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Sunday, March 18, 2007

Golden girl Arakawa retains passion after Olympic glory

Staff writer

Time flies when you are on top of the world.

News photo
Shizuka Arakawa listens to a question at a recent meeting of the Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan in Tokyo. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

That's how life has been for Shizuka Arakawa the past year.

Since winning the gold medal in the women's singles at the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics, Arakawa has been on a seemingly nonstop schedule which has seen her skating in ice shows around the globe, showing up on television frequently, endorsing a variety of products, and trying to fulfill an immense list of requests for personal appearances.

She even went to the opera with then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi one night.

If that whirlwind schedule has affected her, it sure didn't show in a recent visit with the Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan, where she was on hand to accept the award as the top Japanese sports figure of last year.

The 25-year-old Arakawa was as poised as she was on that glorious night in Turin, where she became the first Japanese to win the gold in her event, in discussing a wide range of topics with amazing candor and grace.

While acknowledging that life is different now, the Tokyo native seems determined to try and keep in touch with what means the most to her.

"One of the biggest changes was that I turned professional from being an amateur skater. While I was an amateur I devoted myself 100 percent to skating, but now I have opportunities to do other jobs. These jobs are giving me a big influence on my skating," Arakawa said.

"My passion for skating has not changed. I do want to improve myself as a skater, and I do not believe that I am 100 percent perfect as a skater, so I want to improve more."

One of the pitfalls of fame is that you often become so busy that you don't have as much time to do what you want to. Arakawa noted how difficult it is for her just to pull on her skates these days.

"I have less time for training right now," she admitted. "I would like to have more time for training or practice. When I was an amateur, it was a regular routine for me to skate. But now, I am grateful whenever I have time to train or skate.

"As a professional I have to be ready whenever I go on the ice for a show. I try to keep a balance (between work and skating).

"Some weeks I am on the ice four to five days, others just one or two."

Though many would consider winning the gold medal equivalent to reaching the pinnacle of the sport, Arakawa, the world champion in 2004, has a different viewpoint.

"Maybe I reached my goal by winning the gold medal as an amateur skater, but as a pro, I am just at the starting point and have a lot more to do, that is my goal," she said.

Arakawa, an only child, then exhibited her independent side, adding: "I believe that my life will be decided by myself, so I don't really seek advice from others."

A two-time national champion (1998, '99), Arakawa addressed her admitted lack of motivation for a period preceding the world title she won in Dortmund, Germany, which catapulted her back into the spotlight.

"A few years ago, when I was not winning, I wasn't focusing on my skating. I wasn't devoting enough time to skating," she said candidly. "Then I began trying harder, and the results came with it. I wasn't just skating for the results, I was skating for my satisfaction."

When asked why she could rise to the occasion in the big events, where others have often fallen short, Arakawa pointed out that she has also tasted her share of frustration over the years.

"I was successful in some, but on the whole there were many that I was not successful in," she said. "I competed in nationals nine times but only won twice. This experience helped me to win in the bigger competitions."

Dealing with pressure is clearly part of what separates a good athlete from a great one. Arakawa, who was raised in Sendai after moving there at the age of 2, detailed how she coped with the stress in major competitions.

"You have to train a lot to be confident enough and not intimidated by the pressure," she explained. "Also, I have to know my weak points, honestly accept them, and know how to deal with them.

"I also have to work on what happens if there is big pressure, so I simulate this in training. I think this helped me to deal with the pressure in the big events.

"It helped me that I tried to think about winning. If I focused on winning, then I tended to make many mistakes on ice. I just wanted to pursue my skating and show my best performance, this helped me to concentrate."

It is clear that Arakawa's ability to compartmentalize her feelings helped her to succeed on sport's grandest stage.

"In Turin, I just wanted to enjoy the Olympics," she said. "I was able to enjoy them as I had planned. Feeling the joy of the Olympics erased all the pressure and I was able to be myself on the ice. My goal was to give my best performance on the ice and I was able to do it.

