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Sunday, Dec. 9, 2007

SPORTS SCOPE

Time for Ando to look beyond ice at reasons for inconsistency


For those who have watched her perform for years, through good times and bad, it seemed almost inevitable.

Jack Gallagher

That's how fragile the psyche of Miki Ando is.

The world champion's latest setback — a meltdown in the free skate at the NHK Trophy last weekend resulting in a fourth-place finish — cost her a trip to next week's Grand Prix Final in Turin, Italy.

In second place after the short program, Ando appeared a lock for the GP Final. But her disastrous free skate, where she fell twice, touched down once and botched a triple combination jump, has observers once again wondering what is troubling her.

"I was questioning myself during the summer on why I was doing all of the competitions and practice," Ando said after her dismal performance. "It is not that I want to quit, but my body and my mind are not in unison."

Ever since she became the first female to land a quadruple jump (a salchow at the 2002 Junior GP Final) in competition, she has been carrying the massive burden of expectations of the Japanese public, but the Nagoya native has never been able to project strength in the face of adversity.

News photo
Miki Ando, the 2007 world champion, has been plagued by inconsistent performances for years. AP PHOTO

She finished sixth at the Japan nationals in December 2005, and looked poor doing it, but due to sponsorship and political considerations was awarded a spot on the Olympic team. It was a decision that did not sit well with many people.

In Turin, she appeared overweight, out of shape and unmotivated, and finished 15th.

Following the Olympics, she changed coaches, leaving 1960 Olympic gold medalist Carol Heiss Jenkins for Nikolai Morozov, who had just coached Shizuka Arakawa to the gold.

Morozov, clearly one of the top coaches in the world today, helped rebuild Miki's confidence and got her back in shape.

The hard work paid off when Ando won the world title in Tokyo last March, where she narrowly edged compatriot Mao Asada for the gold.

It was a heartwarming tale for those who had followed Ando's trials and tribulations, but one had the feeling even then that there would be a few more twists and turns before her competitive career was over.

Ando is an enigma to many. Some have attributed her sensitivity to the fact that she lost her father at a very young age and has had to rely on her mother for moral support, to the point of where she has become too dependent.

Over the summer, rumors started circulating that Ando was telling people she was "burned out." But she kept on skating, appearing in shows on both sides of the Pacific.

In this country, when one is struggling, they are often told to gambatte (keep going) by family, friends or colleagues. Unfortunately, this encouragement is sometimes offered when it may be in the best interests of the person to take a break and regain some perspective.

It is part of Japanese culture, however, and difficult for someone who has grown up in it to resist. Ando appears to be a case in point.

Morozov, who credited Ando's world title in part to her maturing, had suggested previously that she take a break and concentrate on the nationals and the 2008 world championships, but she insisted on skating on.

When Ando finished second in the GP opener at Skate America to Kimmie Meissner, it looked like she might have overcome her funk. However, against a less-than-stellar field in Sendai, she came apart.

To the seasoned observer, it appears that Ando has all of the tools for success — natural ability, outstanding presentation skills and top-class coaching.

What she clearly lacks is the self-confidence and killer instinct necessary to succeed consistently at the elite level.

With this in mind, and in the wake of Ando's poor showing at the NHK Trophy, I asked the Japan Skating Federation the day after her fiasco if it was considering having her consult with a sports psychologist.

It seemed a logical question.

The reply I received was not surprising.

"No. Because this result was only one time," came back the terse response from JSF director Hidehito Ito.

But those words ring hollow for those who follow skating and clearly see that Ando needs a boost.

Japan is a place where things change slowly, if at all. Counseling, of any kind, is still a rare thing and never something to be acknowledged.

As the JSF's stance shows, in this country people are reluctant to seek help for those with problems. The position generally seems to be that by ignoring the issue, hopefully it will just go away.

Coaches are naturally expected to encourage their charges, and Morozov always is seen rinkside during competitions doing exactly that. However, Ando could really benefit from a clinical specialist that she could open up to.

The JSF has a lot invested in Ando, literally and figuratively. It seems nothing short of negligent that it won't adopt a more open-minded attitude about trying to help her regain her self-confidence.



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