Figure Skating | HEISEI ICONS

Mao Asada: Magnetism and artistry on ice defined an era

by Jack Gallagher

Staff Writer

This is the 13th in a series on influential figures in the Heisei Era, which began in 1989 and will end when Emperor Akihito abdicates on April 30. In Heisei, Japan was roiled by economic excess and stagnation, as well as a struggle for political and social reform. This series explores those who left their imprint along the way.

Born early in the Heisei Era, three-time figure skating world champion Mao Asada became one of Japan’s most prominent individuals on the international scene during her storied career, while also taking the sport to new heights.

Mao, who begin skating at age 5 in her native Nagoya, was quickly determined to be a prodigy and lived up to the lofty expectations that came with the moniker. She was the nation’s novice champion at 12, its junior titlist at 14, and won the senior crown at 16.

It wasn’t just that Mao won, but the way she did it — with style and panache — that resonated with the masses. Her mastery of the triple axel — the difficult 3.5 revolution jump — became her trademark after first landing it when she was still a novice.

Best-selling author Robert Whiting, whose long association with Japan dates back more than 50 years, compares Mao to one of the nation’s most legendary athletes.

“She was the female figure skating version of baseball’s Shigeo Nagashima (the former Yomiuri Giants legend),” Whiting said Friday. “Not necessarily the best there ever was, but by far the most popular.”

Vancouver Olympic figure-skating silver medalist Mao Asada and four-time Olympic wrestling champion Kaori Icho attend a tea party at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo hosted by Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko on on Feb. 26 to mark the 30th anniversary of his enthronement.
Vancouver Olympic figure-skating silver medalist Mao Asada and four-time Olympic wrestling champion Kaori Icho attend a tea party at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo hosted by Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko on on Feb. 26 to mark the 30th anniversary of his enthronement. | POOL / VIA KYODO

The comparison to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Famer is fitting. Just like Nagashima, Mao touched something deep within the Japanese psyche. It was the pure love of their sport and their magnetism that made people feel proud. They represented the very best of Japan — attractive, talented, determined and always performing with class.

“She had great talent, but she also had a sunny personality that connected with the public,” Whiting observed. “She was genuine and dealt with adversity with dignity.”

It’s not a stretch to say that just about everybody in Japan knew who Mao was. Late in her career, a survey found that she had a 99.7 percent recognizability rating with the general public.

To put it quite simply, Mao was a superstar, both at home and abroad.

Her elegance and artistry on the ice earned her a worldwide following amongst skating fans and media alike.

USA Today columnist Christine Brennan, whose book “Inside Edge” was selected as one of the top 100 sports books of alltime, put Mao’s impact into perspective after she announced her retirement in April of 2017.

“Mao was one of the greatest skaters in the history of the sport,” Brennan wrote at the time. “She was ground-breaking, innovative, lyrical, beautiful — just a delight to watch and cover. She was a wonderful athlete and masterful artist, which means she embodied the essence of her sport.”

Retired figure skater Mao Asada poses for photos as she prepares to pound steamed rice to make rice cake during an event in Kyoto on Jan. 4, 2018
Retired figure skater Mao Asada poses for photos as she prepares to pound steamed rice to make rice cake during an event in Kyoto on Jan. 4, 2018 | KYODO

Mao made her initial splash on the senior circuit while technically still a junior, when the International Skating Union allowed her to compete in the 2005 Grand Prix Final in Tokyo, which she won.

The skating boom in Japan and Asia can be traced to Mao’s victory in that GP Final.

“Mao and Yuna Kim lit a fire under that part of the world for the sport,” ISU announcer Ted Barton commented following Mao’s retirement.

Indeed, Mao and Kim inspired a generation of skaters that are now on the world stage.

“The rivalry between the Asian queens of skating was the most exciting skating era of Heisei,” Emi Watanbe, Japan’s first female world figure skating medalist, said on Saturday. “It would be Yuna Kim and Mao who made us glued to the sport. Mao was not always a winner, but her effort to succeed with the triple axel made history.”

Only a twist of fate, a birthday nearly four months after the cutoff date, prevented Mao from competing in the 2006 Turin Olympics, where compatriot Shizuka Arakawa won the gold.

Mao’s list of achievements is both lengthy and impressive.

She was the first junior woman to land a triple axel in international competition, when she did it at the 2004 Junior Grand Prix Final. She was the world junior champion in 2005 and runner-up to Kim the next year.

One of the highlights of her career, a dramatic victory over Kim at the 2008 GP Final in South Korea, saw her become the first woman to land two triple axels in the same program. That triumph was one of four for Mao in the GP Final.

A six-time national champion, Mao was also the first skater to win all seven events on the GP circuit.

Skating icon Dick Button, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and five-time world champion, was wowed the first time he saw Mao compete at the 2006 Skate America in Hartford, Connecticut.

“I have never seen anybody like Mao . . . with such fluidity, such soft elegance, such creativity and the athleticism to handle wildly demanding technicality,” Button told legendary skating writer Phil Hersh at the time.

Mao set numerous world records during her junior and senior career. Two of the marks she established at the world junior championships in 2005 (free skate score, combined total score) stood for more than six years — a phenomenal amount of time in skating.

Mao’s senior world titles (2008, 2010, 2014) were crowning moments in her illustrious career, but the sport’s ultimate prize — the Olympic gold medal — eluded her. She claimed the silver behind Kim at the 2010 Vancouver Games, and ended up sixth at the 2014 Sochi Games.

A time-elapsed photo shows figure skater Mao Asada performing a triple axel at the Sochi Olympics in February 2014.
A time-elapsed photo shows figure skater Mao Asada performing a triple axel at the Sochi Olympics in February 2014. | KYODO

Despite missing out on the gold, Mao left as a revered figure in skating.

“Her exquisite edges, striking body positions and sublime footwork were a testament to a level of refinement few if any rivals could match,” Hersh wrote when Mao retired.

Mao took a year off from competition after Sochi in a bid to rejuvenate herself, but won just one event (the 2015 Cup of China) in two more seasons before deciding to retire.

Two years after hanging up her skates, Japan is still searching for Mao’s successor. The void she left is significant, both in terms of her ability and the affect she had on supporters.

“A true champion in many ways has made Mao a forever favorite in my list of champions,” stated Watanabe. “Not only in skating, but other sports included.”

Her combination of grace and athleticism, along with her charisma, made Mao a fantastic ambassador for both skating and Japan, and one who will long be remembered.

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