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"!

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