Time for Mao to change direction or give it up

by Jack Gallagher

Staff Writer

There is nothing worse than seeing a great athlete that has hung on too long.

Struggling to regain their past glory in the glare of the spotlight and growing increasingly frustrated when they can’t accomplish it, this can be a very humbling experience for even the most successful person and torture for their fans.

Just ask three-time world champion Mao Asada.

Her 12th-place finish at the Japan nationals in Osaka on Sunday continued a downward slide that began back in October at Skate America when she finished sixth. A few weeks later it was the Trophee de France and a ninth-place result.

And now the nightmare at Namihaya Dome.

How bad was it on Sunday?

Four juniors placed higher in the final standings than Mao. Just as Ice Time had speculated beforehand, the legend could not keep up with the youngsters.

World junior champion Marin Honda, Japan junior champion Kaori Sakamoto, the fantastic Yuna Shiraiwa and Saya Suzuki not only came in higher than Mao, they all finished in the top nine.

When it came time to name the team for the worlds, the Japan Skating Federation did the right thing and chose Satoko Miyahara, Wakaba Higuchi and Mai Mihara.

So what is the next move for Mao?

Should she retire before enduring more humiliation or try something new?

I would say the latter. I don’t think Mao needs to retire. What she needs is a change in direction and leadership.

Mao is only 26 and should still have a few good years left.

Put quite simply, Mao needs a new coach and a new environment. Anybody who can’t see this is detached from reality.

Skaters change coaches all the time. It’s part of the business. It’s not personal.

What has happened with Mao is what we often see in other sports when a team reaches a plateau, can’t get any better, and then begins sliding. Usually the coach departs and a new person is brought in and everybody moves on.

This is what needs to happen with Mao.

Nobuo Sato is a highly respected coach, but it seems quite clear that the partnership is no longer producing good results, and hasn’t been for a while.

And forget the excuse about the knee injury. As I have said before, if Mao is genuinely hurt she should not be skating at all.

So what should Mao do now?

Ice Time thinks she should pick up the phone and call Brian Orser.

With just over 13 months to go until the Pyeongchang Olympics, Mao still has time to turn it around. But nothing is going to change unless she takes the initiative.

No more taking the path of least resistance by training only in Japan. Mao has not trained outside of Japan with a foreign coach for any length of time since she left Rafael Arutunian back in January of 2008, nearly nine years ago.

When you become as famous and powerful as Mao is, you are often enveloped in a cocoon surrounded by people who are afraid to tell the truth for fear of upsetting the star and jeopardizing their own interests. These folks are called sycophants and the outcome is inevitably bad.

The old saying that “your real friends will tell you what you don’t want hear” comes to mind. It seems apropos in this situation.

Orser has proven what he can do with the likes of Yuna Kim, Yuzuru Hanyu, Javier Fernandez and others. His record speaks for itself.

Think the former world champion and two-time Olympic silver medalist for Canada would not relish the chance to try and remake Mao?

You better believe he would.

That is the kind of challenge that coaches live for.

Many are thinking that Mao is near the end now, but I’m certain Orser would not only take her on, but have a positive impact as well. With the right attitude and a new approach, I honestly believe Mao could still be on the Japan team for Pyeongchang.

The question now is whether Mao is going to go out with a whimper, or take a long, hard look in the mirror and say, “This is on me. I have to make a change.”

The skating world awaits her answer.

Talking it out: Speaking of Orser, he was a recent guest on Ice Network’s “Ice Talk” podcast with host Nick McCarvel and had some very revealing comments on his relationship with Hanyu.

Orser spoke at length about the demands of stardom on Hanyu, the “disconnect” he and the superstar had before Skate Canada, and Hanyu’s technical aspirations. It made for some very interesting listening.

“I think that a rise to stardom would be overwhelming for anybody, as it was for Yuna,” Orser told McCarvel. “We have a little bit of experience with that because I have never seen anything like that before. Now it is happening again with Yuzu. The Japanese hold these athletes up on such a giant pedestal, so they have a huge amount of pressure to continue to perform and skate well for their fans, and that’s life.

