Three-time world champion Mao Asada has been inconsistent through the first half of the 2015-16 season. Two victories, a third-place finish, and a sixth-place showing.
After winning at the Japan Open (where she did the free skate only) and the Cup of China, Mao struggled to third at the NHK Trophy in November before finishing last at the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona, Spain, earlier this month.
The result at the GP Final marked the first time Mao had finished off the podium in seven trips. She had won four times and come in second twice.
This week Mao will attempt to capture her seventh title at the Japan national championships in Sapporo.
After taking last season off to rest and refresh herself after skating competitively nonstop for more than 10 years, is Mao still fighting to get the rust off or are there deeper issues for her recent results?
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation analyst Carol Lane, one of the best in the business, noted during the telecast of the free skate at the Grand Prix Final that stepping away and trying to come back at the same level is no easy feat for a skater.
“It’s so much harder than anybody thinks to take a break and then return,” Lane stated. “It seems like all you would have to do is practice your program and all would be fine. It’s just so much more difficult than that.”
Lane pointed out that getting back in competitive form is not the only issue that must be confronted.
“The mental games that go on in your head,” Lane said. “The fact of what your competitors are doing. The fact that the landscape has changed. So many things to think about, not just about yourself.”
Eurosport analyst Chris Howarth wondered after Mao’s free skate in Barcelona if she might not be over-thinking things.
“It’s been so intermittent, her form,” Howarth commented. “Is it a question of her nerves being a little fraught now as she gets older? Often in sport as you get older you feel the pressure more.”
Added Howarth, “Or is it just the year out and she needs time to get back to her best? Because that wasn’t anywhere near her best.
“Double-footed landings normally show a betray of trust,” Howarth observed. “She doesn’t really trust herself.”
In fairness to Mao, she departed Barcelona early, skipping the Exhibition Gala to return to Japan while battling the stomach flu, according to the Sankei Shimbun.
Mao looked wan during her free skate and this was reflected in her performance, which had multiple errors beginning with her opening triple axel. Ice Time wasn’t the only one who noticed something was not right.
“She doesn’t look like herself,” Lane said on the CBC broadcast. “Even without the mistakes it was kind of cautious. Very muted today for Mao.”
Four-time world champion Kurt Browning, one of Lane’s partners on the CBC broadcast, cited a specific criticism of Mao and coach Nobuo Sato in his comments after the free skate in a moment of real candor.
“I’m fascinated at her small double loop/double loop combination that she consistently takes deductions on,” Browning stated. “They don’t go home and say, ‘It’s a double loop. Bend your knee, get off the ankle, top of the toe and do two revolutions clean.’
“It’s obviously not a priority to them.”
Nicky Slater, Howarth’s partner on the Eurosport telecasts, thought Mao’s singling a planned triple lutz in her short program rattled her.
“Yesterday we saw a glimpse of the brilliance of Mao,” Slater said after the free skate. “Up until that mistake on the lutz. The first three-quarters of the short program was fantastic. From then on, from the mistake on the lutz, to be honest all the way through this was nothing like what we are used to seeing from her. Everything was a struggle.
“After the mistake on the triple axel, you just felt the heart wasn’t in it,” added Slater. “But you know she will go back and fight hard for worlds.”
One thing those in the skating community everywhere agree on is Mao’s contributions to the sport. This was something Ice Time heard repeatedly from observers at the Sochi Olympics.
“She has given us so much during the years . . . ,” said Howarth.
Ice Time contacted an international skating judge for insights on where Mao stands at the midpoint of the season.
“It’s not that she is doing bad or anything,” the judge said. “Think about her triple axel. I think it’s a lot better than the last year when she was skating at Sochi.”
Ice Time is in total agreement on that point. The triple axel is going much better than it was during the Olympic season.
“Her axels are good,” the judge continued. “She is just having trouble with the triple lutz, that’s all. Her spins are great. Also, her steps are clean.”
The judge also echoed Lane’s sentiments about Mao.
“She may have trouble with her confidence, but she just came back after a break. Give her time,” the judge said. “If you look at the bright side, she looks more mature in her performance. That is a big plus in skating.”
Browning had high praise after Mao’s short program, highlighting both her technical and presentation skills in his analysis.
“Spins looked great, footwork was gorgeous, interpretation magnificent,” Browning commented. “The transitions of the program just to die for.”
Browning, who has also choreographed programs for several top skaters over the years, believes that Mao still has time to regain her form and contend for a fourth world title this season.
“She knows that the overall picture of this program was pulled out of focus by those little mistakes,” Browning said of Mao’s free skate. “They were too consistent . . . it just didn’t let the beauty of that program shine through today.
“It’s a gorgeous program. There is room built in that program for a second triple axel,” Browning pointed out. “If she is on her game in 2016 at the world championships, the world can be hers again.”
High praise for Hanyu: Legendary skating writer Phil Hersh isn’t the only one who thinks “Yuzuru Hanyu is not from this planet.”
You can count Shae-Lynn Bourne, who choreographed Hanyu’s fantastic free skate to “Seimei” this season, to that growing contingent.
“He has a real passion for skating,” Bourne said in a recent article by Beverley Smith for icenetwork.com. “He eats, sleeps, everything for skating. It’s his main focus.”
Bourne, who was a world champion in ice dancing in 2003 and also choreographed Yuka Nagai’s free skate this season, revealed her nickname for the superstar from Sendai.
“Sometimes, I call him ‘alien,’ because it’s like he’s from another planet,” Bourne was quoted as saying.