Takahashi loves the change

Daisuke Takahashi

Japan’s Daisuke Takahashi posted a massive World record score of 264.11 points at the 2007-08 Grand Prix Final, besting Evgeni Plushenko’s 2006 Olympic gold medal score of 258.33 points.

Although it didn’t end the way he had hoped, Japan’s Daisuke Takahashi had a successful season despite his fourth place finish at the World Figure Skating Championships in Göteborg, Sweden, last week.

Takahashi became the top favorite contender for Worlds after winning the Four Continents Championships in February. The 2008 Grand Prix Final silver medalist posted a massive World record score of 264.11 points, besting Evgeni Plushenko’s 2006 Olympic gold medal score of 258.33 points. He skated brilliantly in both the short and free program.

“I landed two quads for the first time in an ISU competition,” said Takahashi. “That’s a big improvement for me. The spins, the steps, the jumps… everything went so smoothly and I felt comfortable on the ice.”

Spectators and judges alike were impressed by his confident, high quality performances. The short program to a hip-hop version of Swan Lake quickly became a hit with audiences all over the world. This innovative program was indeed something special. Takahashi felt the music with each fiber of his body and wasn’t afraid of interpreting it in an expressive, outgoing manner. He truly danced on the ice and that is what he loves the most about the program.

However, when coach and choreographer Nikolai Morozov first presented him with the idea, the athlete wasn’t convinced right away. “I actually didn’t like it and Nikolai practically to force me to do it,” the 22-year-old admitted. He took Hip-Hop dance lessons in New York for three months, and then the program grew on him. People fell in love with his short at Skate America, his first Grand Prix event, and eventually Takahashi was pleased that he had overcome his dislike of the idea. His long program to Peter Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet was less innovative, but when skated well as at Four Continents, it was a dynamic and powerful routine.

Worlds was Takahashi’s competition to loose as all his main competitors had shown weakness during the season: Brian Joubert of France was recovering from illness, Switzerland’s Stéphane Lambiel was unpredictable as always, USA’s Johnny Weir had started strongly in the Grand Prix but then seemed to tire at the Grand Prix Final, Tomas Verner of the Czech Republic could be top or flop, and nobody believed in Canada’s Jeffrey Buttle as he usually skated well in the short only to falter in the free. USA’s Evan Lysacek didn’t even come to Worlds as he withdrew citing injury.

As we all know, the result was rather unexpected when Buttle proved all naysayers wrong and won, Joubert came back strong from a faulty short program, and Weir was more consistent than in the past. Verner bombed in the free and Lambiel’s performances were lackluster. And Takahashi? “I don’t feel pressure,” he said before the competition started. “Actually, I like to be the favorite.”

The Japanese arrived on Saturday with Morozov and Miki Ando. The Men’s event began on the following Friday. The week prior to Worlds, they had trained in the Netherlands. On Sunday, March 16, Takahashi celebrated his 22nd birthday in Sweden, but he postponed all parties until after the competition and practiced as usual. In the end, however, the Japanese didn’t make the podium.

Takahashi was ranked third in the short after stumbling on a triple Axel. In the long, he nailed his opening quadruple toeloop, but then underrotated and fell on the second quad and later stumbled out of his second triple Axel. His worst mistake came when he did a triple Lutz-double toeloop combination towards the end. As he had already repeated the quad and the Axel (they counted as “plus sequence”) and did a triple flip-triple toe combination, the Lutz-toeloop was considered his fourth combination and received no value.

In hindsight, had Takahashi executed a solo triple Lutz instead of the combination, he would have had the bronze medal. The difference to Weir was only 1.73 points. What happened? “I think I was too nervous after all,” Takahashi later confessed. “I have to study the rules better. This mistake I regret the most. I would have won in the Grand Prix Final if I had done a double toe more or a triple Salchow (he had doubled). So I thought I’d need another combination.”

In this case, it was the wrong decision. “I have to…”, his English failed him, he put his hand on his heart, and switched to Japanese. “I need to become stronger inside,” the interpreter translated.

