Mao Asada pushing skating's boundaries
DETROIT -- They had to teach her to smile.
Not the physical act, of course, but how to really feel it, to show it in public. Mao Asada's coaches chose Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm," for her short figure skating program last season, and it doesn't get more upbeat, more Western, than that.
"Most Japanese don't show much expression; it's hard for us," said Asada's agent, Mariko Wada. "It's hard for us to express joy, a big smile, in front of people. Our culture is always calm, peaceful, no big smiles. We like to be polite."
At first Asada literally could not do it. "Her choreographer made her have a big performance, big arm movements," Wada said. "She would point to her and say, 'At this point, smile. Act like you're kidding somebody.'"
It worked well enough that Asada, 23, the Olympic silver medalist in 2010, performed the program and finished first at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in Osaka, Japan, in February, and went on to win her second world championship the following month.
But she came to Detroit this weekend with a new short program, one that is more mature and romantic, perhaps more fitting for a woman who spoke recently of retiring after the 2014 Olympics, of hoping to "meet a good partner and [making] a good family together."
Asada performed her new short program Friday at Skate America to Chopin's "Nocturne," nailing a triple-flip and triple-loop, double-loop combination to earn a near personal best, then capped off the weekend with a free skate Sunday to Piano Concerto No. 2 by Rachmaninov that, despite a fall on her triple Axel, earned her the gold medal.
U.S. national champion Ashley Wagner took the silver, performing a near-flawless but less technically demanding routine, while Russia's Elena Radionova, who at 14 is too young to compete in the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February, won the bronze.
Afterward, it was a study in contrasts.
Wagner was typically effusive at their group news conference, joking about her "knotted" French braids -- "My hairdresser is going to be upset but it's my profession, there are G-forces involved" -- and snapping pictures of Asada and Radionova.
Wagner and Radionova also expressed overall satisfaction with their respective results while conveying their utmost respect for the woman who will be in the hunt for gold in Sochi.
"I have to say congrats to Mao, because she is pushing this sport further and further every single competition, and that's something we should all be very happy about," Wagner said.
Radionova, in her first Grand Prix competition, called Asada, who became the first woman to win all six current Grand Prix Series events, "my idol."
"I don't see her only as a rival," Radionova said through an interpreter. "I'm just enjoying watching her when she skates."
Asada recalled her first Grand Prix event at 15 and feeling the same way about Japan's Shizuka Arakawa, the 2006 Olympic champion, and American Sasha Cohen, the '06 silver medalist.
"I remember I was very happy competing with them or just being at the same competition with them," said Asada, who would have been a favorite for the gold medal in 2006 had she been old enough to compete. "It feels kind of funny to be in their position now. It's nice to hear the comment from [Radionova] and I wish her good luck."
Wada called Asada the female equivalent to Ichiro Suzuki in Japan.
"I was very shocked when she said this would be her last year to compete," Wada said, describing Asada's celebrity. "But the next morning, I saw fans crying."
Asada expressed the desire to travel without her skates one day, but not before winning the gold medal in Sochi, where her biggest obstacle will be 2010 gold medalist Kim Yu-na from South Korea (currently hobbled with an ankle injury), Italy's Carolina Kostner and Wagner.
But Wada and even Asada herself do not seem convinced that Sochi will be her last competition.
"If you set a goal with no end in sight, then, oh my God, it's a long time," Wada said. "But if you think only until the next Olympics [it's easier]."
Asada laughed when asked this week if she could imagine competing in a third Olympics in Korea in 2018.
"2018?" she replied with a smile, "Who knows? I'll only be 27."
Asada was near tears as she accepted the silver medal in Vancouver in 2010 and admitted this week that she was a little too focused on her rivalry with Yu-na.
"Obviously, anybody would be happy with a silver medal," Asada said this week. "But that was a season when I couldn't do most of my jumps and I was not happy about it. I came back to do a perfect program at the Olympics and show not only my jumping skills but my skating skills."
After Vancouver, Asada said she relearned all of her jumps, struggling to land the triple Axel over the next two years. In the midst of that, in the winter of 2011, she lost her mother, Kyoko Asada, to chronic liver disease at age 48.
Wada said Asada's grief has largely subsided.
"When she is away from home, because she has always been away so much, she always feels together [with her mother]," Wada said. "It's harder when she's home."
On Sunday, Asada -- who remains the only woman to consistently attempt and land the triple axel, the most difficult jump in women's figure skating -- said she was "not completely satisfied" with her program but called it "a learning experience."
Wagner, calling her own performance "a huge accomplishment for me -- a triple-triple in the long program, back-to-back clean programs," tried to let Asada off the hook.
"The triple axel is something that's so exciting to happen in figure skating and I really I can't wait to see the day where it's not just the triple-triple that's required to be competitive but the triple axel," Wagner said. "Having women like Mao setting the tone in that way is quite extraordinary. She's pushing the boundaries of skating, and it's up to us whether or not we're going to keep up with her."