Monday, February 1, 2010

2010 Four Continents Championship: Making "Bells" ring true in her soul

Once again, I finish watch the Four Continents Championship feeling elated.  But not before feeling terribly worried, and then terribly depressed, first.

At first, everything seemed to be going great.  Mao was coming off an encouraging, clean skates win at Nationals.  She was all-smiles at the airport in Korea, despite being mobbed by the media.  And in practice, her condition seemed to be very good—hitting 14 out of 17 triple axels.

But there were several potentially stressful things happening behind the scenes.  First of all, Mao’s coach, Tatiana Tarasova, was unable to come to the competition because she had been hospitalized.  Tarasova, whom we like to call TAT, suffers from high blood pressure and heart problems, and after a sudden rise in her blood pressure after the European Championships, she was admitted to the hospital.  Mao said she had really hoped TAT would come, so that it would be like a simulation for the Olympics, but she heard that TAT was very sick, so there’s nothing that could be done.  She vowed to “do a performance that makes Sensei [teacher] happy.”  And I figured that TAT’s absence would have little influence on Mao; after all, she was not there when Mao received her personal best total score at the 2009 World Team Trophy, and she wasn’t there at 2009 Nationals either.

The second “problem” was the fact that the competition was in Korea.  Soon after Mao arrived, she was caught on hidden camera by a hotel employee, and the video was posted on the internet.  There was also talk on the internet among Korean netizens about trying to sabotage Mao by making strange noises during her programs or carrying offensive signs.  As a result, the Korean Skating Union provided her with a team of burly bodyguards.

Mao with her Korean bodyguards

The invasion into Mao’s privacy was definitely infuriating, and it was a little disconcerting that Mao needed a team of bodyguards, but as usual, Mao seemed unfazed.  She said that she had a team of bodyguards at the 2008 Grand Prix Final, and there even were some familiar faces, so she felt comfortable.


So I had high hopes for Mao heading into the SP.  This might be her chance to break Yu-Na’s SP record, I thought. 

So I was shocked when I found out the results the next morning—Mao Asada in 3rd place! Triple axel downgraded and triple flip popped! And a 1 point deduction for going over the time limit. 

2010 Four Continents Championship SP

"Masquerade Waltz" by Aram Khachaturian

Mao was less than 2 points out of the lead, but I was devastated.  I had never seen Mao Asada pop a flip in competition before.  I knew that she had reworked that jump during the first half of the season, and I thought it was fixed.  What could have gone so wrong that she popped it?

Moreover, it worried me greatly that her triple axel was judged underrotated.  She said that she felt that she had done it just like in practice.  And I thought, if that’s how she’s doing it in practice, that’s not good.  It’s not rotated enough.

I thought, Mao must be really worried about TAT’s health.  And all the attention from the Korean media, the online bashing, the need for bodyguards—that must be bothering her, even if she’d never admit it, never use it as an excuse.

Then I began to feel very depressed.  Even if I added 5 points for the missed triple axel and 5 points for the missed flip, that would only increase her score to around 70 points—too low to challenge Yu-Na’s 76 points.  I begin to question all of Mao’s decisions.  Maybe doing the triple axel in the short was not a good idea after all; maybe she should have tried to work on her 3F-3Lo.

And I worried about how Mao would do in the long program.  Since the 2008-09 season, Mao had maintained a pattern whereby her short program performance dictated her long program performance—i.e., if she didn’t have a good short program performance, she’d usually have a poor long performance too.  (Conversely, if she nailed the short program, she’d often nail the long program too.)  So given Mao’s subpar short program, I worried about what would happen if she had a subpar long program.  Because it would look very bad in the eyes of the judges going into the Olympics if she lost 4CC to a very weak field.


Shizuka Arakawa offered me a ray of hope heading into the long program.  In her analysis, it was good that Mao had made the mistakes in the SP here, and not at the Olympics.  And there were no major problems with her technique, it was just that she missed the timing, so it’s nothing that will take a long time to fix. And she conjectured that if Mao could do everything that she can do in the free program, it would translate into confidence for the Olympics.

Separately, there were news articles that said that Akiko Suzuki’s coach, Hiroshi Nagakubo, had given some advice to Mao about her jumps.  He said she just needed to rotate 45 degrees more, and given her strength, she should be able to fix that in 20 days.  It warmed my heart to see a ‘rival’ skater’s coach offering her advice.


Going into the long program, I had a good feeling, and this morning I woke up to find out that Mao skated a nearly clean program and won!  More importantly, she got credit for BOTH of her triple axels for the first time since December 2008.

I was ecstatic!  She did it!  Despite the absence of TAT, despite the nuisance of the Korean media and fans, she just went out and killed it.

2010 Four Continents Championship FS

“Prelude in C# Minor, Op. 3, No. 2 (Bells of Moscow)” by Rachmaninoff

(Click on the "YouTube" to be able to watch it in HD; it's worth it!)

Mao’s score was lower than I would’ve liked to see; in particular, her PCS were much lower than I thought she deserved.  But she got full credit for her triple axels, and more importantly, she proved to herself that she could do it when it counts.  And that, I thought, would surely translate into good results at the Olympics.

Yes, I think PJ Kwong’s comments say it all.  The CBC commentator remarked, “The very first time I saw this program, I thought to myself that it was ponderous and heavy, and I didn't really understand the choice. I have to say, seeing her skate it like this tonight though, the music obviously fills her...and makes her skate with unbelievable passion and strength. She really is a force to be reckoned with...Terrific performance from Mao Asada...Really a thrilling performance. I really enjoyed that.”

Mao thinks that her performance in the long program will translate into the short program at the Olympics.  After all, there she only has to do one triple axel. Easy peasy.

And in the LP, I think Mao will give one of those Olympic moment performances.  When she thrusts her hands up into the sky with the final bell toll, I think it will ring in the hearts of everyone watching.

Because in this program, Mao Asada bares her very soul.  She skates from the heart, telling the story of this season.  How everyone lost faith; how they told her to change the music, change her jump layout, change her coach.  How she at first plunged into despair, then refused to give up, and resolved to master her program and prove her detractors wrong.  Yes, that iron will, that fiery determination is exactly what I see in “Bells” today.  It’s a masterpiece! 

But I don’t think it could have gotten there if everything had been smooth sailing for Mao.  No, precisely because she suffered, she is now able to express the dark power of “Bells.”  She has grown not only as a skater, but as a person as well.

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