Coming off the best season of her long career, one might think world bronze medalist Akiko Suzuki could be content to retire from competition and turn to show skating.
The transition would be a snap and the compensation a lot better.
But shortly after leading Japan to victory in last month’s World Team Trophy in Tokyo, Suzuki stated her intention to return for at least one more go around on the Grand Prix circuit.
“This season my results were good, so I’m obviously very happy,” Suzuki said at a meeting of the Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan in Tokyo. “But performance-wise I was not happy with all of them. So as long as I can expect to improve more, I would like to continue skating and competing. These are my thoughts at this time — to continue with my competitive career.”
With the 2014 Sochi Games still 21 months away, the native of Aichi Prefecture is not quite ready to commit to a second shot at skating in the Winter Olympics, however.
“I’m not sure yet about the Sochi Olympics, but I would like to keep training and continue to improve to show all of the supporters my skating,” she stated.
Suzuki finished eighth at the 2010 Vancouver Games, behind compatriots Mao Asada (second) and Miki Ando (fifth).
Like most elite skaters, Suzuki began her career at an early age. She was supported by her parents, who run a pair of restaurants in Toyohashi, near Nagoya.
“I put skates on for the first time when I was 4,” she noted. “I started taking up skating when I was 6.
“I first started thinking about the Olympics when I was 16 or 17 and competed in the world junior championships. But I had a health issue (an eating disorder), so I had to be away from the rink for one year.
“When I came back to skating I never thought about making the Vancouver Olympics, but maybe a year before that I thought maybe I had a shot to make the Olympic team.”
Suzuki’s banner season in 2011-12 included winning the ladies singles at the World Team Trophy and NHK Trophy, and placing second at the Grand Prix Final, the Japan national championships and Skate Canada.
Pretty impressive results at 27, when most skaters have already hung up their competitive skates. What resonates even more is that Suzuki dominated this season against much younger athletes.
On a night when she discussed a wide range of topics, Suzuki was clearly proud of what she accomplished this season after struggling in the 2010-11 campaign and missing out on Japan’s team for the world championships.
“I had a really good season. Everything worked so well,” she commented. “It is very tough for me to keep up with the younger skaters because they are very strong technically. I think I can work very hard, despite being 27, because of the one year that I was forced to miss. I wanted to be back on the ice rink. That is one of the motivations that I had.
“I still feel that I haven’t reached my limit. I still believe that I can improve from where I am right now. So that also motivates me to continue on with my skating.”
Suzuki’s willingness to talk about the eating disorder that sidelined her for the 2003-04 season is admirable, especially in a country where it is often difficult for people to open up about such personal matters.
“It took about one month after I began having the problem before realizing that something was wrong,” she recalled. “I had lost about 5 kg and realized, ‘This is not good.’ At that time it was uncontrollable and I was unable to eat properly. This is how it happened.”
The 158-cm Suzuki believes she can serve as an inspiration to those who have had or are dealing with the same problem.
“I believe that if people watch me training hard and working, they can be encouraged by what I am doing. I think that is very nice,” she said. “I want people who have been suffering (from the disorder), to know that there is no need to give up on what they are doing. By encouraging people who are suffering, that motivates me to skate.
“It has been quite some time since I had the health issue. Back then, when I had the health issue, the media was always talking about that before my skating. I wanted them to know about the problem, but at the same time I wanted them to see my skating.
“But when it came to competition, the fact that I had been sick was irrelevant, so I was very uncomfortable back then about people making a fuss about my health issue. But now people know about my skating. They see my skating first and then learn about my past issue. So I feel more comfortable about it now.”
In other countries prominent figures are often advocates for challenges they have faced. Suzuki, an only child, was asked if she would feel comfortable being more out front on the subject of eating disorders.
“As an amateur skater, it would probably be difficult for me to be involved with something like a public service announcement about this issue,” she noted. “Of course I would like to be involved with such an activity once I retire from my competitive career.”
Talking about the eating disorder wasn’t the only sensitive issue she discussed honestly during the evening. Suzuki credited one of the reasons for her success on the ice this season being time she spent discussing her skating with a psychologist.
“My friend knew a lady who was a psychologist and said, ‘I think this person can really help you.’ And she has. I feel very comfortable talking to her.”
