She could have taken the easy way out, played it safe, and walked away with another medal at the world championships.
But that would have been out of character for Mao Asada. Instead, the 18-year-old decided to go all out to try and retain her world title after finishing third in the short program last week.
It proved that even in defeat, Mao is still a champion.
Facing a huge margin to overcome to catch South Korea’s Kim Yu Na, Mao chose to include two triple axels in her free skate in the hopes it would be enough to put her on top of the podium for the second straight year.
If Kim had faltered, the strategy might have paid off.
Mao could have downgraded one of the triple axels to a double and likely earned the silver or bronze medal in Los Angeles.
By doing that she would have earned a medal at the worlds for the third straight year, but eliminated any chance at victory, and to this fearless competitor that was simply unacceptable.
This is what makes Mao so refreshing and helps explain her massive following. Those in the skating community and her fans know that she possesses a unique amount of fortitude.
As time goes by, I find that the people who impress me most in life — be they athletes or not — are those with guts. It is a quality that seems to be in such short supply these days.
Too often people beg off when confronted with difficulty, packing it in at the first sign of trouble, or looking for an “exit strategy.”
But not this young lady. Mao knew what was riding on this and she didn’t flinch.
After landing the first triple axel, there was hope. When she fell on the second, hope had disappeared, but instead of going through the motions, Mao skated her heart out the rest of the way and ended up with a standing ovation from the crowd at the Staples Center.
I could only shake my head at her most recent show of determination. This is not something that can be taught, I thought, it’s innate.
The big question now is: Where does Mao go from here?
The Japanese media have already begun dissecting her fourth-place finish at the worlds, which marked her worst showing in competition since the 2003 Japan nationals, where she finished eighth at the age of 13.
Questions are being raised about the arrangement whereby Mao and coach Tatiana Tarasova commute to see each other. The separation has led to reduced practice time for Mao and it appears the situation is untenable with less than a year remaining until the Vancouver Winter Olympics.
According to the International Skating Union Web site, Mao trains 23 hours a week while splitting time between Japan and Russia, while Kim is on the ice 48 hours a week in Toronto with coach Brian Orser.
While Tarasova’s credentials are unquestioned, the bottom line is that her limited accessibility and family issues are decreasing her value to Mao.
With Tarasova, 62, having made clear that she can’t move to Japan full time to work with Mao because of relatives who are ailing, there appears to be only two options going forward: 1) Mao moves to Moscow to train with Tarasova. 2) Mao leaves Tarasova and gets another coach.
It is obvious that the first option would be the easiest, but does Mao, who recently enrolled at Chukyo University, want to live outside Japan?
There are only a handful of coaches in the world who could handle a talent like Mao, but it is unlikely that they would pull up roots and move to Japan. So it seems certain that, one way or the other, Mao is going to have to pack her bags to make a serious run at the gold medal next year.
The window of opportunity in skating cannot be overstated. For Mao, the future is now.
The logical choice to step in at this point would be Nikolai Morozov, whose track record in making Japanese skaters (e.g. Shizuka Arakawa, Miki Ando, Daisuke Murakami) champions speaks for itself.
The 33-year-old Morozov is based in New Jersey, which is a long way from Nagoya, but Mao enjoyed living in California while training under Rafael Arutunian and would adapt to her new environment.
The group of Japanese skaters (Ando, Fumie Suguri, Nobunari Oda, Daisuke Takahashi, Chris and Cathy Reed) that Morozov coaches at the Ice House in Hackensack would certainly make Mao feel at home.
One need only look at the results at the recent worlds to see Morozov’s impact:
• Ando finished third (the second time in three years under Morozov that she has been a world medalist).
• Suguri, who placed eighth, made it back to the worlds after not qualifying last season under a different coach.
• Oda, who finished seventh after sitting out all of last season, landed his first quad-triple combination jump ever in competition, and if he had not been penalized for mistakenly adding an extra combination jump in his free skate, would have very likely earned a medal.
• The Reeds qualified in ice dance for their first trip to the Olympics.
There is no doubt that in light of Kim’s sensational performance at the worlds, Morozov would relish the chance to take on Mao and prepare her for Vancouver.
It would not be the first time he trained a skater that left Tarasova ahead of the Olympics.
We all remember what happened the last time that scenario played out.