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Sunday, March 30, 2008

SPORTS SCOPE

Mao a shining example of why sports still matter


Too often in life potential goes unfulfilled.

Jack Gallagher

We see it all the time, in all phases of society. There are those who are blessed with superior skills, be they physical or mental, yet can't for whatever reason realize their true capabilities.

On the rare occasion when we do see aptitude maximized, it is a truly a sight to behold.

Such was the case last week when Mao Asada won her first world championship in Goteborg, Sweden.

The top-ranked female figure skater in the world entering the competition, Mao has enjoyed immense popularity in Japan and produced a string of solid results over the past three years.

She was the world junior champion and winner of the Grand Prix Final in 2005, and the national champion in both 2006 and 2007. She has been consistent in her success, but it has not always come easily.

The free skate at the worlds was a perfect illustration of that.

Having finished a close second to Italy's Carolina Kostner in the short program, Mao was poised to win her first senior world title.

Hitting her specialty — the triple axel — and producing a fairly clean skate was all she needed to sew up the gold.

Mao took the ice looking confident and radiant in a burgundy outfit. However, just after she began to enter her first jump, she slipped and fell, hitting the ice hard and sliding all the way into the boards that surround the rink.

It could have been disastrous, but to Mao's credit she popped up and proceeded to land six triple jumps on the way to victory. It was clearly her toughness that won over the judges and narrowly earned her the gold over Kostner.

Not only did Mao prevail at the worlds, but she did it in the rare circumstance of not having a coach, after Rafael Arutunian stopped mentoring her late last year.

Mao is clearly a perfectionist, which can make life difficult for her at times.

If you are one, or know one, you will understand what I mean.

News photo
Mao Asada's natural talent and disciplined work ethic have helped make her the fifth Japanese female to win a world figure skating title. AP PHOTO

When she skated at the Trophee Bompard in Paris last November, she became so flummoxed after she was unable to land her triple-triple combination in the short program that she cried inconsolably for more than 30 minutes.

She didn't do it because she is a drama queen, but rather from frustration over not being able to get something right that she had practiced for countless hours.

Mao went on to win the event with a solid skate in the free program.

I have been fortunate to have been around some great athletes in my career, but I can honestly say that as a group, figure skaters train harder than any I have ever seen.

Mao is gifted, but it is her hard work and attitude that make the difference.

This is how she made history back at the 2005 Japan nationals, when she became the first female ever to land two triple axels in the same program in competition.

It remains a feat that is unequaled.

There are a lot of talented skaters out there, but only one female each year gets to be called "world champion."

Mao is the fifth Japanese to earn the honor, joining the pantheon of Midori Ito (1989), Yuka Sato (1994), Shizuka Arakawa (2004) and Miki Ando (2007).

Why is Mao, who is arguably the most popular athlete in the nation, so beloved by her fans and foes?

I think it is the combination of her natural beauty, cheerful demeanor and the magic of youth, when the opportunities seem limitless.

To see somebody achieve what she has at the age of 17, reminds many of dreams they once held.

Some were fulfilled, some weren't. But they were definitely there.

What is refreshing about Mao is that she won't rest on her laurels.

At a news conference in Tokyo on Tuesday she acknowledged that she has more work to do if she wants to join Arakawa as an Olympic gold medalist.

"I have a lot of things to improve for the Vancouver Games," Mao said. "I want to improve my lutz and make my jumps with higher quality. I also want to work on accelerating my spins and being more expressive."

When asked about Arakawa, Mao smiled and said, "I'll be happy if I can follow in her footsteps."

Mao comes from a wonderful family that has provided her with much love and support. It takes incredible backing to rise to the level of world champion in this sport, and she has been blessed to have it.

Every federation should be so fortunate to have a skater, every nation an ambassador, every sport an individual like Mao. Those of us who have gotten to know her can attest to her class.

She is warm, intelligent and gentle. A lady in every sense of the word.

We now live in a time when we are inundated with so much constant negativity about sports in the form of drugs, violence and corruption, that it sometimes makes you wonder what the point is.

Mao's purity in striving to achieve, and doing it the right way, exemplifies everything positive about sports, and why they remain an important part of society — especially for impressionable youngsters.

Whenever I think of her I am reminded that "Mao" rhymes with "wow."



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