As a matter of fact, Takahashi has become a lot stronger over the past years. Skating fans have known the lively skater since 2002 when he became World Junior Champion. He was regarded as a great talent ever since, but it took a while until the Japanese was able to control his nerves better and had success in the senior ranks. After medalling at the 2005 Four Continent Championships and the 2005-06 Grand Prix Final, he celebrated his breakthrough at the 2007 World Championships in Japan where he won silver. A major feat considering he had placed 11th and 15th in 2004 and 2005, respectively. He was 8th at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games.

“Dai”, his hairstyle wild, speeds over the ice, full of energy and completely engulfed by what he is doing. Even the exhibition practice is a working unit for Takahashi, but it’s a work he loves to do. Skating was fun for him when he started. His parents took him, the youngest of four sons, to the ice rink when he was eight. “I just enjoyed it and I didn’t have any ambitions in the sport. My parents wanted me to practice sports, but I didn’t really want it. They suggested skating as there was an ice rink nearby where we lived.”

Once Takahashi began, he liked skating immediately and never stopped. He felt most of all inspired by dancers when he was younger. “I liked Grishuk and Platov and Anissina and Peizerat,” he said. “My other idols were Brian Boitano and Scott Hamilton, but I preferred ice dancing.” However, he didn’t think of going into dance himself. There is no tradition of this discipline in Japan and with his 1.65 meters he simply would be too short. However, his love for dance lives on in his expressive programs and the way he moves over the ice.

It’s probably not a coincidence that Takahashi is training with Nikolai Morozov (in Hackensack, New Jersey), who was a competitive ice dancer before he started coaching. Takahashi is also working with his long-time coach Utako Nagamitsu in Japan, and is traveling back and forth between the USA and Japan each month. In his home country, he trains at the Kansai University of Osaka which has a special ice rink for elite skaters.

Daisuke, whose name is pronounced “Die-ski”, is also studying sports history and sports psychology at the university. When he is in Hackensack, the athlete trains together not only with Miki Ando, but also with the new World Junior Champion, American Adam Rippon, and Japan-born Daisuke (Dice) Murakami. The boys get along well and are cooking together. “I’m cooking spaghetti and curry,” Takahashi revealed. “When I’m in the USA, it’s just for skating. I love Japan and I’m missing the Japanese lifestyle and my friends when I’m in the USA. At least I’m living now near New York, near Manhattan, and it’s more interesting as it was before,” he explained.

No wonder, as the Japanese Champion thrives on city life, he likes to go shopping (“clothes most of all”), to meet his friends, and to go to karaoke. When he first came to the USA for training, the athlete didn’t speak much English, but he still had no major problems of communicating with Morozov as many figure skating terms are the same in Japanese and English. “Nikolai was scolding me a lot in the beginning and I was a little afraid,” Takahashi laughed as he remembered the past. “I did stupid mistakes like falling in the footwork and in the warm-up, and the coach didn’t appreciate that.”

By now, the skater had become much more consistent as he proved during the past two seasons. He hit two quad toes for the first time in one program when he won 2008 Japanese Nationals.

As much as Takahashi liked his Hip Hop program, he intends to do two new programs for next season. “I always want to change,” he explained. “I want to be different each time and I want to develop. What I love most about skating is to draw attention. Figure skating is the only sport where all spectators are watching just the one person on the ice. That is a very individual feeling. In all other sports, there are always two or more people on the field of play. Figure skating is athletic, but it’s also artistic and it has music. I like this whole package.”

When asked about what he doesn’t like, Takahashi at first didn’t know how to answer. “Probably the spins,” he said finally. “I never liked them, but it’s better now.” He views himself as “not so strong mentally, but competitive”. After he won silver at Worlds last year, the gold was his big goal for this year, but he missed it. Now there is next season to come and then, of course, the big goal. “My long term goal is to win the gold medal at the Olympic Games in Vancouver.”

Right after Worlds, Takahashi was scheduled to perform in some shows and in the Japan Open. Then he is looking forward to a vacation in Japan before going back to work to put together two new programs for next season. Asked what he would take to an isolated island he laughed. “Actually, I wouldn’t want to take anything, because I’d want to use the situation there to grow stronger. Maybe I wouldn’t manage, but I’d try in any case,” he answered, true to his fighting spirit. He is always ready to risk something and he never is afraid of failure.

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