It’s been said that life all comes down to a few moments.
For Miki Ando and Mao Asada, who have spent much of their young lives as elite skaters striving for the sport’s holy grail — the Olympic gold medal — the time for one of those is nearly at hand.
The years invested by Japan’s best hopes for gold at the Vancouver Games will all come down to seven precious minutes on the ice at the Pacific Coliseum. A nation will watch intently as they try to retain the title won by Shizuka Arakawa at the 2006 Turin Games.
The man who led Arakawa to the unexpected triumph in Italy says there is a method to the madness in skating. The judges and other competitors have to be factored in, he recognizes, but at the end of the day it’s about a skater taking the ice in optimal condition mentally and physically.
“In skating you can’t be in good shape all the time,” said Nikolai Morozov at a recent meeting of the Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan in Tokyo. “The maximum the body can take is maybe a week or a week and a half. There is too much technical coordination necessary to go longer than that.”
The 34-year-old Russian coach says that knowing when to peak is everything. He sees skaters as one would see a race horse or a race car.
“You can’t keep executing perfectly all the time,” Morozov stated. “If you continue to push yourself, it will fall apart and you won’t know why.”
With many in the skating community ready to cede the gold medal in Vancouver to defending world champion Kim Yu Na, the wily Morozov says not so fast.
“You can predict when skaters will peak,” he said. “Yu Na struggled at the Grand Prix Final and Skate America. She did too well so early in the season (setting a world record with a stunning 36-point victory over Mao at the Trophee Bompard in the season-opening Grand Prix event back in October).”
When asked about Kim’s chances for the gold, Morozov said it will depend on how his counterpart gets his skater ready.
“It will all depend on Brian Orser (Kim’s coach) and the preparations,” he said. “She has also had a back injury in the past.”
Morozov’s mention of Kim’s injury is noteworthy, as in two of the past three seasons, she has broken down before the season ended. The exception was last year when she won the world title in Los Angeles.
The psychological part of the game can’t be discounted in Morozov’s view. This is where a veteran skater can gain an advantage over their younger foes.
“Miki is much stronger than the other two (Mao, Kim),” he said. “They see her at practice and get concerned, like at the 2007 worlds. Skating is 98 percent mental on this level.”
Ando has been knocked in the past for not being mentally tough enough, but it is obvious that Morozov believes those days are behind her.
Despite winning two Grand Prix events this season and finishing second at the Grand Prix Final in Tokyo, Ando has yet to hit a triple-triple combination jump in competition. It is clear that this is what Morozov has in mind when he talks about peaking at the right time.
He can envision Ando winning the gold in much the same fashion that Arakawa did — by skating a clean program and letting the chips (or other skaters) fall where they may.
“Singles skaters need to have no fear,” he pointed out. “If you think too much, you make mistakes. The great ones don’t think too much. Shizuka didn’t ask a lot of questions, she just went out and did it.”
Morozov discounts training as a true measure of a skater’s ability.
“All of the top skaters can do it in practice,” he said. “But it’s not about practice, it’s how you perform. This is why Miki beat Mao in two of the last three worlds.”
Morozov acknowledges that a naturally gifted athlete like Ando is not the easiest to motivate when nothing is on the line. Like any great coach, he knows when to push and when to back off. There have been times when he has had to shout at her in practice to get her going and she has reacted by crying.
“It is hard to get Miki to practice,” he admits, “but she is good in competition.”
As with other foreign coaches who have worked with Japanese athletes, Morozov believes far too much emphasis is placed on preparation here.
“The biggest problem in Japan is overtraining,” he said. “There is too much focus on practice.”
Morozov’s analysis of the new scoring system in skating is also very interesting.
“The key to this system is not to make mistakes,” he said. “The system is good for skating, but not for jumps.”
Morozov then gave an example of what he meant.
“Yu Na’s triple lutz/triple toe loop (combination jump) is worth more points that Mao’s triple axel,” he said. “Even a triple axel/double toe loop is worth less than Yu Na’s triple/triple.”
Cashing in: A recent story by Forbes.com put Kim Yu Na’s earnings in 2009 at a cool $8 million. The overwhelming majority of that money came from marketing deals.
Kim’s sponsors in her native South Korea include Hyundai, Samsung, Kookim Bank, Nike and Procter & Gamble.
One can only wonder what this number will balloon to if she wins the Olympic gold.
Despite the windfall, Kim showed compassion and true class with a $90,000 donation last month to UNICEF’S Haitian earthquake relief effort.
Food for thought: An enterprising Vancouver street vendor is trying to cash in on Mao’s bid for the gold by naming a hot dog after her, according to the Vancouver Sun. The “Mao dog” sells for $10 on Noriki Tamura’s “Japadog” cart.
The Mao dog is made from Kobe beef, dipped in tonkatsu sauce, and sprinkled with gold and red tofu maple leaves. Only 20 are made each day and are usually sold out by lunch time.
Tamura is a real piece of work. He even includes a tribute in the way he prepares the specialty.
“We cut the sausage three times to symbolize her triple axels,” he said.