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What now for Mao?

by Jack Gallagher

What a show it was.

It has been several days now, and the dust has settled, but nobody can say that the battle for the gold medal in Vancouver between Mao Asada and Kim Yu Na didn’t live up to its billing.

Though Kim ended up winning handily, the sheer force of power and drama generated by the two gifted skaters was nothing short of amazing.

Personifying everything the Olympic ideal stands for, the rivals put on a captivating performance. It’s not much of a stretch to say that two nations came to a standstill for nearly 15 minutes as Mao and Kim skated back-to-back in the free skate on Feb. 26.

People in offices, railway stations, electronics stores and just about every other imaginable setting in Japan and South Korea gathered around televisions to take it all in.

I looked up from my desk and found myself surrounded by 15 people, and that is what made it so wonderful — seeing the profound impact these two 19-year-olds had on the masses.

After a buildup of four years, it all came down to just over four minutes, and to their credit neither skater cracked under the pressure.

I was struck by the genuine purity of the contest. Two young athletes, in the prime of their lives, going for glory on the grandest stage.

It was a pity that somebody had to lose, but the battle was fought fairly and absent so much of the nonsense we see so often in other sports.

Kim was elegance defined as she skated to near perfection, racking up a record score on the way to victory.

Mao made a couple of mistakes, but it was fait accompli by the time she took the ice. She made history of her own by becoming the first female to land two triple axels in a single program at the Olympics.

What I thought about afterward was how fans could just not get enough of the showdown in the days leading up to it. Television, radio, print, Internet, wherever you looked it was there in abundance.

And it wasn’t just in Asia, either. NBC TV in the United States did a pretty fair job of hyping the Kim-Mao clash, with 1992 U.S. Olympic champion Kristi Yamaguchi reporting on it.

I’ve been searching my mind to find a similar event to equate it to. Because skating is an individual sport, and the focus was on Mao and Kim, I kept coming back to boxing.

This was like the Thrilla in Manila (Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier), the Rumble in the Jungle (Ali vs. George Foreman) and the first Sugar Ray Leonard-Thomas Hearns fight all rolled into one.

An overstatement?

I think not.

None of those epic fights had a four-year buildup, and none of them were aired on free television in the country of the combatants.

Though Kim got the gold and Mao the silver, the true winner in it all was skating itself.

Reflecting on it after it was all over, I could only laugh about the poorly informed minority which doesn’t consider skating a “sport.”

Yeah, right.

What impressed me most was how Kim and Mao handled it all. Kim was gracious in victory after carrying a heavy burden for years and South Korea rejoiced in her triumph.

Mao, who was clearly heartbroken at not getting the gold, cried as NHK interviewed her live in the moments afterward. I was thankful I was surrounded by a large group of people as I watched it, otherwise I might have lost it myself.

When you want something as bad as Mao did, and you come up short, it can be a bitter pill. But displaying her true class, she made it through the interview, and by the next day could take satisfaction in her own historic achievement.

I think Japan collectively breathed a sigh of relief at this. It was the resiliency of youth on full display.

The question now is where does Mao go from here?

She is still young enough to have a bona fide shot at the gold at the Sochi Games in 2014, and says that and breaking Kim’s record are her goals.

However, it is clear that in the absence of Kim retiring, it is going to be difficult to surpass her on sheer effort alone.

Mao needs a new coach and a new approach in the worst way.

Heading into Vancouver, Mao hadn’t seen coach Tatiana Tarasova in person for nearly four months. Hardly a setup conducive to success. This made the outcome fairly predictable.

In the final analysis, Kim may well have beaten Mao even if she had an elite, full-time coach. But I think most would agree that there is no way Mao should have lost by 23 points.

With Mao’s talent and fortitude, it should have been a much closer contest.

The feeling here is that the “Bells of Moscow” music in the free skate did Mao a real disservice. She just could not display her radiance and beauty skating to it.

Once again, not the position you want to be in when you are trying to win the Olympic gold.

As I sat in my local watering hole that Sunday, watching a replay of the exhibition gala, some of the regulars at the bar pointed out that the “Capriccio No. 24″ that Mao skated to was much more suited to her personality. I agreed wholeheartedly.

On the final day of the Games, Mao was asked by the Tokyo Shimbun what she felt she was lacking. Her response was interesting.

“The artistic side is also important, but I think for me, it’s on the technical side,” she said. “If you don’t complete the jumps, you can’t move up. Kim Yu Na is at the top because she’s doing a triple-triple combo and other difficult skills. To increase the base value more, I want to practice the other jumps.”

This is precisely why she needs a coach who can fully devote time to her.

When questioned about the mistakes on two jumps in her free skate — a triple flip and triple toe loop — Mao admitted she lost focus.

“After all, they’re easy compared to the axel,” she said. “I still make mistakes on the flip sometimes, but never on the toe loop, so that was completely unexpected. My mind wavered at the end, and it translated into mistakes.”

It will be interesting to see where matters go from here. Kim made the sacrifice of moving overseas to train, stuck it out, and was rewarded.

Mao returned to Japan two years before the Olympics, after training in California for most of two seasons, and was unable to make it work for her.

The bottom line is that at this level there are no shortcuts and sacrifices have to be made.

I don’t think the status quo is going to equate to gold in Sochi. Not with fourth-place finisher Mirai Nagasu of the U.S. — three years younger than Mao — training with Hall of Fame coach Frank Carroll in Los Angeles.

Nevertheless, Mao deserves the gratitude of the millions who watched her skate in Vancouver. She made a supreme effort and represented Japan well.

I thought it was fitting that she carried the Hinomaru at the closing ceremony.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Win or lose, she is a champion.

Truth in numbers: As if the Olympics wasn’t proof enough, the soaring popularity of skating was confirmed in a poll conducted by The Yomiuri Shimbun a month before the Vancouver Games.

Skating was tied with sumo as the sixth-most popular spectator sport in Japan, with 23 percent of the respondents indicating it was their favorite. It is worth noting that while skating is clearly on the rise, sumo has been in a long, slow decline.

Mao was ranked as the third-most popular Japanese athlete behind Ichiro Suzuki and golfer Ryo Ishikawa.

One spot behind Mao was Hideki Matsui — the MVP of the World Series.

Wow.

Miki Ando, who finished fifth in Vancouver, was 10th in the popularity ranking.

Skating was the only sport besides baseball to have more than one athlete in the top 10.

I can only imagine what the numbers would look like if a poll was taken now.

Farewell, Yukari: It was with great sadness that Ice Time learned of the competitive retirement of Yukari Nakano due to injury. After a long and successful career, the 24-year-old pulled out of the worlds last week and announced she was hanging up her skates.

She will be replaced in Turin, Italy, by Akiko Suzuki.

A nagging groin injury was responsible for Nakano’s decision to call it quits. Her departure is a real loss for the sport.

Nakano, who will receive her master’s degree in human sciences this month, will begin working for Fuji TV in April.

A true pro to the end, Nakano was passed over twice for the Olympics, most recently when she finished a narrow third behind Suzuki at the Japan nationals in Osaka in December. Yet she never whined about it.

The Aichi Prefecture native was popular with fellow skaters and fans for her charming smile and patented “donut” spin.

She remains one of only five women to hit a triple axel in international competition.