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Mao’s inflexibility hurt medal chances

by Jack Gallagher

“If things continue as they are, it could all end in tears without a silver medal this time. Maybe without any medal.”
Ice Time — Dec. 27, 2013

Sometimes in life people can be their own worst enemy.

Refusing to take advice, tuning out what they don’t want to hear, ignoring reality.

This formula usually results in great disappointment when they are confronted with what they don’t like, fear, or want to do.

Such was the case in the women’s singles at the Sochi Games with two-time world champion Mao Asada.

It’s been no secret for quite a while now that Mao was having serious problems trying to land her trademark triple axel, but she refused to change her strategy and ended up off the podium in sixth place after the free skate on Thursday.

It didn’t have to be like this, but Mao’s stubbornness became more difficult to overcome than hitting her favorite jump. Blessed with incredible natural ability, grace and beauty, she possesses the dream package for a skater.

If Mao truly wanted to win the gold medal at the Olympics, however, she would have altered her direction years ago.

Ice Time believes that Mao should have moved abroad and worked with a top foreign coach to try and achieve her goal. If she had learned from somebody like Brian Orser, Nikolai Morozov or Frank Carroll, chances are she would be leaving Sochi with a second Olympic medal.

Instead she returns home with the disappointment of what might have been.

A large number of the international media considered Mao one of the favorites for the gold, but they seemed strangely ignorant of the fact that she has been going through a crisis with the triple axel for over a year now. This is because many will look at a skater’s historical record, while not taking into account present concerns.

One writer I spoke with before the singles, who did understand Mao’s predicament, was resigned to the fact it was going to end badly for her here.

“She’s done so much for skating,” the writer said in a sad tone, her voice drifting off.

Mao failed to land the triple axel in both the team short program and the women’s short program. That she finally hit it in the free skate came as a relief to many, but by then it was fait accompli.

“I don’t consider the triple axel to be a burden at all,” Mao said on Monday at a press conference. “It actually gives me something to shoot for and it defines me. But the axel isn’t everything; even with one I can still have a decent program with the other jumps I’ve got.”

The problem with this statement is that by not landing her big jump at the start of both programs it had a psychological effect on the rest of them. It had a profound impact both times.

As I rode the media bus from the Iceberg Skating Palace back to the Main Press Center on Wednesday night after the women’s short program, I spoke to a skating judge who was also on board. The judge shook her head and said, “Mao didn’t have to do the triple axel.”

It was obvious that many who were there were thinking the exact same thing.

The saddest part is that Mao’s refusal to deal with this issue resulted in huge disappointment not just for her, but for her many fans as well. She was 16th after the short program, with no realistic chance of getting a medal.

Just like that, it was over.

I remember thinking, “All of the people back in Japan who stayed up all night to watch on TV … ”

Much has been made of her outstanding free skate on Thursday, with some considering it redemption. But that is a weak assessment.

Performing when you have no pressure at all is no challenge. The expectations are low, so it is not difficult to look good.

Does anybody really think it was just bad luck that resulted in the errors in Mao’s short program in the team and women’s events?

You would have to be completed disconnected from reality to believe that.

I firmly feel if Mao had gone with the likes of Orser, Morozov or Carroll, they would have evaluated her after a short period of time and then had a long talk with her.

They would have said something like: “You can’t land the triple axel reliably anymore, so I think we should make a change in the programs. We need to come up with something new and go in a different direction. This is the best path to the gold medal.”

But when somebody doesn’t want to deal with a problem, they try to ignore it. This usually just compounds it and makes it worse.

When people must come to terms with a crisis they often ask, “Why did this happen?” discounting the fact that in many instances they were well aware of it beforehand.

In Mao’s case, the handwriting has been on the wall for a long, long time.

She just didn’t want to face up to it.

  • Alejandro S. Arashi

    This JT article is right and unfortunately I read about Mao’s triple axel problem first in this column. Hanyu did good by going to his number one rival’s home turf and get the best coaching from both worlds.

    However, I don’t agree with the way the author put down Mao’s free skate performance as easy to perform when you have nothing else to lose. She stood to lose her last shreds of self respect. She delivered beautifully, allowing the author to point out that her only flaw was of that of judgment, and maybe of insufficient hunger for gold, but definitely not due to lack of talent.

    But Mao’s free skate, especially her breakdown cry at the end, was inspiring for all those who admired her. It was sad that the article didn’t mention that.

  • gnirol

    I agree she made a fundamental mistake by insisting on the triple axel in the short program, where any mistake is disastrous point-wise and affects the rest of the program. However, pretty as she is, and smooth as she performs, Ms. Asada is not as graceful as Ms. Kim, whom she considered to be everyone’s main rival (not ignoring Ms. Costner either). Perhaps she thought the only way to make up five or six points was the triple axel in both programs. I would have put it in the long program, not the short. The writer is quite harsh about Ms. Asada’s free skate. It was the best free skating performance of her career, which both the judges and the audience recognized. For that, one should hardly denigrate her.

  • hellocrayon

    As a skater, Mao pushes the envelope with the triple axel along with all the different jump combinations she did. Her ability to perform the triple axel was not because of a lack of physical capability given how well she does it in practice, but her poor performance in the sp was likely due to her psychological well-being. She wouldn’t have insisted on putting it in her programs if she didn’t have the ability to land them well in practice. I don’t think the issue of her short program has much to do with the triple axel itself despite her history with it this past season. The issue is probably not being able to deal with her inner demons when competition comes, so that’s probably a matter of coaching, which I wish they addressed more. I don’t know if she consulted with a sports psychologist.

    “Performing when you have no pressure at all is no challenge. The expectations are low, so it is not difficult to look good.” After one of the greatest disappointments of her skating career the day before and a bad practice session in the morning, I hardly think it was easy for her at all to perform that magnificent free skate at all. If anything, she probably wanted to redeem herself after the short program. She had one of the best performances of the night, period.

    After that free skate performance, most people weren’t left disappointed. Instead, it was iconic.

  • Sorin Iacob

    You already won your race,Gorgeos Mao Asada,wherever you are.

  • whiterabbit

    I love Mao Asada all the more because of her stubbornness. Without it, she wouldn’t have been such a strong skater that people including famous legenrary skataers all over the world admire so much. Medals are just medals, but Mao is the only one. Go as however you want, Mao! You are such a divine skater.

  • Kevin

    People living in Japan have said to me that Mao Asada is Heroic because she kept the triple in her program. So, why was Mao being inflexible and stubborn? I heard that skating’s governing bodies have made some unfair decisions over the past few years. To what (whose?) benefit were the rules for the Puti Olympics modified to discount the triple axel, for example? Mao stubbornly tried to do her best on purpose, refusing to be beaten down by the unjust powers ruling over her and the world of skating. Mao is a symbol of hope and strength to her fellow skaters who fight on against the headwinds of injustice, just like Yuna Kim, who also has her own sad story that similarly reveals the corruption behind-the-scenes in the beautiful world of ice skating.

  • Lauren Thompson

    I can’t help but wonder what else factors in on her insistence with the triple-axel. She’s too good of a skater, it just doesn’t make sense.