Japan’s Mao Asada won her first gold medal at the World Figure Skating Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden in March. The event proved to be redemption for the teenager who had been edged off of the top of the podium the preceding year by teammate Miki Ando, forcing Asada to settle for the silver.
“Last year I made big mistakes in the short program,” Asada noted. “I learned not to make big mistakes in the short. I also learned to keep going even after I made mistakes.”
At this year’s Worlds, Asada needed some points fast after the short program. She lost about ten points when she slipped off her plant foot as she went into her opening triple Axel and slid into the boards. It took her a few more seconds to re-orient herself before sailing through the rest of her program to score 121.46 points. Although she finished second in both the short and the long, she was able to outpoint Italy’s Carolina Kostner 185.56 to 184.68.
But both totals were well off her personal bests. Asada has scored as high as 199.52 at the NHK Trophy in 2006, the record for highest combined score under the ISU Judging System. At the 2007 Worlds, she broke the record for the highest free skate score with 133.13 points.
Asada has been the darling of the skating world since she won the World Junior Figure Skating Championships in 2005, then finished second to Yu-Na Kim in 2006. She made her senior debut in the 2005-06 season, winning the 2006 ISU Grand Prix Final, then finishing second at the 2007 World Figure Skating Championships, both in Japan.
This season, Asada took the silver at the 2007-08 Grand Prix Final after winning gold at Skate Canada and Trophée Eric Bompard. Two months later she took gold in her debut at the Four Continents Championships in Goyang, South Korea.
“I landed the triple-triple combination and I was so happy about it because I made the same mistakes all year on the combination in competition,” Asada said of her short program. “I was very happy about how I skated in the long program. I’m especially pleased that I landed the triple Axel.”
In her latest competition, Asada led Team Japan to a victory at the Japan Open In Tokyo in late April. Asada used her long program to Fantasie Impromptu and scored higher than both Takeshi Honda and Daisuke Takahashi in the event. To date, the two-time defending Japanese senior ladies champion has never finished lower than third at an ISU event.
For the 2007-08 season, Asada used a triple flip-triple loop combination in the short, along with a triple Lutz and double Axel. She opened her long program with a triple Axel, then added two triple-triple combinations – a triple flip-triple toe and a triple flip-triple loop. She also included a double Axel-double loop-double loop combination and two solo triples – the loop and the Lutz – before ending with a double Axel.
“Last year I concentrated on training for steps,” stated Asada. “Now I’m trying to get more points from my spiral and things other than jumps. Maybe in the summer I will work on the quadruple toe loop or quadruple loop. I tried them in practice before but haven’t landed a clean one.”
Asada also wants to have a triple Axel combination. “I don’t know yet if I’ll do two triple Axels in competition again,” she said. “My goal is perfection.” Asada did not use the triple Salchow in either program in 2007-08, even though it was the first triple she landed when she was eight or nine. She’s also landed a quadruple salchow in practice.
“When we calculated the levels and points, my best program was without the triple Salchow,” Asada explained. “I have no problem with landing it clean, but I don’t really like it. I like the triple Axel the best. I used to practice Axels when I was very little so the Axel is natural for me.”
Asada first landed the triple Axel when she was only 13, and proceeded to set several records with the jump. She was the first lady to land a triple Axel in a major ISU Junior competition (2005 ISU Junior Grand Prix Final), the first to land two triple Axels during a free skate program (2005 Japanese Nationals), and the first to land a triple Axel in the short program at an ISU championship (2006 Worlds).
The 17-year-old has been landing triple Axels and triple-triple combinations in novice and junior competition since 2001. When she was eleven, Asada became the first skater to land a triple-triple-triple (triple flip-triple loop-triple toe loop) in competition.
Asada started skating when she was five, following in the footsteps of her older sister, Mai – also a senior international competitor. Both sisters had started out in ballet, with Mao beginning her training at the age of three and continuing formal lessons until she was nine.
“Mai and I were taking ballet and my mother thought she needed stronger ankles, so she took her to the skating rink that was only ten minutes from our house,” Asada explained. “I happened to be with her so I took lessons too.”
Machiko Yamada, who trained the first Japanese world champion, Midori Ito, initially developed Asada’s skills, but when she turned senior, Asada began training with Rafael Arutunian at Lake Arrowhead in California in the summer of 2006. In January 2008, she decided to return to Japan to work with coaches from the Japanese Skating Federation. “I wanted to stay in Japan with my family, eat Japanese food and play with my puppy,” said Asada. “I didn’t care that my coach was not there.”
Asada now trains at the university ice rink in Nagoya for four hours a day, five days a week. She also continues with ballet in her hour and a half daily off-ice training sessions.
“I have plenty of time on the ice at the new rink,” said Asada. “Before, I had to travel to three rinks and skate at midnight or one o’clock in the morning because it was so hard to get private ice in Japan. I know what I need to do in training and I do it. I may have a new coach this summer.”
One of the coaches that she is considering is Tatiana Tarasova, who coached Japan’s only Olympic gold medallist in figure skating, Shizuka Arakawa, in 2006. But since Tarasova is caring for her ailing mother in Russia, the logistics of such a pairing are difficult.
Asada came to know and trust Tarasova when she choreographed Asada’s 2007-08 short program, using Fantasia for Violin and Orchestra by Jean-Claude Petit. Lori Nichol choreographed her long program to Fantasie Impromptu by Frederic Chopin. Asada also used Chopin’s So Deep is the Night for her gala program.
Just as in 2007-08, Asada will have two new programs for the coming season. She has travelled to Russia to work with Tarasova on her new long program, after which she will go to Canada to work with Nichol on her new short.
Asada has one more year of high school left before she can graduate – another reason she wants to train in Japan. “I had a lot of homework when I was in Lake Arrowhead,” she said, “but it was hard to keep up with my schoolwork.”
Her favorite subjects are art and gymnastics. “I like drawing landscapes,” Asada added. Other than ballet, her off ice pursuits include hanging out with her friends, listening to pop music, collecting skating pins, doing jigsaw puzzles and reading fantasy novels. Asada’s favorite pastime is playing with her toy poodle, Aero, named after a chocolate bar and her two puppies, Tiara and Komachi. Aero was even featured as a skating dog in a Japanese commercial that Asada made for the chocolate company after it found out that she was a fan of their products. She has also done commercials for Olympus cameras.
Mao and her sister Mai have also been named as goodwill ambassadors between Japan and Canada and have traveled to Canada in that role. Her years in California have improved Asada’s English, but she still listed proficiency in the language as one of her personal goals.
Asada is also hoping to return to Canada in 2010 when the Winter Olympic Games are held in Victoria, British Columbia. Although she will be among the favorites for those games, she also noted that she was already feeling old at 17 and would face stiff competition from youngsters such as Caroline Zhang and Mirai Nagasu.