Monday, January 25, 2010

Mao's in Korea for Four Continents!

...and of course she gets mobbed by the media as soon as she steps off the plane.

But Mao's happy.

She's probably thinking, "soon I'll be eating bulgogi and bibimbap! Yum!"

Adorable outfit!

She's got smiles for everyone!

Because contrary to what you might think, Mao Asada loves Korea. Korean food is her favorite--she can never have too much yakiniku (Korean BBQ)! When she was being interviewed, she said, "I heard that Cheonju has delicious food, so I'm looking forward to it."

Unfortunately, Tarasova won't be there because she has been hospitalized. I wish her a speedy recovery, and I wish Mao the best of luck! Go Mao!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

In honor of my second favorite skater...

...whom I think should be US champion. Mirai Nagasu!

Congrats on making the Olympic team!!

Here are some clips of her with Mao!

1) Mirai met Mao one summer when Mao was in California visiting Mirai's rink for some training.

2) In 2007, Mirai went to Japan to perform in "THE ICE", Mao and Mai's ice show. During the performance, Mao and Mirai had a joint interview.

3) The next year, before "THE ICE", Mai and Mao took the foreign skaters on a sightseeing tour. Mirai was there for part of it:
(Fast-forward to 3:30)

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Mao Asada's journey and my evolution as a Mao fan: Part 6

Part 6: 2006-07 season--Bittersweet Sixteen

Mao Asada won her first National title at home in Nagoya, and she won it with a broken finger.

Yes, about one week before the competition, Mao fell and broke her pinky finger. One would think that wouldn’t affect her skating that much, but in order to jump, you need to close your hands into fist and pull them to your chest. With her broken pinky, she could not jump. The doctor told them that it would take 10 days to heal, and Mao's mother thought their hopes for Nationals were ruined.

But Mao never lost hope. And she never complained. Not a soul in the media knew that Mao was competing with an injury, and she wanted to keep it that way. Because as with the Grand Prix Final, she didn’t want people to think she was making excuses.

In the end, no excuses were needed. Her finger healed just in time, and she skated beautifully in the short program, and phenomenally in the free skate, winning with over a 26-point lead.

2006 Japan National Championships SP
“Nocturne No. 2 in E-flat Major” by Chopin

(click on the YouTube to watch the actual link in HD)

2006 Japan National Championships FS
“Czardas” by Vittorio Monti

Up to that point, Mao had said she didn’t want to cry in public. But in that moment—does it get any better than winning your first title in your hometown?—she broke down and showed the nation her tears of joy.


After winning Japan Nationals, Mao looked ready to conquer the World. And the JSF had set the perfect stage for her senior World Championship debut—Tokyo.

And I thought, how perfect would it be if Mao won Worlds on her very first try, at home in Japan? After all, it’s the girl who won the GPF on her very first try, at home in Japan—it’s Miracle Mao.

2007 Worlds fluff on ESPN

Going into 2007 Worlds, I was both very excited and terribly nervous.

And then the unthinkable happened. Her perfect short program that had landed her in first place all season long—it failed her. She popped the second jump in her combo, the triple loop, and she found herself in 5th place after the short. She was more than 10 points behind the leader, Yu-Na Kim, who had electrified the crowd with her tango and set a world record score in the short program.

2007 World Championships SP
“Nocturne No. 2 in E-flat Major” by Chopin

Mao was devastated. She kept beating herself up over her mistake, becoming more and more dejected. So Mao’s mother did the only thing she could do—she scolded Mao. Fiercely. It broke her heart to do it, but she knew that the only way to make Mao stop beating herself up was to make her angry. “No, that wasn’t my best! Yes, I can do better! Yes, I CAN WIN!”


The next day, in the free skate, Yu-Na Kim faltered, perhaps due to the nerves of leading or the lingering effects of her injury.

Next up, was Mao Asada.

2007 World Championships FS
“Czardas” by Vittorio Monti

And I knew that everything would hinge on that first triple axel—and she nailed it! (Ok, it was two-footed, but I couldn’t tell.) The joy that she showed in her performance, the arm pumps after a successful jump, the way she practically skipped to her final pose —THAT was the Mao Asada I fell in love with at the 2005 GPF! THIS is why I watch Mao Asada!

