This piece of news came as a shock: at the end of Japanese Nationals and after the teams for Worlds and Four Continents had been announced, 24-year-old Tatsuki Machida stepped on to the ice of Nagano Big Hat arena, announcing he’d decided to say farewell to figure skating. In a matter of minutes, due mostly to twitter, the announcement circled the world, leaving everyone perplexed: why does an incredibly talented figure skater like Tatsuki Machida, at the peak of his career, decide to retire – and in the middle of the season too? “I am clearing the path to my second career and I sincerely thank you”, said the 2014 World silver medalist Machida, referring to his plans to study for a master’s degree in sports science at Waseda University in Tokyo. He’ll start school in April and the Japanese Nationals have been the last event he attended as a competitive skater.
by Florentina Tone
With bitter disappointment (it is indeed terribly hard to watch a skater with such a huge potential and wonderful career ahead leave the competitive arena so soon, too soon), I invite you to travel back in time and see Tatsuki Machida in the framework of his last international competition, the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona. Of course, there wasn’t a cheerful outcome for Tatsuki in Barcelona – he finished the competition on the sixth place – but carefully reassessing the event, with its highs and lows as regards the 24-year-old Japanese skater, might prove helpful in understanding his sudden decision to retire.
“A cathartic exploration of tragic love”
The 2014 World silver medalist Tatsuki Machida had come to Barcelona as a contender for the podium; after all, he’d won the gold at 2014 Skate America and silver at 2014 Trophée Eric Bompard. But it was exactly this particular lay-out of the events that made things difficult for him, in preparing for the Final in Barcelona; he had to travel back and forth in what we may call a short period of time. “My second Grand Prix was also in Europe, in France, and I didn’t have much time in between before coming here, so it was a bit hard mentally and physically, but I did my best to prepare”, said Machida in Barcelona after the short program. Not to mention his twisted ankle: “After France, I twisted my ankle on the quad, so I was not in the best shape coming in to this. Now I am ok, I am still not in very good condition, but I did my best today. This morning my training was a disaster, so I was very worried. But I was able to pull out a performance I can be proud of”.
Indeed, Tatsuki Machida skated an impressive short program at the Grand Prix Final, scoring 87.82 points and lying in second place behind team mate Yuzuru Hanyu after this particular segment of the event; his only error had been stepping out of the quadruple toe-triple toe combination. The rest was just flawless – and the audience in CCIB arena simply adored this flowing, touching routine to Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra from the soundtrack of “Ladies in Lavender”. “His short program reminds me of my tragic love and touches my heart”, wrote someone on Instagram – and these were exactly choreographer Phillip Mills’ intentions when creating the program. As Phillip Mills described it, “This 2:50 program is a cathartic exploration of tragic love that almost everyone experiences one way or another in their life. My intent is that the audience will use Tatsuki’s journey to help them come to a better understanding of their own tragic love story and come away more at peace on the other side”.
“This program is like a wall I have to climb”
One day later, during the free program, things didn’t go as smooth for Tatsuki Machida. On the contrary: skating to Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9, the World silver medalist completely fell into pieces, turning this gem of a program into a rush and a struggle – and a struggle very difficult to witness. Machida scored 128.31 points for his flawed routine and plummeted from second place to sixth overall – and watching him fail was, probably, one of the hardest moments of this edition of the Grand Prix Final.
And what an impressive free program this is, and what a courageous decision from both Tatsuki Machida and choreographer Phillip Mills to try and express through skating the grandness of such a musical piece, almost universally considered to be Beethoven’s greatest work and one of the greatest pieces of music ever written. In Phillip Mills’ words, the program is called “Believe” and “it is choreographed in three movements. The first movement is «Passion», where he gathers the positive energy from the audience to carry him through. In the second movement, «Cherish», he is embracing the love that the audience gives to him. Finally, «Celebration» is the third movement. This bravura packed section builds with excitement that leads to the ultimate release of power and energy up into the universe”.
A masterpiece of a program Phillip Mills created for Tatsuki Machida – and I do applaud with all my heart the musical choice, the difficult choreography and Tatsuki’s utter courage to try and deliver greatness on ice; but in Barcelona, after such a terrible skate, you could already sense his disappointment. Minutes after his performance, Tatsuki’s words were bitter and sad: “It’s very difficult to skate this program. This program is too big for me. It’s like a wall I have to climb, but I have never given up; and my physical and mental condition is very good, but I just wasn’t able to skate well”.
Earlier this season, right after he’d won the gold at Skate America, performing his free program for the first time in front of an audience, the Japanese skater stated clearly he’d have to work hard for a solid performance: “My new program, Symphony No. 9, is very challenging for me. I have to give my 120 percent otherwise the performance will not make it. While I am practicing, if I have the perfect condition and the perfect-fitting boots and everything goes perfectly, I can skate clean. But that’s at practice. To perform in front of the spectators is much harder”.
Well, this challenging program is definitely World-class material – and one of the biggest regrets in the figure skating world these days is the fact that this particular routine to Symphony no. 9 won’t be in Shanghai, at the end of March. I just wished Tatsuki Machida would have believed more in himself, in his talent and abilities to deliver a flawless, memorable performance at the 2015 Worlds.
PHOTO-GALLERY: Tatsuki Machida at this year’s edition of the Grand Prix Final, his last international event