the crowd behind her, Yu-Na surely would pull off an amazing long program, I thought. She started with her huge triple flip/triple toe combo - wow. But then, on the second jump, the triple loop--her nemesis--she fell. After that one mistake, though, it was Yu-Na as usual. Solid. Another standing ovation.

I expected another huge score, high 120s or so. But then I was stunned. Not only did Yu-Na not even reach the 120s, she scored 116.83, below Mao and even below Joannie! Mao, with a subpar skate, had managed to win the long program!

And that is when the elation fully set in. To me, the judges had sent a clear message. A struggling Mao Asada with two visible errors is still better than Joannie and Yu-Na with one visible mistake each.

A close look at the protocols (judging sheets) revealed what had happened. Joannie didn't get cred it for one of her jump sequences, and Yu-Na got three underrotation calls. And I thought, Joannie and Yu-Na should really be worried. With one popped triple axel, one messed up triple toe loop, no third combo and no triple lutz, Mao still managed to beat them in the long. Once Mao is in good condition and maximizes her potential, then her scores will be astronomical.

Mao only took home the bronze, but to me, it was a mental victory. It's difficult to explain how impressed I was that she went after the second triple axel after missing the first one. When she popped the first one - it was the first time it had happened all season. In the past two seasons, Mao had a hard time landing the triple axel - most of the time she would pop it, or fall, or miss it altogether, as she did at 2008 Worlds. But since she was used to failing on the first jump, she got used to picking herself up and doing the rest of the program solidly.

This season, however, Mao completed the triple axel every single time she attempted it - yes, a few of them were called underrotated, and one was a two-footed landing, but to the average viewer like me, they looked clean every time. No pops and no falls.

So when Mao popped her first triple axel, I thought it would kill her confidence, since it meant she messed up something she had done fine all season long. I was pretty sure she would avoid another triple axel attempt. But I was wrong; Mao attempted it, and she did it perfectly. That will to go after it after making a mistake, taking that risk again - it really impressed me.

More importantly, I could see that Mao was fired up for Worlds. 4CC was like a practice competition; it doesn't really count for anything. Now Mao is the one who wants revenge and will be fighting for it. But Mao's goal is not just to win Worlds; her goal is to bring out her personal best and hopefully make a new set of world records. Oh boy, am I excited for Worlds!

* * *

It would be easy to end here, but the story goes on.

The day after the competition, the media questioned Mao about why her condition was bad, and Mao said, "It's a secret." "I know what the problem is, and I want to fix it for Worlds." In typical Mao fashion, she revealed nothing about what problems she could be facing; she refused to make excuses.

But news reports surfaced and reported that Mao's right knee had been hurting in mid-January, so she was not able to practice as fully as she would've liked to.

After I heard that news, Mao's 3rd place finish seemed like an amazing accomplishment. What an outstanding athlete, what an amazing person. Without complaining, without making excuses, she went out and gave the best she could in her current condition.

But that was not the end of it! The next day, when asked about these knee injury reports, Mao said, "It's not true at all." When asked if she missed practice because of injury, she said "That's not true."

What actually happened, no one seems to know. Mao certainly won't say. In Mao's mind, the extenuating circumstances don't matter. Her performance was not good, she was not satisfied, she's going to train harder and aim to do her very best at Worlds. End of story. There is no room for excuses, for saying "I wasn't used to the rink," or "I was worried about my coach," or "my knee felt funny." There is only the will to move forward, to aim for something even better.

And this is why I respect Mao Asada not only as an amazing skater, but also as an amazing person.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Why you should care about Mao Asada

This is something I wrote in the first week of December, right after the 2008 NHK Trophy. It was my first attempt to argue for why people should care about Mao Asada, and why she is better than Yu-Na Kim.
Right now I'm going to try to convince you once and for all why you should care.

Because Mao Asada isn't chasing gold medals, she's chasing history. She doesn't just want just win competitions, she wants to be the very best she can be--which could be the very best skater ever.

And she's going to try to do it while facing another potentially legendary skater--Yu-Na Kim of Korea. Right now, they are in a class of their own. If only one existed, she would be the undisputed best, but because they are both competing, they push each other to be even better.