Mao set a World record score in the free skate—133.13—and jumped to the lead with two skaters to go. Oh my god, I thought! She might just do it! She might just win!! How amazing would that be, after her disaster of a short program?

Kimmie Meissner skated next, but not nearly as well as Mao. That left only Miki Ando, who was second after the short.

My heart was thudding as I watched her skate. Miki pulled off a clean program. Would it be enough?

It was. In the end, Miki edged Mao Asada by a mere 0.64 points for the gold.

2007 Worlds podium: Mao Asada (Silver), Miki Ando (Gold), Yu-Na Kim (Bronze)

To have come so close, to have almost tasted gold—that must have been heartbreaking for Mao. She went and cried in the bathroom.

But she soon got over it. There would be other Worlds, other chances. Silver was pretty good for a first try. And she had learned an important lesson: no matter what happened in the short program, no matter how far behind she was, she could come out in the long and fight. She could deliver a clean program when it mattered the most. And that would be an invaluable lesson for seasons to come.

1) Team Japan goofing around after 2007 Worlds. I love that they are so close.

(Translation can be found in the 2nd post here.)

2) The best exhibition program EVER. Mao Asada skating with her toy poodle, Aero, to music from “The Wizard of Oz” at the Japan Super Challenge in January 2007.

Yep, that’s a triple axel from steps. O_O

Mao Asada's journey and my evolution as a Mao fan: Part 5

Part 5: 2006-07 seasonWorld record scores

At her second event of the season, the NHK Trophy, Mao faced a do-or-die situation. If she finished first, she’d advance to the Grand Prix Final in St. Petersburg and have a chance to defend her title. If she finished below first, she’d stay home.

But that is not how her mother tried to motivate her. Instead of saying, “You have to win so that you can go to the Final,” Mao’s mother said, “Mao, take me to St. Petersburg. It’s someplace I’ve always wanted to go. We’ve talked about it many times, haven’t we? Let’s go there together—to Russia.” (1)

Mao recalls, “I did feel nervous. But I wanted to take Mama to St. Petersburg.” So in front of her home crowd, Mao not only won the competition, but she also received the highest total score a female skater had ever received—199.52.

2006 NHK Trophy SP (age 16)
“Nocturne No. 2 in E-flat Major” by Chopin

2006 NHK Trophy FS (age 16)
“Czardas” by Vittorio Monti

Mao with her NHK Trophy gold medal

Mao at the NHK studio after the competition


The Grand Prix Final in St. Petersburg proceeded much like the 2006 Skate America competition. Mao skated brilliantly in the short program and took the lead, but in the long program she fell on her opening triple axel and skated half-heartedly through the rest of her program. She finished second.

The book Mao Asada, Sweet Sixteen reveals what had happened behind the scenes. Mao and her mother had arrived in Russia early, so that they could explore St. Petersburg before the competition. Unfortunately, Mao caught a cold. But she never admitted to being sick; she never said “I have a cold” as a way to explain her disappointing silver.

Because Mao Asada refuses to make excuses. She will never say, “Oh, I had a cold,” or “I felt jet-lagged,” or “other skaters are obstructing me during the warm-up.” She, the lover of challenges, will take every obstacle, every hardship, as a way to push herself to be even better.

The 2006 GPF was important for two other reasons. First, it gave Mao the opportunity to meet Tatiana Tarasova, the legendary “champion maker.” Or rather, it gave TAT the opportunity to meet Mao, because it was the former who actively sought out the latter: Tarasova found Mao, and she said, “I want to work with you.”

Secondly, the 2006 GPF was Yu-Na Kim’s first major success on the senior circuit.

2006 Grand Prix Final podium: Mao Asada (Silver), Yu-Na Kim (Gold), Sarah Meier (Bronze)

I’m trying to remember what I thought of Yu-Na Kim back then. I do remember thinking that since she beat Mao Asada at the 2006 Jr. Worlds, she must be pretty good, but I don’t think it was that impressed when I first saw her skate that season.

Certainly, that was due in part to my Mao bias. Every time I watched her skate, I’d think, “ah, but Mao does this better; Mao does that better. She’s not as flexible…eww, where’s the turnout?”

