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Suzuki: The exception to the rule

by Tatjana Flade
Anna Kondakova

Japan's Akiko Suzuki performs to Andalucia from Riverdance at the 2010 World Figure Skating Championships.

Most top  female figure skaters rise to success and stardom in their teens. Some then leave the competitive sport after winning  the Olympic gold – for example Sarah Hughes, Oksana Baiul and Tara Lipinski. Some  make an early breakthrough, but stay in the sport, adding up titles and medals, and  leave a legacy like Katarina Witt, Michelle Kwan and Irina Slutskaya. Then you have another category in which some stick  around for years before they suddenly fulfill their potential and  reach the international podiums. They are the exception to the rule, and Japan’s Akiko Suzuki is one of them.

Her  longevity and perseverance is even more admirable as Japan has become a powerhouse of Ladies’ figure skating in the past two Olympic cycles with the likes of Mao Asada, Miki Ando,  Shizuka Arakawa, Fumie Suguri and Yukari Nakano. As a result, the tight field has  made it very hard to  get on the World or Olympic team.

However,  Suzuki didn’t give up and she was 23-years-old when she won her first medal on the ISU Grand Prix – a  silver at the  NHK Trophy in 2008. She was 24 when she qualified for the first time  for the Grand Prix Final in the fall of 2009, and took the bronze right away. She then  went on to qualify for the Olympic Games and World Championships at the  Japanese Nationals, and also claimed the silver medal at the Four Continents  Championships – her first medal at an ISU Championship.

Suzuki  turned 25 on the last day of the World Championships in Torino, where she  finished 11th.  The Japanese sat in 20th place after a sub-par short program,  but moved up nine spots thanks to a strong free skate.

“The short program was  not so good,” Suzuki admitted, “but I wanted to come back and end this good season with a strong  performance.”

Nine years ago,  Suzuki was an up-and-coming junior skater. She came in seventh at the  2001 World Junior Championships, won two Junior Grand Prix events, and was a bronze medallist at the ISU Junior Grand Prix Final in 2002. Then her  ascent stopped. Suzuki had less impressive results and didn’t compete in the  2003-04 season. When she finally came back on to the international scene, she  revealed that she had been suffering from an eating disorder.

“I couldn’t  skate for a year,” Suzuki said now about this difficult time, “but when I  wasn’t able to skate, I realized how important it was to me. When I came back,  I was skating with Miki (Ando) and Yukari (Nakano), and I just enjoyed it. I  wanted to be like they were and I grew confident that I could do that.”

The  Japanese mostly credits her coaches Hiroshi Nagakubo and Yoriko Naruse for  helping her to get back on track. “My coaches and other people around me  encouraged me and brought me to where I am right now,” she explained.  “Obviously, I want a result in each competition I enter, but it is my love for  skating that makes me strong.”

Suzuki  started her international comeback with a win at the Winter Universiade in  2007, then went on to win some other internationals such as the Golden Spin, the  Aegon Challenge Cup, and the Finlandia Trophy in 2007 and 2008 before being  selected for the NHK Trophy in fall 2008. Now she has established herself as  one of the top Japanese Ladies, but is still in the shadow of super stars  Asada and Ando.

“Before, figure skating wasn’t so popular in Japan, and now all the focus is on Miki  and Mao, but it’s slowly starting for me in Nagoya,” Suzuki said. “But I don’t mind  being less known. It’s better so I can live in peace,” she smiled.

The skater  describes herself as “cheerful, but quiet and low-key and always composed”. At  the same time, she is an emotional and enthusiastic person. This comes across  especially when she skates well and her big smiles lights up the arena. She  chose Irish music and Westside Story for her programs in the Olympic  season – music that she was able to express very well.

“Shae-Lynn Bourne  choreographed my free program. I was so inspired by their (Bourne/Kraatz) Riverdance (free dance),” Suzuki recalled. “Tango is my style, but Westside  Story was something new and different for me, and I really liked skating to it.  I had five suggestions for the free program music and I picked Westside Story.”

The  Japanese sees footwork as her strength as a skater, and was very proud when  she was awarded a rare level four for the straight line footwork at the Four  Continents Championships in February. “The spins are my weakness,” she  admitted. “They are a bit slow.”

Suzuki  trains three to five hours on the ice six days a week in Nagoya and does yoga for off-ice training.  She has one day a week off. “Then I like going to yoga classes, to relax or I  go to Starbucks and sit there to read,” she said. “I like when it’s lively  around me.”

As a child, she tried many activities such as swimming, playing the  piano, calligraphy, and skating, “but I really liked the training,” and so she  stuck with it. Her idol as a young skater was Michelle Kwan.

Suzuki  follows no special ritual when training or competing, but her little talisman,  a statue of the Indian elephant-headed god Ganesh, is always with her. “I take  it everywhere, and when I’m nervous, I put my hand on it.” So when asked what  three things she’d take to an isolated island, she doesn’t have to think long:  “The Ganesh statue, music, and food.”

The 25-year-old  is planning to compete next season and her goal is to skate in her home country at the World  Championships in Tokyo,   Japan. But she also has made plans for  the time after her competitive career. “In the future, I’d like to skate in  shows and I’d like to dedicate myself to choreography,” Suzuki revealed. She  looks up to Shae-Lynn Bourne in this field.   With her dedication, love for skating, and character on the ice, Suzuki  no doubt should become a successful choreographer.

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