"I was excited about the Olympics, but I was calm enough to see what was going on around me. Rather than focusing on winning, I tried to give my best performance and that led to the gold medal.

"It is strange that I still remember how I was in Turin and how other rivals were. I remember exactly how people were doing, so I was calm enough."

Despite winning the gold in the pressure-packed environment, with an estimated worldwide television audience of 500 million watching, Arakawa never shed a tear publicly after her victory.

One had to wonder, though, when she got back to her room that night if she was not overwhelmed by her accomplishment.

"Not really," she said. "When I won the gold medal, I was simply surprised and happy and never got too emotional. I was too busy after I won. But now I remember when I won a year ago and realize how big it was."

The timing of the Ina Bauer move, the one which Arakawa performed so dramatically in the free skate in Turin while sliding across the ice directly in front of the judges, and had a major impact on her winning, was not coincidental, she said.

"Whenever we make a program we take into account the angles the judges are looking from," she added. "It just so happened that my coach, Nikolai Morozov, asked me to do that movement from there."

Arakawa reflected on being the first Asian figure skater to win the gold medal.

"I never thought it was a disadvantage being an Asian in figure skating. It is strange," she said with a smile.

"I was surprised to be the first Asian to win the gold. I never thought about why an Asian had not won in the past. I just hope I set a path for the next generation of Asian skaters, so they can win a medal in the future."

It may be hard to believe, but the Olympic champion once tried to conceal her interest in the sport which made her famous.

"Figure skating was not that popular back then (when I was growing up)," Arakawa said. "I was not comfortable with people asking me questions about skating back then, so I tried to hide the fact that I was doing it. But now I would like to show people how wonderful figure skating is."

When asked to define her own style, Arakawa paused for a moment then again reinforced how her love of the sport had always preceded winning as a priority.

"When I was an amateur skater, my wish was not to win but to see my limitations and show my ability," she said. "There are many skaters who have different goals. Some want to win. Some want to know the battle within themselves.

"In my case it was the battle within myself and it led to a good achievement. This (feeling) hasn't changed even after becoming a professional skater.

"Maybe this is why I was more attracted to ice shows than competition, and this is why I continue skating. Some skaters whose ultimate goal is winning just retire from competition and don't go on to skate professionally."

Now that she is skating as a pro, Arakawa has more opportunities to experiment with what is so often associated with her sport -- music.

"In singles skating, as an amateur, you are not allowed to use any vocal music," she revealed. "But now, as a professional skater, I can use any kind of music. I am now challenging (myself) to use different genres. While I was an amateur we used more classical music, which is more of the tendency in figure skating.

"I just use the music that I want to speak with," she added. "If someone gives me any advice on some music I should try, then I will do it. Also, if I can find something very surprising, I would like to try that. I would also like to try pieces that had just beats or drums, not just melodies.

"If I find some music that is not for me, I talk with my coach. Because it is me that is going to be skating, if I felt it is not right, then I tell my coach."

When questioned about her interest in music off the ice, Arakawa said a broad range appeals to her.

"There aren't any particular genres that I like. I listen to classical music. I listen to Japanese pop music. I listen to American pop music. I don't really have a favorite band."

Another key element for a skater is the choice of costume. Arakawa explained how she came to wear the blue outfit on that fateful night in Turin.

"The costume that I wore in Turin was blue, because of my coach's advice that the last few ladies who wore blue in the Olympics won the gold medal," she said. "I was surprised by the result wearing blue, so maybe blue will be my lucky color from now on."

Arakawa, who won Japan's only medal at the 2006 Winter Games, had an interesting take on why her teammates had such poor results in Italy.

"I can't really make an analysis on the other sports. But it is a competition, it is a battle, so you do need luck to win," she said. "It is really hard to point out what is wrong about not doing so good at the Olympics. You can't say that winning is something very normal.

