Japan’s Mao Shimada is one of the newest stars to have emerged on the international junior scene this past season. The 14-year-old has followed in the footsteps of her great role model, Mao Asada, after whom she was named. In fact, Asada had won her first world championship title just six months prior to Shimada being born and was a superstar herself. Asada’s wonder weapon was the triple Axel. Shimada can do that, too, and the quadruple toe loop on top of that.
This season, history repeated itself a bit. Like Asada once did in 2005, the “new Mao” won her first World Junior Championships in Canada in what was her debut. Back then, the silver went to another huge talent—Korea’s Yuna Kim. Both dominated the sport for a long time. In Calgary, the also highly talented Korean Jia Shin finished second behind Shimada. It will be interesting to see what happens next for them moving into the next cycle.
Additionally, Shimada was undefeated in her junior international debut this season, winning both Junior Grand Prix events and the Junior Grand Prix Final.
“When I was five years old, I tried skating for the first time at an amusement park, and I liked it right away,” the skater recalled. “I like that feeling of accomplishment when I learn new elements.”
Her ability to learn quickly and train with determination convinced coach Mie Hamada, who took the “new Mao” under her wing three and a half years ago. For that, the talented skater relocated with her parents from Tokyo to Kyoto.
“She takes figure skating very seriously and she wants to win,” Hamada said about her student. “When she came to me, she had very nice spins, but a weird double Axel. I had to correct that. I had her learn a good single Axel first.”
However, the spins are actually Shimada’s favorite element. Interestingly, she singles out the triple Axel, not the quadruple toe loop, as her most outstanding achievement to date.
“I landed the first one in March 2022 after working on it for three years,” she said. “I love that there is no limit to what you can achieve.”
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Shimada revealed that she has little patience and is “constantly in a hurry.”
“I always try to do everything a little faster,” said the motivated teen. “When I’m skating to music, I’m always a little early. And even when I walk, I walk very fast.”
This also goes for her quick ascent in the skating world. After three and a half years under the tutelage of Hamada, Shimada has mastered the most difficult elements. The constant rush surely has something to do with the fact that she has to balance sports and school.
“Time management is the biggest challenge,” she pointed out. “I go to a regular school. In the morning I’m in class, then I go to practice, and after that I have to do my homework. My favorite subject is math.”
On the ice, the Japanese skater is fearless, risking everything, but in the press conferences and interviews she seems shy.
“At first glance, I’m shy, but when I get to know people better, I’m pretty talkative,” she revealed with a smile.
Shimada is not only a daredevil on the ice, but off ice as well. She enjoys riding roller coasters, especially the extreme ones—”screamers” as they are called in Japan. She proved her mental strength in Calgary when she went for the triple Axel and the quad toe, even though she never landed both jumps in one program the whole season. The skater shed a few tears of joy in the “Kiss & Cry,” but there was no big celebration. Shimada still needs to learn to come out of her shell more, as her coach points out.
“She needs more expression. In Japan, it’s sometimes considered rude to show too much emotion and put yourself out there,” Hamada explained. “You have to hide your emotions and that’s where she is typically Japanese. But in figure skating you have to show your emotions to the audience and so far, that’s the hardest part for her. Last season she took lessons in drama from a Japanese actor and that was a challenge for her, but it was a first step.”
Hamada, who currently has 15 skaters in her group, really enjoys working with Shimada.
“She always stays calm,” she said. “What I like most about her is that she’s never in a bad mood, even when she’s not in good shape. She always tries hard, every time, every day. She never gives up.”
That’s why the athlete didn’t let it get her down when she struggled during the season.
“There were times when I couldn’t land my jumps, and every time I came back from an international competition and wanted to get back in shape, the jumps were gone,” said Shimada. “The feeling was different, and it threw me off. It was mentally hard for me.”
For Shimada, the new age limit means that she will not be allowed to compete at the senior level until the 2026-27 season. However, she doesn’t view this as a hindrance or think that will change her motivation.
“I want to maintain my position and keep improving my personal best,” said the skater, who has grown 7.5cm this year and is now 150.5 cm. “I want to learn more quads, but right now it’s more important for me to get the triple Axel and quadruple toe more consistent. Last year, I couldn’t use my technique flawlessly, so this year I want to become confident and land them safely.”
Shimada’s next big goal is the 2024 Youth Olympic Games.
“It’s important for juniors to set their own goals, not to compare themselves to the senior skaters,” Hamada pointed out. “Sure, it’s nice to compete in the Olympics, but it’s not just about that. You have to love skating, that’s the most important thing. And figure skating is not just jumps. They are important, but I also want to develop the artistic side.”
To help her skater progress, Hamada traveled with her to work with Lori Nichol in Toronto right after the World Junior Championships to build a new free skate. Nichol relayed that she was training Mao many of the methods she used when she worked with Mao Asada, Carolina Kostner, Sui Han, and others.
“Mao is a true delight to work with,” said Nichol. “Her discipline and determination are jaw dropping! Last season I saw moments in practice of Mao unleashing her movements, so one of my goals this season is to inspire her confidence in performing that degree of commitment while executing the big elements as well. My priority is to continue our work of building Mao’s aesthetic, creating a strong, varied and refined foundation made of all the skills related to the art of skating.”
Shimada, who wanted to try something new for the short program, worked with three-time World medalist ice dancer Kaitlyn Weaver in Japan during May. She just debuted her new routine, “Americano” by Lady Gaga, at Dreams on Ice this weekend in Yokohama, Japan. The violin portion was written and performed by Judy Kang (Lady Gaga’s violinist) specifically for Shimada.
“Creating Mao’s new short program has been a heartfelt honour,” said Weaver. “I was looking forward to getting to know her personally, and I’m excited by her ambition and youthful energy. Together, we were able to channel that into her new program.”
Weaver said she was inspired by the story of “La Carambada” the legend of a young, Mexican rebel woman who fought for justice in her community.
“I love seeing Mao’s mischievous character on the ice begin to grow as she becomes more comfortable with the piece,” said Weaver. “Her on-ice quality is so smooth with effortless control; I enjoyed proposing a diverse movement vocabulary, based in traditional flamenco, that also speaks to her speed, quickness, and musicality.”
Weaver enjoyed giving the “smart, talented and quick young skater a challenge, both choreographically and with emotional commitment to the piece.
“I have no doubt this will be a successful season for her, building on her previous successes while continuing to push herself to new heights,” Weaver summed up. “I am very grateful to Kinoshita Academy and Hamada-Sensei, and I’m unsurprised why this school is so successful. The atmosphere is empowering and inspiring, and every skater I worked with has incredible talent!”