Fans across the nation expressed shock Monday night after hearing beloved figure skater Mao Asada, the 26-year-old long-time face of Japanese figure skating, was retiring as a competitor.
“I’ll never forget how she won a silver medal in the (2010) Vancouver Olympics,” said 19-year-old university student Hiroya Mukuno in the city of Fukuoka. “It’s sad that we cannot see our national star’s skating anymore.”
In Sendai, 30-year-old Michie Oikawa said she was “surprised” to hear the news. “It’s unfortunate because I wanted her to compete in the Pyeongchang Olympics” in South Korea next year, she said.
In a shopping area in the city of Osaka, a woman in her 40s expressed her dismay upon hearing the news.
“She was working hard from an early age, carrying the hopes of the Japanese people,” she said. “From now on, I want her to enjoy life freely as an ordinary girl.”
At JR Shinbashi Station in Tokyo, a 28-year-old woman offered words of encouragement for Mao.
“The late 20s is when people start thinking about the next step in their lives and I understand her feeling very well,” she said.
In Aichi Prefecture, where Mao was born, people expressed appreciation for the skater’s hard work, recalling their own interactions with the star.
“She was smiling even when she was having a very difficult time,” said Kagemoto Yuasa, head of the skating team at Chukyo University, where Mao attended. “Many times, I was the one being taught.”
Yuasa watched Mao’s skating since she was in her first year of junior high school. After Mao entered the university, she joined his seminar on coaching. When Yuasa and the star skater met with a mayor, Mao said she wanted to coach children in the future, according to Yuasa.
“I think she would be a good coach,” Yuasa said.
At a restaurant in Nagoya that Mao frequented with her mother when she was in elementary school, 70-year-old owner Kazuo Inoue recalled Mao ordering with a smile on her face while saying, “Fried rice, please.”
“She would eat silently, like she was storing her energy,” Inoue said.
Inoue also remembers Mao’s gloomy expression when she visited the diner after losing to South Korea’s Yuna Kim at the Vancouver Olympics, despite marking her personal best score.
Mao said she was frustrated to have taken a silver medal, Inoue recounted.
“It is sad that I can no longer see her perform in the Olympics, but I want her to visit the diner and have a relaxing meal,” he said.
Mao also often visited the Tohoku region, which was devastated by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, giving performances and lessons.
“Not only having technical skills, she was an athlete with a great personality,” said 45-year-old Eiko Takahashi, who teaches skating to children in the city of Morioka. Mao participated in a figure skating exhibition in 2016 to support the region’s reconstruction.
After her performance, Mao went backstage and praised the children who performed, Takahashi said.
“The number of children who started skating increased after Asada rose to stardom. I want her to continue being involved in skating in one way or another,” Takahashi added.
In 2013, Mao held a skating lesson in Sendai.
“It was impressive to see her take (children) by hand and teach them step by step, although it was an important season before the Sochi Olympics,” said Hiroshi Mizutani, 57, who led a group of elementary school children from Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, to join the event.
Mao’s older sister Mai, 28, posted her feelings on her Twitter account Monday.
“I myself still cannot believe that the day she would really retire would come, and that the time is coming now,” Mai wrote.
Mai served as an early motivation for Mao, being the first of the two to compete on the global stage.
“For a top athlete who has been successful for a long time, there was surely joy and inner conflict,” Mai said. “Hats off to her for focusing everything in her life on skating. I could only learn from her competitive career.”