“We have those conversations with Yuzu. We can say, ‘We went through this with Yuna and this is what we did and this is what she did and this is what her people did.’ “

Orser believes that Hanyu is boosted by the awareness of what his team has been through in the past.

“I think he takes a little bit of comfort in knowing that we have been there before, even as athletes,” stated Orser. “Tracy (Wilson) was an Olympic medalist. I was an Olympic medalist. So we can actually say, ‘I know what you feel.’ “

Orser admitted that Hanyu’s level of celebrity is something that is hard to fathom at times.

“I am a little bit overwhelmed, too, with the level of stardom and what it is now requiring, especially for Yuzu,” Orser commented. “He needs to have a couple of people (in Toronto) for security and he needs people to help him organize. There is my team at the rink, but then there is a whole other satellite of another team that helps with Yuzuru to try to make his life easier.”

Orser said that his two prized pupils are individuals in their own way.

“I think he (Hanyu) is very private. Javi and Yuzu are two different people completely,” Orser said. “Yuzu’s mom is in Toronto and they have their condo here. They have their life and it is basically skating. He does study. He has some university programs that he is in.”

McCarvel asked Orser about how Hanyu and Fernandez interact.

“They are friendly and it’s geniune,” Orser stated. “They respect each other and I think perhaps because they are in the same boat together.”

The discussion became even more compelling when Orser was questioned about the communication issue between he and Hanyu that was brought up at the NHK Trophy last month.

“I went through a little bit of that before Skate Canada with Yuzuru,” Orser noted. “We had a little bit of a disconnect and we had to sort it out and we did. We got together and we had our meeting. We sat across the table from each other in a board room and just said, ‘OK. This is what I’m seeing.’ And then he would say, ‘Well this is what I’m feeling.’

“So I said, ‘OK. Good. This is helpful,’ and we just got through it like adults.”

It sounds like the meeting was a fairly serious get together.

“It was with some of his people that advise him, and it was important for him to be there,” Orser recalled. “We just kind of hashed out a few things that we  thought that we needed to. Tracy was there. And he wanted to talk, so it wasn’t with a translator, so it took a little extra time. But we have to hear from his heart what he’s feeling.”

Orser said that despite the gravity of the conference, there was no finger pointing.

“There wasn’t anything nasty or mean,” Orser told McCarvel. “It was just communicating. We kind of all got through it and we all hugged and OK let’s move forward, and all of a sudden the skating got better.”

Orser then explained how his philosophy with Hanyu is different now from what it was last season.

“He (Hanyu) of course always wants to skate perfect. There are times of the season where it’s going to be a bit of a challenge because nobody is ready in October,” Orser said. “. . . I’m actually quite satisfied that we are actually building this season and not kind of unloading everything in December, like we did last year. And then all of a sudden everybody is expecting it. . . . So now we are going to just keep building. There are little mistakes along the way, but nothing too major, that you try to build on for the next one.”

Orser was queried about whether Hanyu may soon attempt a quadruple axel.

“Quad axel — you never know,” Hanyu replied. “He has probably the best triple axel on the planet, and technically as well. Could it happen? Probably.”

Orser then praised Hanyu for his fortitude in always trying to raise the bar with bigger challenges and his foresight.

“He keeps upping the ante, which I’m so proud of him for,” Orser said. “We had this discussion this season about the quad loop and I said to him after Skate Canada, ‘You really don’t need to do a quad loop in the short program.’

“No. I need to do the quad loop, and I need to do it now, and I need to make the mistakes now, so that next year I’m not going through this,” Orser said Hanyu told him.

“Which was like Wow. You know what, you’re right!” Orser acknowledged to McCarvel.

“It’s not that important to win Skate Canada, it’s more important to get one more chance at figuring out the quad loop when you’re under pressure and you’re in front of judges, and in front of a crowd. It’s a completely different situation than when you are in a practice session.”

Orser then concluded by saying that a quad lutz could also be in the cards for Hanyu.

“He’s very competitive,” Orser stated. “He has landed some quad lutzes. I’m sure it’s something that’s on the horizon.”