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Mao was blessed with a mother who gave it her all

by Jack Gallagher

The past few days have been very difficult. I’m fairly confident a lot of other folks share my sentiments.

Late Friday evening we learned that Mao Asada’s mother Kyoko had passed away at the far too young age of 48.

Though some within the Japanese skating community were aware that Mao’s mother had not been well for quite a while, it came as a shock to the great majority of people in this country.

It didn’t take long for me to start feeling very emotional about this, because I have known Mao and her mother since Mao was a precocious child of 15.

The sadness I felt about Kyoko’s life being cut short was multiplied by the concern I had for Mao’s future. I think this is what many of her fans and the public are also concerned about.

How do you replace somebody that is irreplaceable?

There is never a good time for a tragedy, but the case could be made that the timing in this instance could not be worse. Just as Mao seemed to have rediscovered her form, she is confronted with this.

We can only hope that Mao is able to battle through this, just as she has overcome other challenges during her career. But the reality is that this is much different than anything else she has ever been confronted with.

It’s one thing to not be able to execute a triple axel when you want, completely another when you lose somebody so close to you.

My relationship with Mao and her mother began in early 2006, when they came to a Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan dinner in Tokyo where Mao was accepting the award as the top Japanese athlete of 2005.

Even though the event was organized on short notice, there was a record turnout for the FSAJ that night, one that has not been equalled since, although many prominent guests have followed.

At the end of the evening, I could see that Mao’s mother was clearly impressed by the warmth and love that had been shown to her daughter by the primarily foreign audience in attendance.

Mao and her mother were particularly taken by my daughter, Vienna, who was then three years old. At the end of the evening they told me, “Your daughter looks like a doll.”

The dinner was on a Monday night, and that Saturday I was in the office when a delivery man appeared at my desk with a huge box over his shoulder. I looked up and thought to myself, “What is this?”

I said to the guy, “Who is it from?”

He took one look at the shipping form, and his eyes rolled back as he blurted out “Asada Mao.”

“Really?” I replied.

I still remember lugging that thing all the way home on the train. When I finally walked in the door and plunked it down, my daughter was jumping with joy when I told her who it was from.

Her happiness soon turned into euphoria when she opened the box to find a huge array of stuffed animals. It doesn’t get much better than that when you are three.

As she sat there going through it, I couldn’t help being completely blown away by the gesture and the class of Mao and her mother. The fact that they came up from Nagoya for the event was nice enough, but now this.

“What a family,” was all I could think.

And so a relationship began. From that point on we exchanged periodic correspondence as the nation watched Mao blossom into a two-time world champion and Olympic silver medalist.

What impressed me the most about Kyoko Asada was that she clearly wanted to promote her daughter, but she always did it in a professional manner.

We have heard so many stories over the years about “stage mamas,” but that wasn’t her way.

She did everything she could to help her daughter achieve as much as she could, taking Mao to competitions from a young age, writing letters to coaches, and even moving Mao and older sister Mai overseas for more than a year at one point.

Whenever I saw Kyoko or received a note from her, she always said, “Thank you for writing about Japanese skating in English.” It was the kind of comment that meant a lot to me.

The last time I saw her was just about a year ago, when Mao was training at Shin-Yokohama Skate Center one day. She could not have been nicer. I only wish I knew then that it was the last time I would ever see her.

Our final exchange of correspondence had come months before, when my daughter (eight years old at the time) wrote Mao a letter of appreciation after the Vancouver Olympics.

I had almost forgotten the letter had been sent, when several weeks later a package was delivered to my front door.

Inside were some more goodies for my daughter along with a very nice note from Mao and her mother. One of the items was a windup music box that depicts Mao skating. It is displayed prominently in our home.

In spite of the relationship between my family and Mao’s, I never let it affect my coverage of her. When criticism was due, I gave it. When praise was in order, I delivered it.

Mao and her mother both understood that this was part of my job.

If you can judge a person by what they leave behind, Kyoko Asada has won the gold medal.

In a time when we see so many athletes and young people running around acting like village idiots, her legacy is two beautiful daughters who have never had a single blemish on their records.

That says everything to me. It is not easy to bring up kids in the world of skating, as we have seen before. She did it twice.

Mao is the most beloved athlete I have ever been around, and I have been around a lot of them. The outpouring of love for her over the past several days, both domestically and internationally, has been absolutely amazing. It’s the kind of moment that brings out the best in people.

While the hurt at losing her mother at such a young age will never go away, we can only hope that Mao will find the fortitude to carry on.

The Japan nationals are less than two weeks away, and Mao said Monday that she intends to compete.

I certainly hope this is the case.

A wise man once said, “Life is 20 percent of what happens to you, and 80 percent of how you react to it.”

Truer words have never been spoken.