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Mao’s poise under pressure proved decisive in 2008

by Jack Gallagher

Mao Asada capped off an incredible year by rallying for her third straight national title in Nagano on Dec. 27.

Trailing Yukari Nakano following the short program, Mao summoned the energy for one last blast in her free skate and came away victorious once more.

It was a fitting end to a year which saw Mao capture her first world title in March, score an impressive win over rival Kim Yu Na in the Grand Prix Final earlier in December, then top it off by retaining her All-Japan crown just before the calendar turned to 2009.

Fans and media have become so accustomed to Mao winning that some don’t give it a second thought anymore, but there was something especially noteworthy about all three of her major victories last year.

Mao showed her champion’s heart at the worlds in Sweden, the GP Final in South Korea and at the nationals by coming from behind after the short program to win each time. The significance of this cannot be understated in a sport where mental toughness plays a huge factor.

The example of American Sasha Cohen, the silver medalist behind Shizuka Arakawa at the 2006 Turin Olympics, is a case in point. The talented Cohen was considered one of the best practice skaters ever, but time and again had trouble in competition when she was truly in the spotlight.

It helps to have the physical gifts that Mao has, and knowing you can land the triple axel not just once, but twice, is a huge advantage. Not only does it give her peace of mind that she can rally to win, but the psychological effect it has on her opponents can’t be understated.

Just ask Kim, who led after the short program at the GP Final on home ice, only to see Mao become the first female to land two triple axels in the same program in international competition and prevail.

The impact of that defeat on the graceful and gifted Kim remains to be seen, but one has to surmise that it had to be difficult to accept. All of the conditions were in place for Kim to win her third straight GP Final, and put some doubt in Mao’s mind, but she could not get the job done.

Mao’s victory at the GP Final brought to mind the old wisdom about defining moments: It all comes down to whether you are going to define them, or they are going to define you.

Mao answered this question in resounding fashion and heads into 2009 on a wave of momentum.

She and Kim will face off again in a true warmup for the 2010 Vancouver Games when they take the ice at the Four Continents Championship in British Columbia next month.

Kim’s presentation skills have been particularly outstanding this season, and if she can stay healthy the rest of the way, her continuing rivalry with Mao should make their competition very compelling.

Takahashi update: Daisuke Takahashi was released from a hospital on Christmas Eve following surgery and a month of rehabilitation on his right knee. He had the operation to repair ligament and cartilage damage on Nov. 26 and looks to be returning to the ice some time around May.

The No. 1-ranked male skater in the world last season is facing an uphill climb to be back in form by the Vancouver Games, where he figured to be one of the top medal contenders before the injury. Here’s hoping the extremely talented Takahashi can pull it together in time.

Junior recap: The future is looking bright for Yukiko Fujisawa, who finished a close second to American Becky Bereswill at last month’s Junior GP Final in South Korea.

Fujisawa put on an incredible performance to win the free skate, coming from seventh place after the short program to finish runnerup by less than one point.

Compatriot Kanako Murakami placed fourth.

Popularity defined: Mao Asada’s status as Japan’s most popular female athlete was confirmed in a recent poll conducted by the weekly magazine Josei Jishin. Not only did Mao win in a landslide (table tennis player Ai Fukuhara was second and wrestler Kyoko Hamaguchi third), she totaled more votes than the second through 10th place finishers combined.

Miki Ando finished fifth in the survey.

New book out: Mao’s mother Kyoko was kind enough to send Ice Time a new copy of the recently released Japanese book about her daughter entitled “Mao Asada, Miracle Seventeen.” It is the third tome on Mao by author Naoko Utsunomiya and covers the 2007-08 season.

The 156-page book was published by Bungeishunjusha and is on sale now for ¥1,400 including tax. It is filled with wonderful pictures of Mao’s climb to her first world title.