I occasionally wonder what would have happened if I had seen Yu-Na Kim skate before I had ever seen Mao. Would I have become a Yu-Na fan? Would I have formed a pro-Yu-Na bias and disliked Mao?

I think the answer is probably not. Because if I hadn’t happened to see Mao on TV on that fateful New Year’s Day, I don’t think I’d be a skating fan at all. I might have watched the 2006 Olympics, and that would have been it.

It was the combination of Mao’s against-all-odds GPF win, the drama over whether she would get to go to the Olympics, and her beaming smile that made me care about skating.

And, in the end, as my friend judiciously remarked, “You like Mao Asada better because she’s cuter.” Yeah, I can’t disagree with that! ^_^;;

From the book 浅田真央、16歳 [Mao Asada, Sweet Sixteen], pg 98.

Mao Asada's journey and my evolution as a Mao fan: Part 4

Part 4: 2006-07 season--Growing pains

Mao’s Cinderella season combined with her adorable, charming personality elevated her to the status of national idol. As a result of her newfound stardom, Mao received several sponsorship offers and began to appear in a number of commercials.

But the cost of celebrity was steep: Mao had attracted so many fans that she could no longer practice at her home rink in Nagoya. Since it was a public rink, people would come and watch her practice, and eventually it became so crowded that she couldn’t practice at all, and instead was forced to purchase private ice time either very early in the morning or very late at night.

With Mao under constant media scrutiny and with no alternative practice facilities nearby, Coach Yamada finally suggested that Mao should leave her and train abroad. I can only imagine how much it pained her to send away one of her most beloved students, one she had watched grow from a tiny 10-year old jumping bean to an international skating star.

After careful consideration, they chose Rafael Artunian, one of Michelle Kwan’s former coaches and a renowned jump technician.

Mao Asada and Rafael Artunian

So in the summer of 2006, Mao, Mai and their mother moved to Lake Arrowhead, California so the two sisters could train with Artunian at a private rink.

Mai and Mao at the rink in Lake Arrowhead

A new country, a new coach. Those were two big changes.

The third big change was in Mao herself. She had grown significantly taller over the off-season, and at 16, she had reached a kind of intermediate stage where she was no longer little Mao but not fully grown either.

This sense of awkward in-between-ness was evident when Mao went to Toronto to have Lori Nichol choreograph her programs. Up to that point, Coach Yamada and Coach Higuchi had always selected Mao’s programs for her. Now she was being asked to pick her own music, and it was overwhelming. Lori Nichol asked her, “Don’t you have an opinion, Mao?”, and Mao realized that no one had ever asked her that.


As her first Grand Prix competition of the 2006-07 season approached, I felt some apprehension. At this point, I was just a casual fan. I watched the competitions on TV when they were aired, and occasionally I would look up some news about Mao, but I didn’t know about the skating forums, and I was somewhat out of the loop.

However, I was aware that Mao had moved to the US and that she had grown a lot, and I worried about how much these things would impact her skating. Would she still be able to dominate without her longtime coach, who was more like a beloved grandmother to her? Would she still be able to do her amazing jumps now that she had grown so much? Was she just a one-hit wonder?

After watching her short program at the 2006 Skate America, however, I realized my fears were overblown.

2006 Skate America SP (age 16)
“Nocturne No. 2 in E-flat Major” by Chopin

It was perfect. From the first time she skated it, the program fit Mao like a glove, showcasing her effortless jumps, balletic grace, unfussy elegance, and shimmering musicality. Even today, I consider this program to be one of her most memorable, and one of the most “Mao-like.”

She easily claimed the lead after the short program.

In the free skate the next day, however, Mao Asada popped her opening triple axel, and her program went downhill from there. She finished 4th in the long program and dropped to 3rd overall.

For Mao Asada, the triple axel is not just her best jump, her favorite jump; it’s also her signature. In her mind (and in the minds of many), “Mao Asada” is synonymous with “triple axel.” So when she popped the triple axel in the long program, she kind of gave up.

