|

Will Kim’s return provide new motivation for Mao?

by Jack Gallagher

Great news descended upon the skating world last week when Kim Yu-na announced she was returning to competition with the goal of taking part in the 2014 Sochi Games.

With Kim and two-time world champion Miki Ando sitting out last season, and Mao Asada unable to find her top form, the campaign lacked the buzz of seasons past. But that won’t be a problem for the next 20 months.

Make no mistake about it, Kim is a superstar in every sense of the word. A great athlete, spokesperson and humanitarian — all at the age of 21.

She broke the news of her return in a press conference broadcast on live television in South Korea. Kim said it was tough to motivate herself after winning the gold medal at the 2010 Vancouver Games and dealing with the expectations of the public afterward.

“After Vancouver, I couldn’t find a bigger goal for myself as a figure skater, but expectations from fans kept growing,” Yonhap quoted Kim as saying. “I was really burdened by them all. I had no idea just how much harder I had to train to stay in form, and I was afraid that I would let so many people down if I made mistakes in competition.”

Kim, the 2009 world champion, decided that if she let outside factors influence her and force a premature competitive retirement, she would look back later and wish they had not.

“I decided I could lower my own expectations and adjust my goal so I can simply skate for myself,” Kim stated. “I thought if I let this pressure or fear get to me and end my career, I would regret it later.”

Kim said that she would continue her collaboration with choreographer David Wilson, while it was uncertain who her coach would be. She was coached by Brian Orser and based in Toronto when she won the gold.

Kim won’t compete in the Grand Prix competition this season, but instead will enter one of the ISU’s second-tier B events. The bigger story for Japanese fans of the star is that she may also skate in the 2013 Four Continents Championships in Osaka next February.

While it is certainly a wonderful development for skating that Kim is returning, the greater question is how will it affect longtime rival Mao.

Even though she showed incredible grace in the wake of her loss to Kim in Vancouver, and rebounded to win her second world title two months later, there is little doubt that the crushing defeat still burns deep within Mao.

There have been some incredible rivalries in the annals of sport. Names that became synonymous with each other like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier (boxing), Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell (basketball), Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer (golf), and more recently, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal (tennis).

In each instance one foe brought out the best in the other. The battles of the aforementioned are legendary and in the case of Federer and Nadal, continue to be. They are the type of showdowns that both the sporting public and the athletes themselves relish.

The electricity generated by these clashes drove the combatants to even greater heights and took them into the pantheon of sport.

The hope here is that Kim’s return will inspire Mao to regain her previous level of performance. Motivation is an incredible thing.

There is little doubt that Mao still yearns for the gold medal that got away two years ago. To win it against your greatest foe, four years later, would help wipe out some of the hurt and make the triumph that much sweeter.

Mao is no different than any elite athlete in that she wants to beat the best. With Kim and Ando back in the picture, she will now have the chance to do just that.

Mao just spent three weeks in Budapest working with choreographer Zoltan Nagy. She was accompanied there by older sister Mai.

While there Mao gave a compelling interview to the Hungarian Skating Federation’s website. An English translation was then posted on the popular skating website www.fsuniverse.net and a few of the questions follow:

During the 2010 Olympics you didn’t manage to stand at the top of the podium. What are your feelings about that event now, two years later?

“In Vancouver for the first time I felt very sad during the announcement of results,” Mao commented. “It was very difficult because I worked very hard, but that is the nature of the sport; the Korean athlete was simply better than me.”

In the past two years, you placed only sixth at the world championships, what do you think was the reason?

“I haven’t neglected skating, but I grew a lot and the muscles in my body didn’t adjust accordingly.”

Mao made no secret of her goal for Sochi in the session.

It’s two years until the Sochi Olympics. Will you participate?

“Of course, I will continue my career until then,” Mao said. “I want to stand for the highest level of the podium.”

End of the line: Ando’s split with coach Nikolai Morozov was officially announced by the Japan Skating Federation on Monday. The six-year relationship saw Ando win two world titles and place fifth in the Vancouver Games.

The JSF said Ando has not decided on a new coach yet.

Daisuke Takahashi, the 2010 world champion and Olympic bronze medalist, who previously worked with Morozov, announced last month he would be returning to the Russian coach again for the coming season.