Suzuki said the individual is not a sports psychologist, but somebody who is able to put her in the right frame of mind before events and focus on what is important to being successful.
“I was advised to get an image of myself floating on a big ocean,” she said. “Just let it go without going against the flow. I was told that I could get confidence by doing so, and I have.”
An interesting fact regarding Suzuki is that she has been able to excel on the world stage despite having never trained outside Japan or having a foreign coach.
Almost all of Japan’s other great skaters of recent years, including Mao, Ando, Shizuka Arakawa and Daisuke Takahashi, spent a significant amount of time living and training abroad.
“When I was younger, before becoming a top skater in Japan, I thought it was normal for young skaters to go overseas and train under foreign coaches,” she said. “But now we have many top coaches in Japan and they have very good qualities. I would like to see the foreign skaters come to Japan to train under the Japanese coaches someday, but the problem is the training environment.”
Suzuki, who said five-time world champion Michelle Kwan was her idol while growing up, pointed out how the lack of proper facilities hurts both Japanese skaters and coaches and leads to some tough training conditions.
“When I go overseas I see the training rinks are there for the skaters. But in Japan we have to skate before the public comes in,” she said. “So we have to go in to train at 6 a.m. and then go back again at midnight. This is something that is hindering foreign skaters from coming here to train under Japanese coaches. But I think we do have many great coaches here.”
Suzuki acknowledged that she was fortunate, because the company she works for — Toho Real Estate — has exactly what she needs in terms of resources.
“The company I belong to has its own skating rink, so I have a great training environment,” she said. “So I have no need to go outside Japan. Many skaters go overseas looking for training places just because we don’t have a great environment for training. But I have a wonderful environment for training, so I don’t need to go outside.
“I’ve been overseas for a short time for choreography. I tried to absorb as much as I could during my stay there, but I’ve never thought about moving my training base outside Japan because my coach, Mr. Nagakubo, is the best coach for me.”
Suzuki’s association with Hiroshi Nagakubo, who previously coached Arakawa and Takeshi Honda, is unusual in the sport as it has continued for nearly a decade. In recent years, skaters have changed coaches almost as often as they have changed costumes.
Nagakubo, 65, was a champion pairs skater and Olympian back in the day, winning five national titles (1968-72) and representing Japan in the 1972 Sapporo Games.
“It has been nearly 10 years since I have been working with Mr. Nagakubo,” she said. “When you are working with somebody that long, you start saying things very straightforwardly to each other. So we are fighting all the time.
“Some people say it is like fights between father and daughter. He will scold me sometimes and I will say something back. At the same time, afterward we can have communication. He can explain his feelings about why he said something.
“There are advantages and disadvantages to having such a long relationship. Sometimes I feel like I don’t want to see his face today, but tomorrow will be OK. I think our relationship is really strong and good.”
Suzuki, whose programs have been popular with both fans and judges alike in recent seasons, detailed the process that is involved in constructing them.
“My coach creates the outline of my elements — jumps and spins — and then I take that to my choreographer,” she said. “It takes 2-3 days to memorize all of the movements in a routine.”
Suzuki cited which of her performances she liked best over the long season.
“My short program (to “Hungarian Rhapsody”) at the NHK Trophy was my favorite, because that was the first time I landed my triple-triple combination,” she reflected. “My free skate (to “Die Fledermaus”) at the worlds was my best of the season.”
Suzuki admitted that it was Nagakubo’s nudging that convinced her she was going to have to be able to do a triple-triple combination to keep up with her younger opponents.
“They say you need a triple-triple combination when you are a teenager, but I felt that at my age I wanted to try and challenge to do it,” she said. “My coach had told me for about two years that to be competitive on the world level I needed to be able to do it.
“When I missed out on the worlds last year, I realized that I had to make some changes. So that’s why I tried it.”
Suzuki credited the reaction she gets from spectators as being truly rewarding.
“The happiest moment for me is when I get the direct response and feedback from the fans right after my performance,” she said. “I always want to make everyone in the arena come together being excited with my performance.”
Athletes often say they are in a “zone” while competing and able to block out almost everything. That’s not the case for Suzuki.
“When I’m skating so well, I can actually hear the clapping and cheers from the audience,” she said. “I can even have eye contact with the fans sitting in the first row.”
