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Sunday, July 19, 2009
Soul on ice: Resilient Ando primed for second chance at Olympic glory
"Don't judge a person until you have walked in their shoes."
Never could a saying be more apropos than for Miki Ando.
Growing up in front of the nation as a skating prodigy, she has taken her share of knocks, but has always come back stronger.
At the age of 21 she has already gone through a seeming lifetime of tribulations. Yet she remains upbeat and confident looking ahead.
In a rare and exclusive interview, the 2007 world champion opened up about her skating, family and life.
"I'm definitely looking to medal in Vancouver," the current world bronze medalist said recently in Tokyo. "After the last Olympics, I think I have something to prove."
"Miki is in great shape and really skating well," her coach Nikolai Morozov stated during the recent Dreams on Ice shows in Yokohama, which Ando headlined. "We are confident about her chances in Vancouver."
Morozov wasn't exaggerating about Ando's condition. When she skated in the shows at the Shin-Yokohama Skate Center, the definition in the 162-cm star's stomach muscles was both visible and pronounced. It appears as if she is leaving nothing to chance this time around.
Ando first burst onto the international scene when she landed a quadruple salchow at the 2002 Junior Grand Prix Final, shortly before her 15th birthday. It remains the first and only time a female has landed a quadruple jump in competition.
After so many years, and so much discussion of her historic achievement, one has to wonder if it has not become a bit of a burden for her.
"To the contrary, it inspires me," Ando noted. "This is why I keep striving to do it again."
With fellow Nagoya native and world champion Mao Asada having achieved so much on the back of the triple axel, the question of why Ando does not try to include it in her repertoire has to be asked.
"Many years ago I practiced the triple axel," Ando said, "but I developed a stress fracture in my foot as a result, and have been fearful of doing the jump ever since."
Throughout the years Ando, the 2004 world junior champion, has been labeled by some critics as lacking in toughness, but she does not agree with that assessment.
"I skate with my heart and show my emotions," said Ando, who is known for her excellent presentation skills. "I think those are assets."
As Miki has matured over the years, she has also come to grips with the untimely death of her father, Mikitaka, who died in a traffic accident when she was just 9 years old.
Having seen her become very emotional during previous interviews when talking about her Dad, I treaded lightly, but ask what happened.
"He was just 32. He was riding on a scooter," Ando said, her voice trailing off.
She really showed me something by answering this difficult question. It was as if she knew she was being tested and was determined to get through it.
Ando explained the profound impact this tragedy had on her mother. In one instant she lost her husband, father of her children, and business partner.
"My parents ran a cafe business together," she said. "When the accident happened, life became very difficult for my Mom and our family."
(Ando's lone request was that I not include the first names of her mother or younger brother, who have chosen to remain in the background throughout her career.)
Ando's charitable work both on and off the ice attests to her understanding that there are truly many in need. She may be a celebrity, but she hasn't lost touch with regular people.
"I have had some personal trials, but skating has always helped me through," she said. "If I can assist others through my skating, I want to do it."
Ando, who first took the ice at age 8, said she had a rich childhood athletically and creatively.
"I did ballet, played the piano, and enjoyed swimming," she noted. "I also did soroban (abacus) and shuji (calligraphy)."
Throughout the course of the evening Ando spoke in fluent English and was never stumped by any word or phrase I threw at her. Her adeptness at the language ran counter to the impression of many in Japan that she could not speak the language.
"My coach and my American friends really inspired me to learn English," Ando noted. "They told me that if I wanted to communicate with people outside of Japan I was going to have to do it. Now I am very happy that I did."
It was statements like this, and the confidence with which she made them, that had me feeling that I was in the presence of a beautiful young woman who is just hitting her stride in life, who knows that the toughest times are behind her, and that she has great prospects for the future and a long life ahead of her.
Her disastrous showing at the 2006 Turin Olympics, where she finished 15th, clearly still bothers her.
"I was just too young for all that," Ando said. "The expectations and the pressure, I just wasn't ready for it."
The Japan Olympic Committee and the Japan Skating Federation had promoted Ando extensively in the runup to the Turin Games, and when she failed to meet expectations, they weren't the only ones who were disappointed.
It wasn't enough for some fans that Shizuka Arakawa won the gold medal. They were infuriated by Ando's showing and let her know about it.
"I received hate mail after the Olympics," she recalled. "As if I didn't feel bad enough already."
I asked Ando about the origin of the nickname "Mikitty," by which some media and fans refer to her.
"I was appearing on a television show several years back, and the producers wanted to come up with a nickname for me and that was it," Ando said. "To be honest, I never really liked it.
"Skating fans on the Internet call me 'Snoopy' because they know I like Snoopy," she added.
As Ando heads into the Olympic season, the comparisons to Arakawa's predicament at the same point four years ago are tantalizing.
Arakawa, the 2004 world champion, struggled with injuries and motivation the following season, and considered retiring. She forged on, but not many in the skating community felt she could win the gold.
To put it quite simply, she was an afterthought.
Fast forward four years, and Ando is in a similar position.
With world champion Kim Yu Na and Mao garnering nearly all of the attention, Ando, despite her third-place finish at the worlds, is not in the thick of the discussion about who will top the podium in Vancouver next February.
It has to be pointed out that though Kim, Mao and Ando have all been world champions, just the latter has skated in the pressure cooker that is the Olympics. One need only harken back to Turin to realize that it would not take much to throw the competition wide open.
The irony of the situation is not lost on Morozov, who coached Arakawa to the gold medal in Turin.
"Miki is not the focus of the international media now, but neither was Shizuka back then," he said. "People have to remember that Miki narrowly missed out on the silver medal at the worlds (finishing less than one point behind Canada's Joannie Rochette).
"Her experience, along with the continued dedication and level of performance she is now exhibiting will put her right in the thick of the battle."
Morozov also pointed out that the unforeseen can always play a part in who emerges with Olympic glory.
"Despite all the years of training, the reality is that it comes down to four minutes on the ice," he concluded. "An injury, a fall, the intense pressure — these factors cannot be discounted. In the end, the advantage can very well go to the person who has been through it before."