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.