In truth, she had been struggling with the triple axel, in part due to her growth spurt, and in part due to a new challenge she had undertaken. Rafael and Mao decided that attempting two triple axels in the free program was too much, so they changed her second jump combo from a 3A-2T (triple axel/double toe loop) combo to a 2A-3T (double axel/triple toe loop) combo. To make the one triple axel more challenging, Mao was working on a difficult entrance to the jump—a series of brackets, swift shifts back and forward on her right leg, before the takeoff. If Mao could land the jump successfully, she should receive high GOE’s, they thought. Mao was already planning for the next Olympics, and in her mind, this skill, this “weapon,” would be something she would be able to use four years later in Vancouver.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Mao Asada's journey and my evolution as a Mao fan: Part 3

Part 3: 2005-06 season--“Miracle Mao”

Heading into the Grand Prix Final in December 2005, Mao Asada had attracted quite a bit of attention from the skating world and the media. But the undefeated Irina Slutskaya remained the heavy favorite.

So it came as quite a surprise when Mao found herself first after the short program, after Irina Slutskaya made an uncharacteristic mistake on her triple flip.

2005 Grand Prix Final SP, “Carmen” (age 15)
(The commentary is from ESPN, but the video is the Japanese broadcast.)

The next day was the long program, and that would prove to be a key performance for Mao and for me.

On New Year’s Day, 2006, my mom and I were flipping channels and just happened to come across figure skating on ESPN. (It was a repeat broadcast from nearly two weeks prior, but I didn’t know that then). At the time, I hadn’t watched skating in nearly a decade. As a child, I had been quite interested in figure skating when Kristi Yamaguchi won the Olympics, but after the 1998 Olympics, I had lost interest. But I had a vague recollection of having heard about a teen phenom skater from Japan, and it would be the Olympics soon, so we decided to keep watching. Plus, ESPN did a good job of hyping the competition through its fluff pieces.

2005 Grand Prix Final – fluff stuff on ESPN
(Gotta love Terry Gannon!)

Irina Slutskaya pulled off a flawless program. Then it was time for the final skater—Mao Asada. What an unusual name, I thought. But what a cute girl!

2005 Grand Prix Final FS, “Nutcracker” (age 15)
(The commentary is from ESPN, but the video is the Japanese broadcast.)

That amazing triple axel, those effortless jumps, but even more so, the beaming smile, the exuberance and that perfectly apt “Nutcracker” program! I became an instant fan, and was utterly charmed by the genuine joy Mao expressed in the kiss ’n’ cry.

2005 Grand Prix Final FS Kiss ‘n’ cry
Mao with her coach, Machiko Yamada

Needless to say, Mao received her highest scores in her career up to that point, and she won in front of a thrilled home crowd. With that unlikely defeat of the heavy favorite, the adorable 15-year old was launched to stardom in Japan and lauded as “Miracle Mao.”

2005 Grand Prix Final banquet
Back row: Nobunari Oda, Daisuke Takahashi
Front row: Yukari Nakano, Mao Asada, Miki Ando


At the Japanese National Championships a few weeks after the GPF, Mao performed her second “miracle”: she successfully landed two triple axels in her long program, another world first.

2005 Japan National Championships FS (age 15)

In this hard-fought competition to determine Olympic representatives, Mao finished second.

But she wouldn’t get to go to the Olympics. Instead, Japan would send the #1, #3 and controversially, the #6 skaters from Nationals—Fumie Suguri, Shizuka Arakawa, and Miki Ando, respectively.

The reason why? Because the age rules said that skaters had to be 15-years old by June 30th of the previous year in order to compete in the Olympics, and Mao Asada was 87 days too young.

The skating world had been buzzing over the age rules since Mao debuted on the senior circuit, but after Mao’s win at the Grand Prix Final and her amazing performance at Japan Nationals, the controversy reached a fever pitch.

And the Japanese Skating Federation found itself in a difficult situation. Under the JSF's plan, Mao Asada was not supposed to win the Grand Prix Final. No, the 2005-06 season was supposed to be just a "warm-up run"; in the 2006-07, when she was a true senior, she was supposed to make her glorious debut. They even set the perfect stage for her--2007 Worlds at home in Tokyo.

