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Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2009

ICE TIME

Tarasova must go if Mao wants shot at Olympic glory


Sometimes you have to throw the game plan out the window.

Jack Gallagher

After Mao Asada's disastrous outing at the Rostelecom Cup in Moscow over the weekend, it is pretty obvious that something is going to have to be done fast if she is to have any chance at medaling in the upcoming Vancouver Olympics.

Coming off a 36-point thrashing at the hands of world champion Kim Yu Na at the Trophee Bompard in Paris the week before, it didn't seem possible that matters could get worse for Mao in Russia, but they did.

Skating against a weak field, with compatriot Miki Ando the only real competition, Mao somehow found a way to finish fifth and virtually assure that she won't make the Grand Prix Final in Tokyo in December.

What is more disturbing than another disappointing performance, however, were Mao's comments after the short program in Moscow.

"I am not tired at all so I guess there is something wrong mentally," she said.

News photo
In crisis: Mao Asada, the 2008 world champion, has seen her dream of winning the Olympic gold medal jeopardized by a series of disappointing results in 2009. AP PHOTO

A troubling comment from an elite skater at this crucial juncture.

Sports federations and officials in Japan love to tell their charges what to do, which is usually a bad idea. However, in this case, the patient is in critical condition and in need of urgent assistance.

The Japan Skating Federation must step in and insist that Tatiana Tarasova step aside as Mao's coach. In skating, it is all about results, and this relationship clearly isn't working.

Mao's showing in Moscow (with a paltry score of 150.28), was her worst tally ever in a senior event. It also marked the first time she failed to medal in a senior Grand Prix competition.

It appears that Mao's entire season was configured for Tarasova's convenience. Mao was assigned to the first two Grand Prix events, which clearly were done so the 62-year-old coach would only have to travel to France and then be at home in Russia the following week.

What is the goal here?

For Mao to win the gold?

Or to acquiesce to somebody whose heart may not be in it anyway?

When Ice Time contacted the JSF back in June to question the wisdom of sending Mao to the season's first two GPs and then having her face a long layoff before the GP Final, we were told she "would have more time to practice."

That statement turned out to be more prophetic than realized, as with Mao now likely out of the GP Final, she won't be able to skate again until the Japan nationals in Osaka in late December.

Just what you want in the middle of the Olympic season, two months without a competition.

Mao is revered in Japan because she possesses the unique combination of beauty, ability and innocence that this country so loves. It is going to be a real tragedy if her shot at Olympic glory is squandered.

News photo
Not connecting: The partnership of Russian coach Tatiana Tarasova and Mao Asada has produced mixed results for Japan's top-ranked female skater. KYODO PHOTO

It is time for some serious intervention. The Winter Games are less than four months away, so there is not a moment to lose.

Favored to win the world championship in Los Angeles last March, Mao staggered to a fourth-place finish. Unfortunately, since that night things have only gotten worse.

Tarasova has developed an over-reliance on Mao's trump card — the triple axel. Mao remains the only woman to ever land the jump twice in the same program in competition, last doing it successfully in her GP Final victory in South Korea last December.

Now a triple axel has been included in Mao's short program, which has faltered the past two weeks.

Also, the music for Mao's long program — Rachmaninov's "Bells of Moscow" — is absolutely atrocious. It just doesn't fit Mao's bright personality.

When she skated to it in Paris, one television commentator noted that "this is the music vampires wake up to."

Ouch.

The bottom line may very well be that there is a generation gap between Mao and Tarasova that is just too great to bridge.

Of even greater concern is Mao's declaration at a news conference on Sunday that she was not planning on changing the music for her short or long program, or the number of triple axels in either.

It is not unusual for great athletes to be stubborn, but there is a time and place for it. The reality is that the window of opportunity in skating is very small. There is no guarantee Mao will have another shot at the Olympics in four years.

This is why it is imperative that she gets her act together now.

The feeling here is that Mao should return to Rafael Arutunian, who coached her for two seasons in California. Mao left Arutunian at the end of 2007 to return to Japan, and her coaching situation has been unstable ever since.

The isolation of Lake Arrowhead would provide Mao with the perfect setting to get herself back on track.

I thought it was a bad idea when Mao left Arutunian and moved back to Japan, no doubt pressured by skating officials who knew that she could be a lot more lucrative for them by skating in shows here than overseas.

It is interesting to note how Kim has flourished under the tutelage of Brian Orser in Toronto. A superstar at home in South Korea, she can walk the streets of the Canadian city in relative anonymity and concentrate on her training.

Conversely, Mao went from what seemed an ideal setup in the mountains of Southern California with Arutunian to this weird arrangement with Tarasova, while being forced to deal with her celebrity every day here in Japan.

At 52, Arutunian, who has worked with both Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen, still has the energy to take on a star like Mao and would no doubt relish the opportunity.

It appears that Tarasova is just not physically and emotionally up to the job of coaching Mao full time.

My father, an old American football and soccer coach himself, once gave me this astute observation on coaches as they grow older: "There are three types — those who still have the fire, those who've lost the fire, and those who never had the fire."

Tarasova's track record over the years is impressive, but I would classify her in the second category of the aforementioned. She wasn't willing to move to Japan, instead dispatching her assistant here to look after Mao.

Tarasova has also openly talked about retirement and having "relatives who are ill" in Russia.

While it is admirable that she wants to stay close to her loved ones, this is further evidence that she is unable to provide a conducive environment for Mao to train in.

Shizuka Arakawa left Tarasova for Nikolai Morozov during the Olympic campaign (in November 2005) and was rewarded for her gutsy decision with a gold medal.

Now is the time for Mao to make a bold move of her own.



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