Have there ever been a pair of rivals who were on the surface so similar?
This is no Nastia Liukin/Shawn Johnson battle of opposites. Mao and Yu-Na are the same age (18yrs old, just 20 days apart), similar ethnicities (East Asian), same height (tall-ish), same build (stick thin). Both have excellent jumps, beautiful spins, top-notch skating skills, lovely artistry, and fabulous flow. Yu-Na Kim holds the world records for highest short program and long program scores individually; Mao Asada holds the record for highest total score.

They are wonderfully complete skaters, they are kind and humble people, and having spent most of their teenage years in the spotlight, they are wildly popular stars. But that is where the similarities end. Their personalities and their approaches to skating are completely different.

Yu-Na Kim is the consummate professional. Always calm and collected, she is incredibly consistent. Despite her delicate frame, she has power on the ice, and she does most of her jumps "textbook perfect" and beautifully. In addition, she is an expressive performer. Off the ice, she's a bit reserved and even mysterious, reacting to her scores with small polite smiles. On the ice, however, she actively tries to act out the music, and she uses her body and her face to portray the emotion.

Everything Yu-Na does, she does well, and she rarely makes mistakes.

Yu-Na Kim's short program, 'Danse Macabre' (from 2008 Skate America):

Yu-Na Kim's long program, 'Scheherazade' (from 2008 Cup of China):

But Yu-Na Kim's not invincible.

In fact, while Yu-Na Kim has excelled in the first half of the past two seasons, winning consecutive Grand Prix Final titles, by the time Worlds rolled around, she's fallen victim to injury both times and ended up with two consecutive bronze medals.

Mao Asada, on the other hand, has ended the past two seasons with a World Silver and a World Gold medal, but what a roller coaster ride it has been to get there!

Unlike the calm and level-headed Yu-Na, Mao sometimes suffers from nerves, messing up jumps that she can do effortlessly in practice. And it shows. While Yu-Na is cool off the ice and a talented actress on it, Mao wears her heart on her sleeve at all times. On the ice, this means that her face is usually a mask of concentration and detachment, and this is where she usually gets a lot of criticism.

But that does not mean she is not expressive. Mao may not use her face much, but she feels the music from her fingers through her toes. And although Yu-Na really works to sell the music, Mao, with her ballet background, has a natural, effortless grace, superior flexibility and extension, and beautiful body lines.

And as soon as the music ends, Mao usually erupts into a torrent of emotion. Relief or disappointment, dejection or joy. She is often in tears--sometimes of joy and sometimes bitter disappointment.

Yu-Na skates her best because that's what's expected of her; she gets the job done. Mao skates because she loves it and wants to show the world what she can do. And therein lies the second difference.

Yu-Na Kim's strategy is to do what she knows she can do and work to execute it absolutely perfectly. She does the same elements every year, but every year she does them a little more cleanly and confidently.

Mao Asada also wants to do her programs perfectly, but more importantly, she wants to challenge herself and raise the bar of ladies' elite skating in the process. She tries new things, she attempts the most technically challenging programs, and she takes big risks. Sometimes the results are disastrous, and sometimes they're amazing.

Take this season, for example. Unlike Miki Ando, the 2007 World champion, who sort of lost her motivation after winning, Mao took her 2008 Worlds win as a reason to really challenge herself, because now everyone else would be chasing her. So she hired Tatiana Tarasova, the legendary Russian "champion maker" as her coach, and set a number of ambitious goals for herself.

First: add the triple salchow jump back to her repertoire.
Although it's one of the easiest jumps, Mao dislikes it, so for the past 3 years, she's omitted it. However, there has been talk that the rules will change so that doing all five types of triple jumps (toe loop, salchow, loop, flip, and lutz) will get a bonus. (The triple axel is a 3.5 revolution jump, so it's more like a quad.) So Mao has proactively reintroduced the salchow into her long program.

Second: fix the triple lutz technique.
In the 2007-08 season, the ISU judges cracked down on the take-off edges for jumps, and Mao kept receiving deductions for her improper lutz technique. Instead of taking off on an outside edge (leaning to the left on the left blade), Mao takes off on the inside edge, which is incorrect. This type of jump mistake is extremely hard to fix because it involves retraining a technique that you have done the wrong way for years.

Third: do TWO triple axels in the long program
Mao is already one of the five women who have ever landed the triple axel in international competition, but that's not enough for her. No one has ever done two in international competition before (although she performed this feat at the 2005 Japan Nationals), so it would be a world first.
Another reason she decided to try this is because the base value of the triple axel was raised from 7.5 to 8.2 pts (compared to 4.0 pts for a triple toe loop and 6.0 for a triple lutz). At the same time, however, the scale of deductions for mistakes was also increased, making the triple axel a high risk-high reward jump.
To further up the stakes, Mao has been training a triple axel-triple toe loop combination, which would be the hardest combo jump any lady has ever done. If she succeeds in that, it would be another world first.

