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.”

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