Satoko Miyahara. A long and winding road to come back

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Imagine you are an athlete who has been one of the best in the world in past few years. Then imagine you have been fighting for multiple injuries that prevent you from basic training for 10 months. Then imagine people are counting down the days for the Olympics which you have been dreaming for years. That your coach telling you “no need to hurry, there will be an Olympics in 5 years and we can prepare for that” could be the worst nightmare you ever had.

That was what Satoko Miyahara was facing back in October 2017, 4 months until the Pyeongchang Olympics.

by Wei Xiong

Her struggles date back to January the same year, just one month after she won the silver medal at the Grand Prix Final, and claimed her 3rd consecutive title at Japanese Nationals in a dominant fashion. Just when everyone thought she was going to have another great season, Miyahara was diagnosed with a stress fracture in her left pelvic girdle, which forced her to withdraw from competitions in February and rest for 4 weeks.

However, the suffocating pain didn’t go away even when March came. The Japanese champion withdrew from the Worlds, and decided to go for rehabilitation in Japan Institute of Sports Sciences for a month. Yet, when she resumed ice training in May, she was haunted by a series of unfortunate events: sprained left ankle, bone bruise and inflammation on right pelvic girdle, and physical illness, which pulled her away from training from time to time. Even when she trained on the ice, she could practice no more than 10 jumps per day in order to protect the fragile body.

“Of course I felt a bit anxious”, Miyahara told the press at the Grand Prix Final in December, “but then I recalled my days during rehabilitation. In the same institute, there were many athletes from other sports. All of them were suffering from more severe injuries than me, some even couldn’t walk by themselves. But they were so optimistic and focused on physical recovery that made me think: «I have no reason to feel sorry for myself. I cannot give up». I was inspired by the experience to think positively”.

During the days not being able to practice jumps, Miyahara decided it was the right time to polish her skating and performance, as she recalled: “I did a lot of run-throughs with music without any jump, paid extra attention to my overall skating, and tried to improve my steps and spins”.

“I also visited my ballet coach to seek for her help on improving my presentation”, she continued. “She then taught me how to use my limbs to the details, and gave me some advice on how to deliver the nuanced emotions of my programs through body movements”.

The talk
While the 19-year-old and people around her were being as positive and patient as possible, days went by, but her recovery progress was so slow that she had to withdraw from competition again. This time, it was Lombardia Trophy, in early October. People started to question whether the reigning Grand Prix Final medalist would be able to come back for the GP series, or would be fit enough to fight for her Olympics spot at Nationals.

That was when her coach Mie Hamada decided to have a talk with her.

“It was really a difficult time for us. We wanted to prepare ourselves for the Nationals, but we were still practicing jumps with constraints”, Hamada shared, with tears in her eyes. “Actually, in October, I once asked Satoko: «Do you want to quit skating next year?», and she said no. Then I talked to her: «In that case, you have 5 years. You know, there will be an Olympics in 5 years, so you don’t need to hurry, just take your time and we will train for that»”.

As devastating and dreadful as it may sound, Hamada’s words became her student’s motivation. After the difficult talk, Miyahara made “miraculous” progress in her recovery. She soon resumed practice on jumps in mid-October, and landed them in better quality day by day. By the time of November, she was able to pull off a decent performance in run-through practice with all elements. “Though I couldn’t do clean run-throughs every time like last year, things were definitely getting better and I could jump with confidence”, she recalled.

“Did you want to prove your coach wrong, that you didn’t need 5 years?”, one journalist asked.

“No, I wasn’t trying to prove her wrong at all”, Miyahara answered firmly. “We were not giving up Pyeongchang. But what she meant was: «You are still young, and there is a lot of room to improve. You can be an even better skater in 5 years, and you can show what a matured skater you will become in the next Olympics. You will have another chance». She was trying to comfort me, and her words motivated me to do the best I could”.

Going back to where she belonged
Seeing the progress, Miyahara and her coaching team decided to proceed with the GP assignments as scheduled.

The NHK Trophy from November 10-12 didn’t go well, as she finished 5th overall after underrotating and doubling quite a few jumps. The following Skate America turned out to be a surprise. Despite some small mistakes, Miyahara managed to place 1st in both segments and took the gold medal. The performances were not her best for sure, but she was satisfied with the progress.

“At the end of the day, I wanted to bring out 100% of what I am capable of at the Nationals. Towards that goal I wanted to gradually improve my condition and performance through competitions. So, before the NHK Trophy, I told myself that 70% would be good enough. And for Skate America, I would be happy if I could bring out 80%”.

To her surprise, after Evgenia Medvedeva withdrew from the Grand Prix Final, Miyahara continued her GP journey as the 1st substitute. “This time, I want to achieve 92%. I am not thinking of winning or something, but I just want to skate two clean programs”, she shared with the press before the Final kicked off.

The short program went as well as she expected. Skating to “Sayuri”, soundtrack from the movie “Memoirs of a Geisha”, the reigning silver medalist pulled off a clean program, received positive GOEs on all her elements, and was rewarded 74.61, almost tied her personal best.

But the free skate was a bit of a challenge, as she underrotated and landed weakly on her triple Lutz-triple Toe combo, and the following triple Flip. Nevertheless, as the music of “Madame Butterfly” continued to build, Miyahara skated stronger, and nailed the second half of program solidly. Audience in Nagoya gave her standing ovation, some of them even shouted: “Welcome back!”

“It is a very famous piece of music, so I think everyone knows the story”, Miyahara commented. “I think I was able to skate the program with my own style, and to interpret the various emotions in it”.

Satoko Miyahara as Madame Butterfly. Photo courtesy of Skating China

The endless slope
Though the score and 5th place finish could not compare to what she did last year, Miyahara said she gained confidence through the competition. “The short program was better than in Skate America, and I think I finally got back the feeling of skating a good program. The free skate was not my best, but not bad either. I think I’ve achieved 90% of what I am capable of, and I have more confidence now. I want to carry the momentum on to the Nationals”.

At the same time, she also acknowledged that even her best may not be good enough: “Everybody is becoming very good these days, and the field is so competitive now. I need to further improve my level to catch up with others”.

And improve she did. At the Japanese Nationals three weeks later, the defending champion delivered two close-to-perfect performances, and her combined score of 220.39 refreshed the highest record of Japanese Nationals history. Without any doubt, the 19-year-old who seemed doomed to miss her flight to Pyeongchang finally realized her dream.

And finally, she and coach Hamada could not hold back the tears anymore at the Kiss & Cry.

Backstage, Hamada shared an emotional moment with the press. “I kept telling you all that she was fine, but in fact I was very concerned, and it was more difficult than you could imagine. She was a fighter, she fought till the end”.

“This year is like an endless slope that you need to keep climbing and climbing”, Hamada continued, “but this girl, she just kept doing what she could do without any complaint. Although I am the coach, I have learned so much from her, and she is the one who’s leading the way. I can still remember the first day I met her, I could never imagine that she would be at the Olympics someday. Now I am glad that all her efforts were paid off”.

But winning the Olympics spot was certainly not the final goal for the four-time national champion. “When I was standing on the podium, I told myself, You finally made it here. Now, this is your starting point”, Miyahara shared at the press conference.

And we cannot wait to see what awaits the tiny yet powerful 19-year-old in her new journey.

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