SOCHI, RUSSIA - When freestyle skier Aiko Uemura banged out the fastest time on her third and last run in the women’s moguls final, the tears that welled up behind her goggles told a story of what she had hoped would be her crowning glory.
What four years of complete dedication to a podium finish got her instead was a bittersweet ending — a second consecutive finish in fourth place.
“Wow, what a great run! I am very satisfied,” said the 34-year-old Uemura as she teared up after turning on the turbo jets in what was her fifth and likely last Olympics.
In her first Olympic appearance as an 18-year-old on home soil at the 1998 Nagano Games, Uemura placed seventh. As if climbing a ladder rung by rung, she only got better, placing sixth in Salt Lake City and fifth at the Turin Games.
After placing fourth in Vancouver, according to script, Sochi was supposed to be her breakthrough. “Why do I keep going up one rank at a time?” Uemura had said before deciding to take a year off from competition as she contemplated retirement.
Although on the verge of hanging up her skis for good, the disappointment of not medaling in the Olympics burned beneath her, and encouraged by her husband, alpine skier Kentaro Minagawa who himself recently retired, Uemura decided to give it another shot.
It was the downtime that gave her a fresh perspective.
Before Vancouver, she had spent the majority of her career thinking that in order to get stronger she had to live her life as if she were a tank. So Uemura turned a cold shoulder to teammates, and her mood was always intense.
“It seems that I was both great and poor at concentration. For a person preparing to win an Olympics, I probably wasn’t able to understand how to win at an Olympics. It’s because I was going on full throttle every year,” said Uemura, who said she began to learn how to relax after she turned 30.
Uemura saw a drop in power when she made her comeback and lost stamina as her results petered out in the latter half of the 2012-13 World Cup season.
Uemura spent more than five weeks training abroad to get her body in shape as she prepared for Sochi.
“I don’t want to peak at the wrong time,” the 2009 world champion had said. She even changed her diet and had bodywork done to correct her posture.
“I always feel like there are things left undone. Before I end my career, I want to go out with a bang,” Uemura said before her fifth Olympic appearance.