Figure Skating | ICE TIME

Mao mystery finally solved eight years later

by Jack Gallagher

In January 2008 Mao Asada suddenly split from coach Rafael Arutunian after 16 months of working together. It was a move made without warning or explanation, and left a great many in the skating community scratching their heads over the reason behind the decision.

The Armenian had taught Mao and sister Mai at their training base in Lake Arrowhead, California, since the summer of 2006. Working with Arutunian, Mao had earned the silver medal at the 2007 worlds in Tokyo, narrowly missing out on the gold to compatriot Miki Ando.

Mao would go on to win the 2008 world title in Goteborg, Sweden, a couple of months after leaving Arutunian, but she would do it without a coach.

Only recently was the real reason for the parting made public by Arutunian, who revealed it during a video interview posted on YouTube with Golden Skate’s Ted Flett on the sidelines at the world championships in Boston in late March.

“The story was very sad,” Arutunian told Flett. “After the (Japan) nationals she called me and said, ‘I cannot come to California.’ We had plans. And she said to me, ‘Can you come to Japan?’ and I said no.”

“We had a plan. She was supposed to come on Jan. 14. I had (to work with) Jeffrey Buttle. I was working with Jeffrey Buttle in Lake Arrowhead with her the whole time.

“She said, ‘Rafael I can’t come right now. Can you send Nadia (Kanaeva — Arutunian’s assistant coach) to Japan? I said, ‘OK. I will send Nadia Kanaeva to Japan for you.’

“Nadia Kanaeva went there for two weeks and stayed there. Then she (Mao) calls me back again and says, ‘I cannot come again. Can you come now?’ I said, ‘I can’t. I have Jeffrey Buttle. And she said, ‘Oh, I can take care of Jeffrey Buttle.’ ”

Arutunian told Golden Skate at this point he became suspicious of the motives for the unusual request from Mao’s camp.

“I started to think they were playing me,” Arutunian stated to Flett. “They didn’t say the reason. They don’t come and I said, ‘You know what. If you are not following our agreement and our plans, I don’t want to do it anymore.

“I was a little bit stupid, seriously. I was a little bit younger at that time. Not much, but still younger. And I fired her. I fired her,” he recalled.

Arutunian claimed that one of the reasons he did not attend the worlds that year was that he was worried Mao would pressure him to coach her despite the breakup.

“If I go, I fired Mao. She will come to me and put me with her team because she didn’t announce anything. She will come to me and say, ‘Go, stay with me.’ I didn’t go …”

Arutunian told Buttle that he should go to the worlds with his regular coach at the time (Lee Barkell). So Arutunian could only sit back and watch as both Mao and Buttle won world titles.

“They both were world champions,” Arutunian said. “I don’t think that had happened ever in skating history — (coaching) two world champions in the same year — and I was teaching both.”

At this point in the interview, Arutunian indicated that Mao’s late mother Kyoko was already requiring medical treatment (presumably for the liver disease that took her life in December 2011 at age 48) and said “they had to stay in Japan because of insurance.”

“And you know what happened to Mama. They hid the story. They didn’t tell me why was the reason she (Mao) didn’t come,” Arutunian commented.

Arutunian said he later felt great regret at what had transpired.

“I felt very bad about it. If they had told me the story, sure I would go,” he said. “If they would tell me that was the reason, sure I would have taken Jeffrey. I would go there.

“The story is very sad because Mama died. They had problems. They had to stay in Japan and I fired her (Mao) two months before worlds and I could have had two world champions in one year,” Arutunian lamented.

“… I love Mao. I love her with all my heart and I feel very sorry about that moment, but she came to me after the (2010) Olympics and she said, ‘Rafael, what you did for me I will never forget.’ And we are good friends.”

The story Arutunian detailed certainly highlights how culture likely played a part in the schism between he and Mao. Apparently Mao’s camp did not want to reveal her mother’s illness at the time, so Mao and Mai just never went back to California, leaving Arutunian wondering what the deal was.

You would normally think that a close adviser like a coach could be trusted to keep that kind of sensitive information confidential. But apparently Mao’s camp did not want to chance it with a foreign instructor.

One can only wonder if Arutunian had been Japanese whether the storyline would have been any different.

Numero Uno: Shoma Uno made history by becoming the first skater ever credited with a quadruple flip in competition when he pulled off the feat in the short program at the season-ending Team Challenge Cup in Spokane, Washington, last month.

The achievement capped off a stellar season for Uno, who won the singles at the event, in his first senior campaign. Uno also won the abbreviated Trophee Bompard, finished second at Skate America and third at the Grand Prix Final.

Uno took second behind Yuzuru Hanyu at the Japan nationals and placed seventh at the worlds.

Uno’s quad flip already has fans anticipating what the 18-year-old has in store for next season.

Grand Prix schedule set: The ISU released the schedule for the 2016-17 season last week and there is good news to report for Japan skating fans. In addition to the NHK Trophy in Sapporo (Nov. 25-27), Yokohama has been tapped to host a Junior Grand Prix (Sept. 7-11).

This will be the second time in three years that Japan has been the site of a JGP and will give fans an additional opportunity to see world junior champion Marin Honda and rising star Yuna Shiraiwa in person. The last JGP in Japan was held in Aichi Prefecture in 2014.

The Asian Winter Games will also be held in Sapporo from Feb. 19-26.

The senior GP season will begin with Skate America (Oct. 21-23) in the Chicago suburb of Hoffman Estates, Illinois. This is the hometown of current world junior bronze medalist Tomoki Hiwatashi.

Skate Canada (Oct. 28-30) will be contested in Mississauga, Ontario, while Moscow will again play host to the Cup of Russia (Nov. 4-6).

The Trophee Bompard is on the docket from Nov. 11-13 in Paris, with the Cup of China taking place in Beijing (Nov. 18-20).

The world junior championships will be staged in Taipei (March 15-19), while the senior worlds are set for Helsinki (March 29-April 2).