In In The News, Nobby Hashizume

Mao Asada is one of the most popular female athletic figures in Japan.  She is young and charming…and one of the best figure skaters in the world.  She is the only Japanese ever to have won two World Figure Skating Championships gold medal in 2008 and 201o and, after her country-woman, Shizuka Arakawa, won the gold medal at Turin Olympics in 2006, was the favorite and the biggest hope for the gold medal for 2010 Vancouver Olympics.  But at the Olympics, she had to settle for the silver behind South Korea’s Kim Yuna.

Watching the coverage of Sochi Olympics, I can not help but feel amazed with the pressure that the athletes must face, not only because it’s the biggest competition like Olympics but, think about it, because many of the events in the Winter Olympic Games are so pressure-packed.  We, runners, often talk about “competing against ourselves.”  Nothing is more true with this statement than what these athletes in the Winter Games face.  Often the color of the medals are decided by 1/100th of a second and, because they would take a turn, one by one, they are required to perform at their absolute best; otherwise, others with the faster time, or the better jump, would take your spot.  And what they would face, snow and ice, is VERY unpredictably slippery!!  I know, coming from Minnesota!  One slight mistake and you’ll be on your face…or your rare-end and you’d kiss your “best performance” a good-bye.

Figure skating, in that respect, can be as elegant as nerve-wrecking.  One mistake, or one bad-luck (of, for example, getting your skate in the unexpected object or a crack on the ice), and that’s it.  Japan’s Mao went into Sochi as one of the odds-on favorites along with “Queen Yuna”, the defending gold medalist.  Prior to the Games, Mao had announced her retirement from the competition after the Olympics.  She said she would dedicate this Olympic performance to her mother who passed away at young age of 48 two years earlier while Mao was competing oversea.

What a heavy pressure this young 23-year-old was carrying on her shoulders!!  It is not like the US where there would be 20 gold medalist all together.  They don’t have too many gold medal hopefuls in Japan; and, particularly, when young Hanyu won the first ever gold medal for Men’s Figure Skating several days earlier, the pressure on Mao’s shoulders must have doubled and tripled.  To make the situation worse, she was unable to nail the triple axel in the short program of the Team event a week earlier.  That must have not helped her confidence either.  In the short program last night, Mao fell, and then missed one of the jumps, and ended up devastating 16th place.  Michelle Kwan, who understands the pressure of the Olympic Games only too well, tweeted simply: “Mao Asada – Heartbreaking 🙁 ”  Mao was speechless afterwards.  She could not pinpoint what had happened; she had nailed the jump several times during the practice…

I am always amazed with mental discipline of those figure skaters.  If they fall in their early going, they would have to completely forget about it and suppress their doubt and fear in order to bounce back in mere minutes (or not even!).  But this fall must have been such a shock to Mao; it was almost pitiful to watch the rest of her performance.  For her to end the short program as low as 16th place, it is almost as good as not finishing the battle — what’s the point?  There’d be NO WAY she would catch up in the medal contender’s position at all.  Her arch rival, Korea’s Kim took, as expected, the lead; perhaps not as comfortably lead as she would have liked in order to defend her Olympic title.  Now Mao won’t even be in the same group as Kim Yuna.

Today, her group skated earlier during the afternoon time segment; not the prime time evening slot.  You might say she overcame pressure — now that she’s “got nothing to lose”.  “Now I’m free from the Olympic pressure,” Mao said before her turn, “I’m just going to skate the very best I can.  I would like to emulate the classic ballet that my mother liked so dearly…”  And the best skating that she did!  Elegance of classic ballet and athleticism of jumps blended in — she had become the only woman in the Olympic history to have succeeded 6 different triple jumps successfully.  Once again, Michelle Kwan tweeted: “Mao Asada – made me cry…. a performance that we will all remember forever!”  As soon as she finished, the emotion took over — she could not hold back tears.  Perhaps tears of such disappointment that, had she skated only just decent in the Short Program the day earlier, she might have been in the hunt for the gold.  But I’d like to think that that was the tears of satisfaction; knowing that, in this final Olympic performance to her, she did the very best that she could possibly skate.

As the Olympic Creed reads:

The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle.  The essential thing is not to have conquered  but to have fought well.

Mao had her struggle, and fought well to demonstrate true Olympic Spirit by performing up to her very best knowing that there’s no chance for placing well.  She may not have brought a medal back to her home country; but she sure brought tears to my eyes — and I’m not the only one.

PS: Not to forget, not to leave it out, as if it’s been overshadowed by the emotional performance of Mao Asada, the beautiful young Russian girl, Adelina Sotnikova’s performances, both in the Short Program and the Free Program, were absolutely magnificent!  I don’t follow figure skating much and had never even heard of Adelina’s name.  I’m not sure if she was even one of the favorites before the competition began.  In fact, they said that she was left out of the Russian Team for the team competition (LOVE to see the underdog do well!!).  I was completely mesmerized by her performance yesterday and her tears of joy also, both yesterday AND today, was that of total satisfaction, knowing that she did all that she could.  If that — doing the very best that you can — is not the Olympic Spirit, I don’t know what is.

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Toshiko d'Elia