While Shizuka Arakawa dazzled Japan with her enchanting performance in capturing the gold medal in the Turin Games last month, she also illustrated what separates her from most of her sporting compatriots — individuality and candor.
These traits have helped catapult her to international fame and lifelong security.
You win the gold medal in women’s figure skating at the Winter Olympics and you become a celebrity.
When you are the first person from your country to do it, you are set forever.
Arakawa, an only child who was born in Tokyo and raised in Sendai, is different than most Japanese athletes in that she has a real edge to her.
If you are looking for generic answers to generic questions, you better look somewhere else.
I was very impressed by her recent admission that she “found it hard to stay motivated” after winning the 2004 world championship.
Now, there are a lot of athletes who may have similar feelings in the wake of major accomplishments, but how many would actually admit it?
It was refreshing to hear in the increasingly artificial world of sports, where the key figures too often come across as insincere, and the answers to most questions canned.
Arakawa has been on the scene for quite a while now. Having placed 13th in the Nagano Games in 1998, shortly after turning 16, she has skated on for eight long years and made it pay off handsomely.
She has had some ups and downs along the way.
Not long after Nagano, she moved to the United States to live and train, but returned home shortly thereafter claiming she was homesick.
For many skaters, this might have signaled the beginning of the end.
But Arakawa found a way to endure and, despite missing out on going to the Salt Lake Games in 2002, the ability to adapt to a different environment.
She has spent the better part of the past two years training in Connecticut.
Last year, it took her five months to learn the difficult technique of being able to grab her skate from behind with one hand, because of the flexibility required to perform the maneuver.
She practiced the move continually, before finally being able to do it.
This was just one of the elements that helped her win the gold in Turin, and it was a further example of how she does things her way, but gets the job done in the end.
It was amazing to see, at a competition earlier this season where she had struggled, Arakawa snapping at Japan team leader Noriko Shirota after being told to perform a particular technique the same way teammate Mao Asada does.
“Don’t compare me to Mao!” Arakawa said.
It was classic stuff. The kind of moment we rarely see in conservative Japan, where the young are normally so compliant when instructed by their elders.
But let’s face it, Arakawa has guts and gusto.
She possesses the two key ingredients that any elite athlete must have to succeed at the highest level — skill and poise.
There are many skaters who can execute difficult jumps and programs, but it is one thing to do it in practice, and another when a billion people are watching.
Just ask Sasha Cohen and Irina Slutskaya.
Twice, Arakawa has succeeded where many Japanese athletes over the years have failed — on the world stage.
She did it two years ago at the worlds in Dortmund, Germany, and again in Turin.
Both times, the stakes could not have been higher. Yet she came through flawlessly.
She exemplifies exactly what defines a champion — the ability to rise to the occasion in the face of intense pressure and prevail.
Despite being beaten by Asada three separate times in head-to-head competition this season, Arakawa didn’t get down on herself. It was as if she knew all along that she was going to peak at precisely the right moment.
I still remember the look on her face when she finished third (behind Fumie Suguri and Asada) at the national championships in December in Tokyo.
She appeared happy to be on the podium, but you just knew she had greater aspirations in mind.
It was almost as if she was lying in wait, expecting everybody to overlook her, which is exactly what happened.
After being selected to the Olympic team, Arakawa said, “I thought this Olympics would be for the younger generation of skaters.”
Again, the kind of answer you rarely receive from an athlete in this country.
While the Japanese media fawned attention on Miki Ando (who finished 15th in Turin) and Suguri (who was fourth) in the days leading up to the Olympics, Arakawa calmly put the finishing touches on her programs with her new coach Nikolai Morozov.
It was interesting to note that during the medal ceremony in Turin, Arakawa shed not a single tear upon being awarded the gold medal and hearing her national anthem played.
At 24, she had just become the oldest woman to win the event since 1920.
But she maintained the same composure she had on the ice. It was an incredible show of will.
Instead of coming unglued and sobbing, she exhibited the class and elegance that are now synonymous with her name.
It is unfortunate that some foreign skating analysts chose to take the low road and claim that Cohen and Slutskaya, who led Arakawa following the short program, lost the gold medal instead of Arakawa winning it.
I thought Scott Hamilton, the American gold medalist in men’s figure skating at the 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo, who was in Turin and saw Arakawa’s spectacular effort, provided the most perceptive analysis of the events.
“Shizuka Arakawa skated a wonderful program tonight. I am convinced it will stand the test of time.”