Sunday, February 14, 2010

Mao Asada’s journey and my evolution as a Mao fan: Part 13

Part 13: 2007-08 season—Another Miracle from Mao

As I mentioned in an earlier post, at this point of time, I had lost some interest in Mao, and skating in general, because I didn’t want to see gold slip through her fingers again.

So I might have known that Mao had won Nationals again and the Four Continents Championship, but I don’t recall watching the performances.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I forgot to tape 4CC altogether.  And I think I might have found out that Mao had parted ways with Artunian, but that probably just made me more worried about her prospects for World gold.

In addition, I had found another skater to root for—Mirai Nagasu.  She reminded me so much of Mao—she was cute and bubbly, she was very flexible, and she came out of nowhere and won the 2008 US National Championships, much like how Mao had won the 2005 Grand Prix Final.  I didn’t think she was as good as Mao was at 14, but still, she was someone I could cheer for and pin my hopes on if Mao continued to struggle.

So going into 2008 Worlds, I wasn’t very excited at all.  I didn’t follow the news at all, and I didn’t even bother to watch the competition (which I had taped) until a week after Worlds finished.

But when I finally watched the short program, Mao Asada showed me that all my doubts and despair had been unwarranted. 

2008 World Championships SP (age 17) (ESPN commentary)
“Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra” by Nigel Hess

For an HD version, please click here.

Up until that point, I had never been that impressed by Mao’s short program, probably because I hadn’t seen her skate it cleanly, and I didn’t particularly care for her costume.  It wasn’t like “Nocturne,” which I adored from the very first time Mao skated it.

But here, in that elegant costume, Mao Asada was pure beauty in motion.  The combination of the heartbreakingly beautiful song and Mao’s effortless, lyrical skating was absolutely stunning.  Especially the step sequence—those twizzles where she throws her arm up in the air and pulls it down—wow!—and that arabesque attitude right on the beat—gorgeous!

Here I felt that she had really matured from an adorable jumping bean into a true ballerina on ice.  Peggy Fleming, one of the ESPN commentators, remarked, “She just takes my breath away.”  Even today, this remains one of the programs that I go back and watch over and over again.

After the short, Mao was in second place behind Carolina Kostner by 0.18 points.  The reason—Mao didn’t hold her spiral and her spin positions long enough, so she lost some levels (and some points).  Yu-Na Kim, who was still recovering from her injury, had fallen on her triple lutz and ended up in 5th place, while Miki Ando, the defending champion, was in 8th place.


So now I was pretty excited.  If she could only hold it together, then she had a good shot at gold!

In the preview for the free program, Peggy Fleming said "I love Mao Asada...She is on a plane of existence these days that is all by herself in the skating world, both technically, musically, artistically [sic].”  I couldn’t agree more.

2008 Worlds FS fluff on ESPN

Then the competition began.  Miki Ando, who was struggling with an injury, withdrew from the competition mid-program after falling on her opening jump passes.  Carolina Kostner, the leader after the short, put on a sloppy performance, but held onto the lead with three skaters left. 

Yu-Na Kim skated next, and she put on a nearly clean performance—her only mistake was a popped triple lutz.  She outscored Kostner, but given the ~5 point difference in the short, it was not enough to overtake her for the overall lead.

Then it was Mao Asada’s turn.  My heart was thudding in my chest.  “Oh no, she looks nervous,” I thought.  She set up for her triple axel, and--Oh my god!  She slipped before the take-off and nearly crashed into the boards!  Oh no!  I thought.  There goes her shot at the gold medal!

She looked a little shaken as she skated around the rink, but she set up for her triple-flip/triple-toe loop combination—and landed it beautifully!  Probably the best I’d ever seen her do.  Then, from that point on, she proceeded to reel off jump after jump in her typical lovely, effortless form.  By the time she finished her final spin, it was tough to believe that she had fallen spectacularly at the beginning.  Wow, simply, wow.

2008 World Championship FS
“Fantaisie-Impromptu” by Frederic Chopin
See ESPN version here.
See CBC version here.
See Japanese version here.
(I find it gratifying to hear all the commentators be as impressed as I was.)

I was biting my nails as I waited for the score.  Would it be enough?  And then it was!!  Mao Asada moved into first place!!  She did it!  Despite the horrific fall before the triple axel, she picked herself up and skated cleanly.  Because that was what she had learned to do this season: put a mistake on the triple axel behind her and keep on fighting.

That left one skater: Yukari Nakano of Japan, who was in 4th place after the short.  She also opened with a triple axel, but unlike Mao, she landed it.  And then, as she went through her program landing jump after jump, my heart began to sank.  Oh no! Not again!, I thought.  This is just like last year when Miki Ando skated cleanly after Mao and stole her title!!

While she waited for the scores, my heart was racing again.  Would she score high enough to overtake Mao?  In the end, the answer was no.  In fact, she didn’t even score high enough to land on the podium.

Mao Asada had done the unthinkable—she had fallen before her triple axel, but she picked herself up and skated away with her first World title.  And all of this without a coach.  THAT is Miracle Mao for you.

Sportswriters around the world echoed my amazement:
Mao a shining example of why sports still matter,” Jack Gallagher wrote, while Simon Barnes of the UK called it “Mao Asada’s golden moment of pure courage.”


I was simply ecstatic.  In that moment, I went from simply a casual fan to an uber fan.  But it wasn’t really because of Mao’s long program performance, even though it was amazing. 

You see, I had watched plenty of amazing, emotional Mao comebacks before—at 2007 Worlds and the 2007 Grand Prix final, for example.  And honestly, I felt that falling before the triple axel paradoxically helped Mao.  Remember I had thought she looked so nervous at the beginning of the long program?  If instead she had launched the jump and then fallen on the landing, like at 2007 TEB, I bet that she would have skated in a cautious and uninspired fashion through the rest of the program.

But precisely because she fell in such an unexpected way, precisely because she received a huge shock, I think the pressure and nervousness immediately dissipated and she was able to skate brilliantly and expressively afterwards.

So what was it about Worlds that made me an uber fan?  I think it was simply the fact that she had won.  No matter what happened after that point, her name would go down in history books as a World champion.  She had finally made good on her potential.  And I felt validated as a fan.  I had picked her as a skater with tremendous potential when she was 15, I had tracked her career for over two years, and I had believed that she was the best in the World.  And now she was.  (Okay, sure, she hadn’t won an Olympics, but neither has Michelle Kwan.)

I was even more excited when I looked at the protocols.  Despite completely missing her opening jump, which knocked 7.5 points off of her base value, and getting an underrotation call on her triple-flip/triple-loop combo, she finished only 2 points behind Yu-Na Kim in the long program.  And more importantly, she had received higher PCS than Yu-Na.  It was like a complete inversion of the result of the 2007 Grand Prix Final.  To me, it seemed like the judges were saying, “Mao Asada IS better.”

The mixture of pride and joy nearly moved me to tears as I watched Mao Asada’s exhibition.

2008 World Championships Exhibition

“So Deep is the Night” based on Chopin’s “Tristesse”

As Dick Button had said, “She is a soufflé on ice.”  Simply delicious!

1) See awesome pics from the 2008 Worlds banquet here.

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