Suzuki outlined the rigid training regimen that has kept her in the game at an advanced age.
“Usually I practice 4 to 4½ hours a day,” she said. “During the season I practice six days and then take a day off, then practice another six days and take a day off. That’s my schedule.
“During the season, maybe 15 minutes of basic skating skills training. Then I play my program music and skate to that. Compared to other skaters, I think I do it more and then I skate to my program music.
“During the offseason, just like the small skaters, I spend a lot of time on my skating skills. I try to do as many jumps as I can.”
Visualization and self-evaluation are important in continuing to improve and excel, according to Suzuki.
“I review all of my jumps and do image training with all of my moves right before going on the ice,” she said.
“During my practice sessions I skate to my program music. We are all humans, so we make mistakes. What I try to do is not make consecutive mistakes. If I miss something, I try to be more careful on my next element. So it won’t happen over and become a vicious cycle.
“When I was little and made a mistake, the coaches would tell me, ‘OK. If you make a mistake, be careful on the next one.’ But as a senior skater, you have to be able to regroup quickly after a mistake.
“This is one of the factors that is necessary to be a world-class skater. You have to be able to regroup quickly and concentrate on your next elements.
“I record my program during practice with my iPad, and I review the video once I finish my program and look at all of my mistakes.”
Suzuki says she tries to be critical when analyzing her own performances.
“I look at them like a coach and say, ‘What advice would I give to myself after making mistakes?’ By doing that I can see myself objectively. So this is how I work on my elements and try to eliminate mistakes.”
When put on the spot about whether she liked Takahashi’s programs over two-time defending world champion Patrick Chan of Canada, Suzuki thought for a moment and provided some interesting perspective.
“I prefer Daisuke’s programs over Patrick’s, but Patrick has really accurate edge work,” she observed. “It seems sometimes like he has a turbo engine on his edge. That’s how fast he is and how much speed he has. It just flows. He has very deep edges. He is very accurate on where to put his edges on the ice. That’s why he is so strong with his edge work and footwork.
“Patrick is improving on how to express his emotions, but I prefer the originality of Daisuke’s programs. But I understand why Patrick gets such high scores despite the mistakes he makes.
“If you ask other skaters to do the same things with those transitions in their programs, it’s impossible. From the first step it just starts flowing, he gets up to speed. He is very accurate.”
Suzuki suggests that skating judges today are better able to assess the quality of performances because they have been there themselves.
“I personally think that today many of the judges are former skaters and ice dancers who have done compulsory and school figures,” she said. “By having more of these kind of judges, they know how accurate Patrick and the footwork of other skaters are. If they do the right thing, they get the scores that they deserve.”
Though Suzuki did not spend much time talking about her fellow Japanese skaters, she was asked about Mao competing at the Japan nationals shortly after the untimely passing of her mother Kyoko last December.
“Before the nationals when I heard that Mao would be competing, I thought she had a very strong heart,” Suzuki said. “By looking at her competing there, I thought she was trying her best to show her mother. I had a lot of respect for what she did.”
The night took another interesting turn when Suzuki was asked about who she found more attractive — baseball superstar Ichiro Suzuki or the latest Japanese sensation to join the major leagues, Yu Darvish.
After contemplating the question for a few moments, Suzuki replied with a smile, “Well, Ichiro is married, but in the context of the question I would say that he is more appealing. That’s just my personal feeling.”
Suzuki says she already has a goal in mind for when her days skating competitively do end.
“I always wanted to become a choreographer,” she said. “So my plan after retiring from my competitive career is to be a pro skater for as long as possible. Then I would like to be a worldclass choreographer.
“However, Mr. Nagakubo has been trying to convince me to become his successor,” she noted with a chuckle.
One scene that is etched in the mind of many fans is Suzuki’s emotional reaction as she left the ice in Vancouver after her free program and skated toward Nagakubo.
While it is unusual for Japanese athletes to display their feelings so outwardly, Suzuki said she was simply overcome by the series of events that led to her coming from near obscurity to making the Olympic team.
“Because the Vancouver Olympics was the first big stage in my career — I had not even made the team for the worlds before — I had the sense of great achievement after my free skate,” she said. “I felt it was the best moment of my life.”