Beyond these major changes, Mao worked on her expression, she added two new spin positions to her repertoire, and prepared perhaps the most difficult ladies' step sequence ever for her long program.

Going into Mao's first Grand Prix event of the year, the Trophee Eric Bompard in Paris, expectations were sky high, especially after Yu-Na's total domination at Skate America and Cup of China. But Mao failed miserably. Sure, she ended up #2, but by Mao's standards, it was a disaster. She missed her triple-triple combination and doubled the triple lutz in the short; in the long program she had a two-foot landing on the triple axel, skipped the second one, popped the combo again, and fell on a popped salchow.

Mao was very disappointed, and the criticism came fast and furious. "Mao's trying to change too many things. It's too hard to fix the lutz. It's way too risky to try two triple axels. That program is too difficult for any lady to do. There's no time to rest. It's a men's long program." People questioned Mao's mental toughness and her ability to deal with the pressure of being #1. The figure skating fans bashed Tarasova's coaching ability, invoked the "curse of the World champion", and blamed the Japanese media for suffocating their skaters.

Even I became seriously worried. Not because I thought Mao was trying too much--on the contrary, I guessed that she was doing everything perfectly in practice--but because the inability to execute in competition hinted at mental weakness, and those mental problems are the hardest to overcome.

Thankfully, I was wrong.

Instead of feeling discouraged and crumbling under the criticism as I feared, Mao found a new sense of fighting spirit. Sure, she had had plenty of poor skates over the past two seasons, but she not had two bad skates in a single competition, and I think it was a wake-up call. So she went back to Moscow and practiced her jumps extensively. As I found out later, under Tarasova's recommendations, she had only been practicing 3-4 hours on the ice instead of her usual 6-7 hours, but after the Trophee, Mao went back to doing things her way and practiced her jumps extensively.

So two weeks later, Mao came home to the NHK Trophy in Japan with something to prove. And it was magical:

Mao Asada's short program, 'Clair de Lune':
(I'm too incompetent to embed this.)

How beautiful and expressive was that?!
She hits the triple-triple combination! And she nailed the triple lutz! It was clean, no deductions; in fact, she got positive grades of execution. The score wasn't as high as she wanted (ok, so her triple-triple combo got downgraded to a triple-triple, and she bobbled the spiral sequence), but that just fueled Mao's inner fire.

The next day she came out and attacked her long program:

Mao Asada's long program, 'Masquerade Waltz':

This was very nearly history making. She attacks her first triple axel and then comes back for the triple axel-double toe combo! She hits the triple salchow! She may have skipped her triple-triple combo, but she hit all her jumps beautifully!

And then that step sequence. Unbelievable. Tarasova told her to do it full out "even if it kills you," and it nearly did! Stunning!

Mao skated her heart out, and both the audience and she knew it. The joy and satisfaction on her face at the end of her program was priceless! WOW, MAO, WOW!

And even though her second triple axel was judged underrotated, and she missed breaking world records, she was happy. Because she overcame the extreme pressure, the criticism, and her own lack of confidence and showed the world that she is fully and totally deserving of her World title.

And that is why I am a Mao fan.

Next week, Mao and Yu-Na will face off for the first time this season at the Grand Prix Final in Korea. Yu-Na Kim might very well maintain her dominance and capture her third straight Grand Prix Final title in front of her home crowd. (She may even go on to win Worlds.)

Mao Asada is planning to do an even more difficult program at the GPF, adding in the triple-triple combo and replacing the easy triple toe loop with her newly-fixed triple lutz. She might struggle like she did in Paris, especially in front of a potentially hostile Korean crowd. But she might not. She might rise to the occasion and deliver the definitive, world-record shattering performance that will cement her at the top.

THAT is why you should care.

Sure, Yu-Na Kim is consistently impressive, and sure, Mao can deliver crushing disappointment. But Mao also offers the chance to see an athlete push herself and her sport to the limit, a chance to see history made.

And when Mao Asada does achieve her true potential, I cannot wait to see the unrestrained, overflowing joy on her face--that brilliant, beaming "Mao Smile"!