But now, many Japanese fans were clamoring for the JSF to petition for an exemption to the age rule and send Mao to the Olympics. Prime Minister Koizumi expressed his view that Mao should be allowed to go. Even the Western media took notice of the controversy.

2006 ABC News clip

But, in the end, 87 days too young was deemed 87 days too young, and Mao was not allowed to compete.

For her part, Mao was rather unperturbed by the controversy. Surely, part of her wanted to go to the Olympics, and wondered what would have happened if she went, but she hadn’t planned for that. She had always known that she would be too young to go to the 2006 Olympics, and instead, she had long ago set her sights on the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.


Mao Asada’s 2005-06 competition season ended with a second appearance at Junior Worlds. (According to the rules, she was also too young to compete at Senior Worlds, despite having competed on the Senior circuit for the entire first half of the season.)

Perhaps it was her first taste of pressure, her first time facing expectations that she’d win; perhaps it was burnout/loss of motivation after a glorious Grand Prix season, where she’d done far better than she’d ever imagined; or perhaps it was the disappointment of missing the Olympics and being demoted to the junior level.

At any rate, Mao was not herself. She managed to land a triple axel in the short program, another first for a junior lady, but overall her performances were filled with mistakes, and she finished second to a Korean skater who had done quite well on the junior circuit that season—Yu-Na Kim.

But back then, the shy, reserved Yu-Na didn’t think that she had “won.” Instead, she thought that she won because “Mao was not her best.”

Mao Asada's journey and my evolution as a Mao fan: Part 2

Part 2: 2005-06 season--a stellar senior debut

There is a Japanese phrase that describes 15-year old Mao perfectly: 天真爛漫 [Ten-shin-ran-man], which means “artless, innocent.”

The bright-eyed Mao knew nothing of pressure, felt no worry nor fear. There was no need to carefully weigh her words for the media; she simply said the first thing that came to her head without thinking, punctuating her words with her brilliant smile.

She faced each competition with a fresh excitement. Her first stop, her senior debut, was in Beijing at the Cup of China. There, she placed 2nd to Irina Slutskaya, who was not only the reigning World Champion but also undefeated during the previous season.

2005 Cup of China podium: Mao Asada (Silver), Irina Slutskaya (Gold), Shizuka Arakawa (Bronze)

Mao meets Irina Slutskaya

At her next event, the Trophee Eric Bompard in Paris, Mao successfully landed her triple axel for the first time on the Senior circuit and won her first Senior Grand Prix event. Here she even beat the eventual Olympic gold and silver medalists, Shizuka Arakawa and Sasha Cohen.

2005 Trophee Eric Bompard podium: Sasha Cohen (Silver), Mao Asada (Gold), Shizuka Arakawa (Bronze)

By placing 1st and 2nd at her two GP events, Mao qualified for the Grand Prix Final, which would be held in her home country, in Tokyo. There she would compete with the top 6 skaters from the GP series, who were arguably the top 6 in the World.

And yet, she felt no fear, no nerves. Her biggest concern at this point was perhaps growing up: as Shizuka Arakawa recalls, she noticed that Mao had changed the top of her Nutcracker costume, and when she asked her about it, Mao replied, “I grew, so the sleeve ripped.”

Mao had no expectations about winning, but that does not mean she did not have goals. As we will see, Mao Asada’s journey has been a story of tackling challenges and pushing technical limits, and the 2005-06 season was no different. Having proved that she had mastered the triple axel in the previous season, she aimed to attempt a feat that no lady skater had ever accomplished—two triple axels in a single program.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Mao Asada's journey and my evolution as a Mao fan: Part 1

In this series of posts, I want to describe Mao Asada's journey as a skater and a star, and at the same time, I want to document my own evolution from totally ignorant, to casual fan to crazy obsessed Mao uber.
Part 1: Prologue

Are we destined for greatness, or do we make ourselves great?

How much does success depend on luck and inborn talent, and how much on hard work, dedication and support?

While pondering these questions, I turn to the story of Mao Asada...


Mao Asada (浅田真央) was born on September 25, 1990 in Nagoya, Japan. She has an older sister, Mai (浅田舞), who is two years older than her.