"There is another possibility, which is that the expectations were too high for the athletes prior to the competition, those which were established by the athletes themselves or others around them.

"Maybe some athletes felt pressure from those expectations, and were not able to show their best during the Olympics. But we had many young athletes competing in Turin, so I hope they can correct what went wrong there and win more medals in Vancouver."

Arakawa had a thoughtful response when asked about the expectations for teammate Miki Ando, who has been built up by the Japanese media ever since she became the first woman to perform a quadruple jump in competition, back in 2002 (at the junior Grand Prix Final), but has so far failed to live up to them.

"Maybe she wasn't sure about her skating style until now," the 166-cm Arakawa said. "I am sure she has very good talent. Now she has begun to see what kind of style she should pursue in her performance.

"Maybe, in the past, she thought the quadruple jump was the most important thing, or the expectations from other people were the most important things. When you look at her facial expression now, it is totally different from last season, so I think she is going to improve."

With the World Figure Skating Championships coming up this week in Tokyo, Arakawa was diplomatic when asked her opinion on who would win.

"This year there are many skaters that are aiming for the world championship, and many who deserve a shot at it," Arakawa said. "We do have a strong team in Japan with Mao Asada and Miki Ando, also we have the current world champion (American) Kimmie Meissner coming. It is difficult to say who the favorite is, but I am looking forward to seeing a great championships."

When it came to the sticky subject of the money scandal that rocked the Japan Skating Federation last year, Arakawa made it clear that while she knew who was not responsible for it, she also had no intentions of getting involved in trying to clean it up, despite suggestions by some in the Japanese media who said she should.

"The scandal of the federation has nothing to do with the skaters. I just wish someone would take the leadership in the federation to regain the trust of the skaters," she said. "I don't know why some people said I should take the leadership. I'm not confident right now to do it. I think the talent to become a leader and the talent to become a good skater are different.

"The best thing is just to create an environment that is comfortable for the skaters."

Arakawa spoke about her new role as an analyst on television and, of course, the challenges it presents. She believes her many years of experience as a skater can help provide insight on the sport to viewers.

"I can make comments from a skater's perspective," she said. "Also, I can tell the mentality, how the skater's emotional state is going into a competition.

"It is very difficult to do commentary on figure skating, because you try not to disturb the music. You have to let the audience listen to the music while the skaters are performing, so sometimes you have to keep your mouth shut. You have to keep a good balance."

When queried about the new scoring system in skating, Arakawa noted that it is not perfect.

"It is important to think of how the judges will evaluate the performance," she said. "But I try to give my own opinion on performance (when analyzing). With the current system, the technical specialist will decide whether it was a triple jump or should be downgraded to a double. But sometimes it is approved as a double jump, so there is a gap in the new system."

Though she will always be associated with skating, Arakawa said that wasn't the first sport she participated in as a youngster.

"I was a swimmer before I took up skating," she revealed. "I would like to take up golf and tennis in the future, but so far I haven't had the chance." Arakawa also elaborated on her fondness for baseball.

"This may be a surprise, but I do really like baseball," she said, flashing a million-yen smile. "I began watching baseball when I was in high school because my school went to Koshien, and I went myself. I was fascinated with how wonderful it is to watch the game live.

"Then I began going to professional baseball games, too. My favorite team was the Yakult Swallows, but, of course, I do like the Seibu Lions and I do root for them. I do not have any really favorite team. There are many Japanese players in the major leagues now and I do support them."

Hard as it may be to believe, the attractive and intelligent Arakawa, who recently modeled a 1 billion yen wedding dress, claims that her rise to prominence has not resulted in an outpouring of attention from members of the opposite sex.

"No marriage proposals so far in the wake of the gold medal," she said. "I was just in a fashion show for wedding gowns. (While wearing it) I never thought 'I wanted to get married.' I just wanted to wear the wedding dress."

When asked if her prince will one day come, Arakawa smiled and coyly said: "I hope so."

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