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Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2009

ICE TIME

Mao, JSF appear content to retain present course


As the sand continues through the hourglass and the days until the Vancouver Olympics dwindle, Mao Asada's chances at the gold medal seem to continue to dissipate.

Jack Gallagher

Her fifth-place finish at the Rostelecom Cup in Moscow last month cost her a spot in next month's Grand Prix Final in Tokyo. That was a great pity, because it was at the same event back in 2005 that a 15-year-old Mao burst onto the international scene with a stirring victory.

Just a few weeks later she topped that by becoming the first female in history to land two triple axels in the same program when she did it at the Japan nationals.

It was only a fluke of fate — a birthday in September — that kept her from competing in the Turin Olympics due to an age requirement.

Nearly four years on, and when Mao should be making final preparations for the GP Final, nationals and the Olympics, she is practicing in Nagoya without a full-time coach.

Let's face it, folks, things are not looking good for "Miracle Mao" right now.

Following the uproar over the fiasco in Russia, Japan Skating Federation president Seiko Hashimoto had some harsh words for Mao and how she should improve her training conditions to give her a better chance for success. Hashimoto said she wanted a meeting with Mao to discuss her situation.

It appeared like a shake up might be in the works, with the possibility that the strange setup whereby Tatiana Tarasova coaches Mao from Russia might be altered, but a month later it looks like lip service.

Hashimoto certainly sounded a different tone shortly thereafter when she spoke to the media at the NHK Trophy in Nagano, seemingly going out of her way to not single out Mao.

News photo
Stuck at practice: By skating in the first two Grand Prix events of the season and missing out on the Grand Prix Final, Mao Asada can do nothing but train for two months. KYODO PHOTO

Hashimoto went to Nagoya herself to observe Mao, Miki Ando and Yukari Nakano train and spoke with them afterward.

The media wanted specifically to know her feelings about Mao.

"She looked like she was struggling during the first Grand Prix events, though she wasn't as concerned as some other people were," Hashimoto said. "Mao has self-analyzed what is wrong now."

Hashimoto, a four-time Olympian in speedskating, backed off her comments about Mao needing to re-evaluate her advisers.

"Not only Mao, I take care of all the skaters," Hashimoto said. "And I know what the problems are mentally or physically for the speedskaters because I know them well. I haven't had many chances to contact with figure skaters. Partly because I was away from the president's job for a year, I wanted to understand the problems all the skaters have now.

"Mao's case is just one of them. What we talked about is what she should do now as an athlete for the upcoming Olympics and what is the best for her as the Olympics get closer. I gave her some advice from my experience."

When Hashimoto was asked to detail if she had discussed Mao's training conditions,the JSF chief's comments made her sound uneasy.

"That doesn't have much to do directly with the athletes themselves. I talked with Mao only as an athlete. I am the president of the JSF and also the captain of the Japanese delegation for the Vancouver Games.

"I just wanted to make sure the circumstances for the all athletes were proper to make them focus on winning in the Games. I was not talking just about Mao's case, but generally."

I may be wrong, but it sounds like Hashimoto is already trying to take cover in case Mao doesn't fare well at the Olympics.

John F. Kennedy once said, "Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan."

Understanding the power of Mao's popularity — and the intense concern of many of her fans — it looks like Hashimoto doesn't want to be blamed if there is a train wreck in Vancouver.

The problem here is that she is the leader of the JSF and already on record as questioning Mao's training setup. It's one thing to talk tough, another to back it up.

"She (Mao) asked me a lot of things," Hashimoto stated. "I think this is very natural for an athlete. Every athlete has his/her own training method. But they all want to know what other people are doing and get something from that. She was not the exception."

When the media inquired about more particulars of the conversation with Mao, Hashimoto made it appear that the teenager was the one asking all the questions.

"She asked about how she should eat, and about conditioning," Hashimoto claimed. "But biorhythm is what you should make by yourself, especially for the athletes. I guess she just wanted some information from me to make her own biorhythm.

"It's not only Mao but every athlete thinks the same way because they always want to seek the way to improve. And I'm the right person to do so because I got through a lot of them (Olympics)."

Ice Time spoke with Brian Orser, the coach of Kim Yu Na, in Nagano about Mao and he made it clear that he thought her fans shouldn't panic just yet.

"Three months is a long time in this business," Orser noted. "These things can change back around."

When I pointed out to him that Mao would likely have only one chance to skate competitively (at nationals) before the Olympics, unless she took part in the Four Continents Championship in South Korea in late January, Orser made no secret of his thoughts.

"It's too close to the Games for anybody participating," he said. "There is just no way."

Sure enough, within an hour of talking to Orser, I learned of a published report saying the JSF was considering sending Mao to the Four Continents.

This looks like yet another instance of where the JSF could be making a suspect decision.

As if all of this weren't enough, an Ice Time reader sent us a story earlier this month that appeared in the Russian media where Tarasova was supposedly quoted as saying, "I'm not Mao's coach, I'm just a consultant."

Good grief.

For the record, Ice Time requested an interview with Mao — offering to go to Nagoya to speak to her in person — to give her a chance to air her feelings about all of the fuss, but she declined saying she "just wanted to focus on her training now."

It sure seems like the deck is stacked against Mao. You want to believe that this will all have a happy ending, but with all of the uncertainty surrounding her, it really makes you wonder.

Poll tally: The recent survey run online by The Japan Times asking readers what they thought Mao should do about her coaching situation yielded some interesting results.

A total of 1,266 votes were logged in the 10-day period the poll ran. The most popular choice (25 percent) was for Mao to consider selecting a new coach from a wide range of candidates.

Finishing a narrow second was the suggestion that Mao return to former mentor Rafael Arutunian (24 percent).

A fair number of voters (21 percent) thought Mao should move to Russia and train full time with Tarasova.

More in the minority were those who felt Mao might be best off hiring a Japanese coach (18 percent) or sign on with Nikolai Morozov (12 percent).



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