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.