Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Saturday, March 04, 2006

An Unexpected Heroine

In the 2005 National Figure Skating Championships in Japan, there was no doubt who everyone's darling was. It was a spritely, little teenager named Mao Asada. Cute as a button and loaded with talent, Mao had not only won competitions in 2004 and 2005, but she was the first female skater ever to pull off two triple axels in one event and the first ever to execute a "triple-triple-triple" in competition. Unfortunately, she was still too young to qualify for the Olympic team. Therefore, while she definitely grabbed the most spotlight, people were pinning their Olympic hopes on two other power skaters, well-decorated multi-champion Fumie Suguri and quadruple-jumping media star Miki Ando.

As it turned out, none of them won the competition. That honor rather unexpectedly went to troubled veteran Shizuka Arakawa. As a result, she, together with Suguri and Ando, were chosen for the Olympic team.

Arakawa's career had always been filled with surprising ups and downs. Despite competing at the international level from the late 90s, the best she ever managed in world competition was 8th until the 2004 World Championships in Dortmund, which she unexpectedly won. Until then, she had actually planned to retire from skating in 2004, which was also the year she graduated from Waseda University (with a social sciences degree). She had intended to enter the corporate world like any other graduate. Winning Dortmund convinced her to continue skating. However, she was plagued with everything from injuries to equipment trouble. Her motivation hit rock bottom coming into 2005, and she began to consider retiring again. Ironically, a 9th place finish in the 2005 World Championships convinced her to keep at it, if only to go out on a higher note. (She also said later that her father talked her into sticking with it.) After hiring a new coach and totally revamping her program almost from scratch, she placed third in the 2005 Grand Prix in China (behind Russian Irina Slutskaya and American Sasha Cohen) before winning the Japanese National Championships.

Arakawa was never given much attention by the Japanese media. Although a very technically skilled and graceful skater known for her picture-perfect jumps and back-bending spins, she lacked Asada's high-flying pixie charm, Suguri's passionate athletics, and Ando's photogenic, "easy-as-pie" agility. In the end, it was the judge's eye that counted, however, and she earned the points. She kept the same poise and momentum going into Torino, and, after the short program, it looked like she was headed for a repeat of the 2005 Grand Prix. She was third behind Sasha Cohen and Irina Slutskaya.

Arakawa was firmly convinced that a bronze medal finish was the best she could hope for, so she went into the free program relaxed and just enjoyed herself. Her form was as close to perfection as it could possibly get, and you could tell she wasn't worried about a thing. If she'd earned the bronze, she would have been a happy camper. As it turned out, amazingly enough, both Cohen and Slutskaya wound up falling on their butts. Arakawa, a shocked but very happy camper, brought home Japan's one and only medal of the 2006 Torino Olympics, and it was most definitely gold.

As for Japan's other two skaters, a tearful Suguri came in fourth behind Slutskaya, and Ando, plagued with injuries during training, fell apart and wound up in 15th place. Even so, both are still young enough to stay in the international arena for awhile. Of course, they'll also have Mao Asada to contend with. As for Arakawa, well, she can probably retire comfortably now...unless she decides to give it another go.

(I should probably feel a little guilty about this. After all, the media has been saying that Sasha Cohen was about the only thing that was able to tear the American TV viewing public away from American Idol long enough to pay any attention to the Torino Olympics at all.)



  • I thought you might have used this opportunity to make a dig about Team Canada's stellar performance in men's hockey.
    I'm glad you didn't.
    BTW, in the smallish rink (Yokohama) where I coach (hockey), they've got huge pics/banners up of the unexpected heroine. I've never seen the likes of it. Should really inspire the skaters I've seen practicing there.

    By Anonymous Jeff Nicholson, at 8:23 AM  

  • It is good to know there is someone out there with the athletics to match the artistry in figure skating. It also provides a nice counterpoint to the dirty politicking, assault, and tomfoolery that characterized last couple of Olympics.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 8:34 AM  

  • Wait, are you saying that there was an Olympics held lately?

    By Anonymous The Intrepid Adventurer, at 9:55 PM  

  • The Olympics are just a plot by liberals to trick people into thinking there really are people in other countries.

    By Anonymous Some neo-con fundie, at 11:10 PM  

  • im just curious how is it a plot?? and umm yea ppl do actually exist in other countries...what the hell

    By Blogger saba, at 11:29 PM  

  • It was close. Sasha Cohen had 62.41 points to Arakawa's 63. She felt so bad about her performance that she had changed into street clothes and had to scramble to get her costume back on to receive the silver medal.

    It does sort of make up for Midori Ito ending up with the silver in 1992 (USA's Kristi Yamaguchi got the gold that year). My biggest upset (yes I like this competition) was in 1998 when USA's Michelle Kwan was robbed of the gold by that little twit from Philidelphia, Tara Lipinsky. Sorry, it just wasn't right.

    Anyway, congrats to Japan and Shizuka Arakawa.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 5:24 PM  

  • Panda-

    I can top the Lipinsky bit with two words:

    Tonya Harding.

    (Tonya Harding went to junior high school with my little sister...who says she was an insufferable, whiny brat even then.)

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 12:16 AM  

  • Tonya Harding!

    Sloooowly I turned... step by step ... inch by inch ...

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 11:05 AM  

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