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Suzuki, Murakami exemplify power, passion that make skating magnetic

by Jack Gallagher

Staff Writer

It has been almost two weeks now, but the emotions aroused by the recent Japan national championships in Saitama remain vivid.

Ice Time is usually out of the country on vacation at this time, but covered the event in this Olympic season to decide which skaters would be going to the Sochi Games.

It turned out to be a fantastic experience and a reminder of what a truly great sport figure skating is.

The atmosphere at Saitama Super Arena was absolutely electric, with nearly 18,000 fans packed in four days in a row. The seats were literally filled all the way to the roof. A very impressive turn out.

It was also a glorious example of how ardent skating fans are in Japan.

What really impressed me was not just that they turned out in huge numbers, but that they were knowledgeable and supportive.

There are a lot of young skaters participating each year in the event who are not the elite like Mao Asada and Yuzuru Hanyu. Whenever one of these skaters fell or struggled with elements in their programs, the fans encouraged them with cheers. It was heartwarming to see.

I wish foreign skating fans could have the chance to attend the Japan nationals just once to witness what I am talking about. To see a full house each day and the skaters going all out and pursuing their passion is about as good as it gets.

The competition for spots on the Olympic squad was so fierce that it almost felt like the Olympics itself.

What resonates most several days later is the steady poise of Akiko Suzuki, who won her first national title at 28, and the guts of Kanako Murakami, who knew she needed to make the podium for a spot on the team for Sochi.

Just to put Suzuki’s victory in context, when Shizuka Arakawa won the gold medal at the Turin Olympics in 2006, she became the oldest female skater to accomplish the feat. She was 24.

Suzuki, who finished eighth at the 2010 Vancouver Games, reminded me of a singer going over the bars of an old song, as she moved gracefully through her short program and free skate. She was both elegant and artistic on the way to victory.

Suzuki has developed a huge fan base in the past several years.

Why?

I think a lot of people identify with her and respect what she has gone through to get where she is. It has not been an easy road for the Nagoya native. Hard work and perseverance have gotten her where she is.

Suzuki’s story is well known. She missed an entire season (2003-04) while dealing with an eating disorder, and was almost an afterthought before making the team for Vancouver.

Many thought that might be the end of her competitive career, but she soldiered on and earned the bronze medal at the world championships in 2012. When she accomplished that, it seemed like she had reached the pinnacle.

But now she is the national champion at 28. Her performance says a lot about her and how skating has changed over the years.

Once upon a time, it would have been unthinkable for a skater to still be competing at that age, much less winning. But with the focus on physical conditioning and nutrition that today’s athletes have, the limits have been extended.

Suzuki admitted in a meeting with the Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan in 2012 that she also uses a psychologist to help her focus on the mental side of competing.

“I was advised to get an image of myself floating on a big ocean,” she told the FSAJ. “Just let it go without going against the flow. I was told that I could get confidence by doing so.”

Despite her great fitness, it is very obvious that what separates Suzuki from being a good skater and being a champion comes from within. Deep down inside, she has the strength and courage to go along with ability to make her one of the best.

There are many outstanding skaters, but being able to perform like Suzuki did in Saitama will be long remembered by fans and media alike. The reaction to her triumph highlighted the very best the sport has to offer.

Whenever I hear somebody belittle skating, I just have to laugh. To the uninformed it can be confusing, but let there be no doubt that these are some of the finest and most well-conditioned athletes in the world.

One need only attend a practice session to see the skaters flying around and falling frequently while attempting jumps, to know what I mean. There are no pads in skating, so when you hit the ice it is like slamming into concrete at high speed. No give.

Skating in singles is a solitary proposition that can be daunting. Consider standing on the ice in front of 18,000 fans. You have to do everything yourself. There is no one to pass the ball to or throw a block for you.

It is you and you alone.

As impressive as Suzuki’s victory was, it was Murakami’s effort that moved me most. The 2010 world junior champion has always been an excellent skater, but following in the footsteps of a giant like Mao has not been easy.

The Japanese media even dubbed her “Mini Mao,” which no doubt heaped even greater expectations upon her. It has been difficult for her to live up to the moniker.

After struggling through a mediocre Grand Prix season, in which she did not qualify for the GP Final, Murakami was fully aware that she had to shine in Saitama or watch the Olympics on TV.

The 19-year-old rose to the occasion and then some. It was the kind of effort that just made you sit back and shake your head. The truly great athletes are the ones who can execute when the stakes are the highest.

While Suzuki displayed her veteran poise in winning, Murakami exhibited her youthful charm in accomplishing what she had to. Murakami knew she had to skate a clean short program to keep herself in contention going into the free skate and she accomplished it.

It was what she did afterward that truly moved those in attendance that Sunday night. She burst into tears at center ice and continued crying all the way through her scores being posted.

It was obvious to all that nothing about the show of emotion was contrived. It was truly genuine and from the heart. The tension was palpable and the pressure on her immense, but she came through and went on to take second behind Suzuki and ahead of Mao the next day.

It has been said that life all comes down to a few moments.

When she was under the greatest stress an athlete can imagine, Murakami was resolute and powered through it. It was an inspiring sight.

“I felt really confident today before the competition,” commented Murakami after clinching her spot for Sochi. “I did feel big pressure because of my hope to go to the Olympics. The key point was believing in myself.”