It’s the end of the second day of competition in Barcelona, one hour before midnight, and the press conference after the ladies’ short program has just finished – when this exuberant Italian journalist approaches Mao Asada and asks her for a picture, handing his phone to the interpreter nearby; he then boldly, familiarly, kisses Mao on both cheeks, praising her loudly, with excitement: “Bellissima, bravissima Mao! Questa foto e per la mia mamma”. Completely taken by surprise, princess Mao smiles – a gleeful, candid smile, shared by everyone in the room. And, for a couple of seconds, no other words are needed – just the joy, the overwhelming joy of having Mao Asada back into the competitive arena. For us, for skating and all the mothers out there.
by Florentina Tone
This is not an analysis of Mao’s first Grand Prix Final after her year off – with the coldness, the distance that lie in such an action. It is, in fact, my ode to her – to this amazing 25-year-old skater from Nagoya, who started earning medals in international competitions in 2004 (as an advanced novice, in Zagreb, at Mladost Trophy), and, 11 years (and tens of medals) later, still thinks skating is essential for her.
She wrote on her website on May 18th, 2015: “During the break [Mao took a year off after 2014 Worlds in Saitama, to consider her future], I came to feel that I could still compete, I naturally started missing the sense of fulfillment and joy I used to have after my best skates in competition. And then I came to wish to come back to the game”. And on the same day day, according to Reuters, during a press conference for the show “The Ice”, Mao further explained her wish to return: “I had meant for Sochi and the World Championships to mark my last year, and, after that was over, I felt I’d done everything I could and didn’t want to skate again. But as the days passed and my time away from skating grew longer, I started to feel that yes, skating is essential for me”.
…and Mao herself is essential for skating, allow me to add that. Because the truth is in the ladies’ event at the moment there’s no one like Mao Asada. The Japanese lady has, of course, all the advantages the experience, maturity can offer, but, above all, she’s an innate talent, a butterfly; and when it comes to skating skills, she’s second to none. No better description of Mao and her gliding than the one of choreographer Lori Nichol for a Japanese newspaper in the Olympic season: “She flies on the ice using almost no power. As smooth as cutting butter with a knife warmed in hot water”. That particular metaphor stayed in my mind for months – and in Barcelona, at 2015 Grand Prix Final, as in many other competitions Mao took part, her presence was my personal highlight. There, I’ve said it – allow me to be more of a fan than of a journalist for a couple of moments/paragraphs.
“Each language only helps me tell you/How grand you are”
The beauty, the smoothness of Mao Asada’s routines surely conveys to the viewers – I’ve been in front of a TV before, I know it does – but you definitely should have been in Barcelona for this edition of the Grand Prix Final: you would have felt the pure emotion in CCIB arena, goosebumps and all, whenever Mao landed a perfect triple Axel, as if everyone in the audience rose and descended with her, as if everyone had, for a couple of seconds, Mao’s beautiful wings.
And you should have been there for that jewel of a short program, choreographed by Lori Nichol; that amazing routine to “Bei Mir Bistu Shein” [To Me You’re Beautiful], with Mao truly the embodiment of joy, and the audience literally screaming with delight as a response to her playful, coquettish, spirited movements. In my mind, I might have danced alongside her, I might have even muttered some of the lyrics of Sholom Secunda’s song, since they seem to describe so well the effect that Mao has on her fans, me included: “I could say «Bella, bella», even say «Wunderbar»/Each language only helps me tell you/How grand you are”.
Advice on career longevity
Later that day, with Mao being third after the short program in Barcelona, she was once again the definition of elegance during the ladies’ press conference. Asked what advice she would give, on the longevity in the sport, to her younger colleagues, Russia’s Evgenia Medvedeva and Elena Radionova, both 16 years of age, Mao smiled at first; didn’t know what to say. But her smiles proved gold for the photographers in the room, since a smile makes definitely for a better picture.
Seconds later, amidst the (war-like) noise made by the cameras, she showed she’d taken the question very seriously – and offered the girls useful, practical advices, and not banalities and common places: “Well, giving advice is difficult”, she said, in all modesty, and then added: “I think it’s important to practice a lot, of course. But if you get injured, it could be fatal. One thing for me was that I never got a major injury in my career, so that was one of the reasons I have been able to have a long career. And my other advice would be that, although these ladies are still very young, and it may not be a problem now, I think it’s a good idea to do stretches after competing and to take care of your body”. And then she smiled again – and so was everyone in the room; the lady had successfully (and wisely) passed the torch to the younger Evgenia and Elena.
“I really adore Mao”
As for Elena Radionova, well, she’s been admiring Mao for some time now – and, during the press conference, she said it once again: “I really adore Mao, because Mao has been in the sport for so long, so she really deserves my utmost respect”. Of course, during a press conference with two girls speaking Russian, one, Japanese, and the majority of the journalists, English or Spanish, there’s little room for spontaneity and you might get lost into translation. But Mao still gets to hear Elena’s answer translated into Japanese and her face lightens in a smile. The respect is mutual: earlier that day, talking to the journalists in the Mixed zone after her short program, she’d already recognized these girls’ abilities and fortes: “Because I came back to high level competition, I like to challenge myself and keep up with the younger skaters who have a highly difficult technical content”.
A day after, on December 12, it’s all about butterflies. Mao’s beautiful, lavender butterflies, resting on her shoulders when embodying Puccini’s Madame Butterfly in her free skate; and my own butterflies while watching her skate. Because with Mao Asada you’re never short of emotions.
…and the Italian guy just verbalized everyone’s thoughts. Welcome back, Princess.
Wednesday, December 9, 2015. Practice session in CCIB arena.
Thursday, December 10, 2015. Practice session.
Friday, December 11, 2015. Ladies’ short program.
Friday, December 11, 2015. Ladies’ press conference after SP.
Saturday, December 12, 2015. Practice session.
Saturday, December 12, 2015. Ladies’ free skate