Saturday, January 23, 2010

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.

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