Mao (3) and Mai (5)

(from the Mao and Mai Asada official website)

Mao Asada was not supposed to be a skater, but she was supposed to be a star.

Mao’s mother, Kyouko, loved ballet and wanted her daughters to be "world-class ballerinas." In fact, the character for Mai’s name means “dance,” and she is named after Maya Plisetskaya, a famous Russian ballerina. (Mao’s father, Toshiharu, named her after Mao Daichi, a famous Japanese actress. Thanks to their mother’s aspirations, Mao and Mai started ballet together when Mao was 3.

Mao (3) and Mai (5) at their first ballet lesson

When Mao was 5 years old, she and Mai went skating with a friend, and they liked it so much that they started taking classes. Kyouko said that she wanted them do skating to strengthen their ankles, especially Mao, who was very thin.

Mao - age 5
This is a clip from an April 2008 interview. At 5:30, you can see Mao skating at her first competition. Adorable!

Throughout her childhood, Mao participated in all kinds of activities—jazz dance, swimming, piano, etc. She and Mai went to an international elementary school for four years, and they even spent three summers in Hawaii as part of a study abroad program. But in the end, Mao decided that what she loved best of all was skating.

When Mao was 10 years old, she and Mai started training with Coach Machiko Yamada, Midori Ito’s former coach. To this day, she remains one of Mao’s beloved mentors.

2000 Novice Nationals (age 10)

In 2002, when she was 12 years old, Mao landed in the national spotlight for the first time. Although she was still too young for the junior circuit, let alone the senior circuit, she received a special invitation to compete at the senior National Championships. There she wowed the crowd and commentators by landing a triple-triple-triple combination (the first ever for a lady!) in her free program and finishing 7th.

2002 Japan Nationals FS (age 12)
(This starts with a recap of her SP.)

The first jump she attempted in the program was a triple axel. At this point, it was heavily underrotated, but you can see that even at 12 years of age, Mao was on her way to making the elusive triple axel her signature jump.

Soon after her success at Nationals, she stated her lifelong dream on TV: “I want to go to the Olympics, win the gold medal, and travel around the world.”


In 2004, Mao turned 14, and she was finally old enough to compete on the junior circuit. At this point, the triple axel was an established weapon in her formidable arsenal, a highlight of her long program.

She steamrolled the competition, easily winning her two Junior Grand Prix events and the Junior Grand Prix Final. (Mao Asada’s score at the 2004 JGPF: 172.83. The distant #2, a skater named Yu-Na Kim, scored 137.75). She even finished 2nd at the Japan Nationals (to Miki Ando).

(View the video of her FS here).

In spring 2005, she again proved herself in a class by herself at Junior Worlds, becoming the first woman to land a triple axel at Junior Worlds. And she won even despite a slight mishap with a skate lace that became untied. Here too, she beat the silver medalists (Yu-Na Kim again) by over 20 points.

2005 Junior Worlds SP (age 14)

2005 Junior Worlds FS (age 14)

2005 Junior Worlds podium: Yu-Na Kim (silver), Mao Asada (gold), Emily Hughes (bronze)

Winning Junior Worlds was important for two reasons.

First, Mao’s mother had promised that she could get a dog if she won, so Mao became the proud owner of a toy poodle, which she named Aero. (See Aero's full profile and pics here.)

Second, Mao was granted a special exemption to compete on the senior Grand Prix circuit in the 2005-06 season, even though she was officially too young to compete at either the senior World Championships or the Olympics.

This exemption would have important implications not only for Mao, but also for the world of figure skating, and for me as a future fan.


1) For my translation of an interview with Mai and Mao and some comments from Machiko Yamada from 2003, please see here.

2) In this clip from April 2009, Mao meets with her childhood ballet teacher, Kumiko Ochi, for the first time in many years, and there are clips of her doing ballet as a child.

3) My favorite anecdote of little Mao comes from when she was in Hawaii. (This was told in the book 浅田真央、15歳 [Mao Asada, Fifteen years old]). Apparently Mao was playing with the telephone and managed to dial 911. As a result, a bunch of police showed up at their apartment; they thought perhaps a child was being held hostage or something. OOPS! :D
For more anecdotes from the book, please see here.