Sunday, February 21, 2010

Mao Asada’s journey and my evolution as a Mao fan: Part 18

Part 18: 2008-09 season—“With a fighting spirit” [攻める気持ちで]

After the NHK Trophy, Mao Asada said in her interviews that she had rediscovered her fighting spirit.  At TEB, they had decided to leave out the second triple axel, but since she had been practicing with two triple axels all along, deciding to take the conservative route made her feel slightly weak-hearted.  At the NHK Trophy, however, Mao was aggressive; she went for it, and she nearly succeeded.  She vowed to carry that fighting spirit, that 攻める気持ち [semeru kimochi] with her to her next competition—the Grand Prix Final.  It would be held in “enemy territory”—Goyang, Korea.

At this point, I had only been following Mao very closely for about 8 months, but it seemed like the hype surrounding this competition was unprecedented.  Mao Asada and Yu-Na Kim face off in Yu-Na’s home country!  In the Japanese media, there was practically no mention of the other 4 competitors; all eyes were focused on the ‘battle’ between the two 18-year olds. 

Popular opinion said that the Grand Prix Final was Yu-Na’s to lose—she was the two-time reigning Grand Prix Final champ, she had put up the highest scores so far that season, and she was competing in her home country, where she would have the roaring support of the crowd.

But after seeing Mao win NHK Trophy the way that she did, I had a good feeling that she might just snatch that GPF title from Yu-Na’s hands.


Well, Mao Asada’s story is ever exciting and ever unpredictable, and in this case she caused me a bit of nervousness when she had a bit of a mishap on her way to the Korea.  Mao always likes to arrive right before a competition, but this time, her plane was delayed due to bad weather and she arrived in Korea a few hours late.  So late, in fact, that she missed the first half of morning practice!  But in typical Mao fashion, she didn’t let this little incident faze her. 

In the short program, Mao skated 4th.  Before she took the ice, she looked so nervous.  Oh no! I thought.  She looks so nervous, this is bad!

My heart was racing as she set up for her problematic combo—but she landed it!  Then it was time for the triple lutz—beautiful!  Phew!  Now I could relax and enjoy the program.  And how beautiful it had become after that disastrous first performance in Paris!

2008 Grand Prix Final SP
“Clair de Lune” by Claude Debussy

(She received the highest score for a spiral in the SP!)

Shanetta Folle, Mao and Tatiana Tarasova in the kiss ‘n’ cry

Mao scored 65.38, slightly higher than what she scored at the NHK Trophy. 

The 5th skater, Joannie Rochette, who looked so strong in her GP events, faltered here and was 4th with one skater left.

And that skater was Yu-Na Kim.  As she opened up with her triple-flip/triple-toe loop combo and hit it clean, I thought, well, I guess she’s on tonight.  But then on the next jump, the triple lutz, she popped it!  Shocking!  But great for Mao, I thought.  Mao went clean! She should lead after the short!

Regardless of Yu-Na’s mistake, the crowd went wild.  Absolutely bonkers.

And when the score came out, 65.94, the crowd roared, and I thought, “What the hell?!  How did she make a glaring mistake and still end up ahead of Mao?  Oh wait, I forgot, this is in KOREA!  Duh! What was I thinking?  Did I really think it would be a FAIR competition in Korea?  Of course not.”

I looked at the protocols, and I saw what had happened.  Mao’s triple loop in her combo had gotten downgraded again.

You see, in the 2008-09 season, ISU decided to judge rotations more strictly, and as a result Mao kept receiving downgrades for her combo.  She wasn’t the only one; Miki Ando, who typically did the triple-lutz/triple-loop combo, also started getting downgrades.  I thought this was upsetting not just because I wanted my favorite skaters to get credit for their jumps, but because I love the loop combos with their quick pop-pop timing, and I hate that the strict judging system has rendered them all but extinct.

At any rate, with one popped jump from Yu-Na and one downgraded combo from Mao, they ended up about even.

It would all come down to the free program.


I debated about staying up late and watching the competition live, since it would be held in the afternoon Korea time, which would translate to about 2:00a.m. here.  But I decided to go to sleep.  As I later realized, I really should have stayed up, because I ended up not being able to sleep; I just tossed and turned and felt nervous about the competition.

That afternoon, I set myself in front of my computer and prepared to watch.  Mao Asada skated would be skating second-to-last, right before Yu-Na.

2008 Grand Prix Final LP
“Waltz” from “Masquerade Suite” by Aram Khachaturian

See also this video for the British Eurosport commentary.
See this video for a widescreen version with no commentary.

Mao opened up with her first triple axel, and this time she was able to tack on the double toe loop.  Then, the second axel—she landed it! Huge!  She did it!  The rest should be fine now!

And it was, until the triple flip-triple loop combo—Mao uncharacteristically fell on the flip.  Oh no!  I thought, there goes her shot at the gold!   I thought she might pop the salchow, her weakness, but she landed it, and she skated the rest of her program cleanly.

Big hug from Tarasova

I was happy that Mao landed her triple axels and I thought they were clean, but I couldn’t quite celebrate yet because I knew she left the door open for Yu-Na Kim with that one fall.

Still, I couldn’t help but be charmed by Mao and TAT blowing kisses at the crowd.


Yu-Na Kim started her program in typical Yu-Na fashion—flawlessly.  She reeled off her triple flip/triple toe combo, her triple lutz, and a big three jump combo.  With every clean jump, my spirits started to wane.

But then, just as she had in the short program, she popped her second lutz.  Still, that’s not as bad as Mao’s fall I thought.  And then, on the next jump, the triple salchow, it happened—she fell.  Oh my god!! Mao might win!!  That’s two mistakes to Mao’s one!!

At the end of her program, Yu-Na looked like she knew she wasn’t going to win.  But the crowd went insane anyway.

I still remember, I thought it was so funny when Yu-Na’s scores came out.  Initially a big cheer and then a hush when they realized they weren’t high good enough.

Mao Asada had done it!  She successfully landed two triple axels in her long program, becoming the first woman to ever do so, and she won the Grand Prix Final!  And all in her rival’s home country!

She must have been so happy, and rightfully so.  I was elated.  As I headed to my birthday dinner that evening, I felt like I had already received the best present of all!


Two weeks later, Mao Asada went on to win her third straight Japan National Championships.  It wasn’t a particularly great competition for her; she had some errors in both the short and long programs, but it was enough to win.

Mao and Tarasova in the kiss ‘n’ cry after the FS

Mao with the Japan Nationals trophy

And so the year 2008 came to a brilliant end.  She had won every major competition, she had successfully landed a clean lutz, a salchow, and two triple axels, and she had won the Grand Prix Final in enemy territory.  What more could you ask for? 


1)  The 2008 Grand Prix Final was perhaps the last time I remember seeing Mao and Yu-Na look really friendly together.  The whole atmosphere was great, with all the skaters seeming to have a fun time preparing for the gala.

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