April 10, 2017: Mao Asada announces official retirement from competitive skating. In just a couple of sentences on her website, she ends a fruitful career that spanned over 15 years – she won the Japanese novice national championships in the 2002-03 season – and included multiple records and medals: Olympic silver medalist, three-time World champion, three-time Four Continents champion, four-time Grand Prix Final champion, winner of 15 gold medals in the GP circuit, first junior girl to land the triple Axel in international competition, first woman to land three triple Axel jumps in one event, first woman to land two triple Axel jumps in the same program.
But Mao’s journey into the world of skating isn’t defined by jumps, the Axel, the firsts, the records. It’s all defined by artistry, by her unmatched skills and quality of skating. It’s defined by her gliding – „as smooth as cutting butter with a knife warmed in hot water”, as Lori Nichol put it beautifully in an interview for the Japanese media a couple of years ago. It’s defined by the soft movements of her arms in the air – Mao, the butterfly, by her beautiful, trademark spirals, by the intricacy of her step sequences, by her dissolving into the music, any music.
by Florentina Tone
When Mao skated her ritual fire dance in Finlandia Trophy, last October, we didn’t know this was her farewell season. She didn’t know that either – in her beautiful, red dress, with embroidery resembling the flames, Mao was Candelas, the young Andalusian who was dancing to recapture her freedom. She was a bird also, Mao Asada – a mysterious black bird – and both of her programs this season, to Manuel de Falla’s “Danza ritual del fuego”, were tailored to fit her to the fingertips.
But the season didn’t go as Mao wished, or planned.
Second in Espoo, Mao went on by finishing 6th in Skate America and 9th in Paris, in Trophée de France, some of her lowest placements in the Grand Prix circuit. And in December, she was only 12th in the Japanese Nationals, after medaling 11 years in a row and being Japan’s senior champion for six times.
Three months have followed, in which everyone else competed in Europeans, Four Continents and Worlds – while the fans kept on asking: was her injury healed? Did she resume practice? – and then it was this, two weeks after the pre-Olympic Worlds in Helsinki: Mao’s retirement announcement on her website. No fuss, no press conference. Just a short, simple message, in which she stated that her competitive spirit wasn’t there anymore.
“I would like to make an announcement.
While it may sound sudden, I, Mao Asada, have decided to end my career as a competitive figure skater.
It is thanks to the support and encouragement of so many people that I have been able to skate for such a long period of time and overcome many things.
I was able to finish the World Championships after the Sochi Olympics with the best performance and result. If I had retired at that time, I might have still wanted to return to competition today. There were many things I would not have known had I not come back as a competitive skater.
After returning to competitive skating, I have experienced increasing struggles because I could not achieve the performances and results that I hoped for. After Japanese Nationals last year, the goal that had been motivating me vanished, and I lost my motivation to continue my competitive career. Despite such a decision, I have no regret with my figure skating life.
This is a big decision for me, but I take it as a stepping stone in my life. I hope to find new dreams and goals, and move forward, with a smile on my face.
Thank you so much for all your support so far”.
But as discreet the message was, as huge was the hype after: shortly after the news broke, social media was literally invaded with memories, gratefulness, photos from Mao’s performances over the years, spontaneous art works (inspired drawings, portraits, or that beautiful collage in which Mao’s white dress from her Chopin’s Ballade no. 1 was re-made of white rose petals), regrets that she decided to step down, but mostly wishes for a happy retirement. Of all those, Mao’s pictures from her emotional free skate in Sochi, at 2010 Olympics, clearly prevailed. And a hashtag was (deservedly) trending: #ThankYouMao.
Fellow skaters expressed their love, support and admiration.
Laura Lepisto: “Huge #respect & gratitude to #MaoAsada for developing our sport. Congrats for an ultimately unique career and all the best for future!”
Miki Ando: “Dear Mao, Thank you for showing us your emotional skating!!! I was so happy to share the time with you on the ice and I am so proud of you and also proud of myself to have competed with you in Japanese team as Japanese!!! You are a beautiful skater and a sweet girl with pure heart. This is not the end!!! I’m sure your next skating life will shine as always, I’m sure you’ll give your heart to all of the world. Again thank you so much for being a great performer”.
Johnny Weir: “Mao-chan, thank you for your brilliance, your strength and your majesty in our sport. You’ve touched so many hearts through your competitive career and I wish you a very happy retirement!”
Kaitlyn Weaver: “THANK YOU MAO. ❤ A true champion”.
Ashley Wagner: “Mao-Chan, congrats on a beautiful and illustrious career. You truly lit up the ice with your talent and changed the path of skating”.
Maxim Trankov: “When your skating generation look at the same direction… with sign EXIT on the end of your competitive life… Bye, Mao-chan, a great skater, lovely person & real artist on ice. Hope to see u in professional ice”.
Denis Ten: “A sport chapter ends some day but there’s a whole new world outside of figure skating. Mao, wishing you best for a wonderful journey ahead”.
Kristi Yamaguchi: “Thank u #MaoAsada for your beautiful skating. As one of my fave skaters, I will miss seeing you compete but look forward to your pro career”.
Misha Ge: “Thank You for Your Beautiful Art, Your Performances, Inspiration and Smile! #ThankYouMao”.
Ecaterina Borisova: “We love you, Mao-Chan”.
Alaine Chartrand: “Mao is one of my skating heroes! She pushed the sport forward in many ways and I always enjoyed watching her perform! #ThankYouMao”.
…because witnessing Mao Asada’s performances, you could have only been that: a fan. That’s what we all were over the years. Thank you, Princess.
The real ending to this story? The lady who received Mao’s bouquet in Espoo, at 2016 Finlandia Trophy, treated as a treasure, and framed it. As we all framed our skating memories with Mao Asada.