TOKYO (Reuters) - When Japan’s Mao Asada steps onto the ice in Sochi, she will be hoping to finish off her amateur career with Olympic gold - and a perfect set of the complicated jumps that have long been both her trademark and her Achilles heel.
As recently as the Japan Nationals in late December, she failed to properly land a triple Axel and ended up placing third, prompting some commentators to suggest she omit the jump from her routine altogether.
Asada may well take heed of the warnings because in Sochi she will again face long-time rival Kim Yuna of South Korea, the reigning Olympic champion, who sat out the Grand Prix circuit to recover from injury but has since performed strongly.
Kim, 23, hopes to end her competitive career by becoming the first woman to win two Olympic gold figure skating medals since Katarina Witt in the 1980s.
Though Asada downplays talk of rivalry with the elegant South Korean, the 2010 Vancouver loss still scars the 23-year-old Japanese skater.
“There have been some very tough times, but if she wasn’t there I wouldn’t have made the progress I have,” Asada told Reuters in November.
“In Vancouver, I had the gold medal as my goal. I’d worked for it since I was a child, and afterwards I really regretted my mistakes,” she added.
“In Sochi, I’d like to erase those memories by doing everything perfectly. That’s what I’ve been working for these last three years.”
Much of that quest for perfection centres on the triple Axel, a complicated jump with 3.5 rotations that has been associated with Asada virtually since she burst onto the skating scene as a junior phenomenon.
She remains the only woman in the world to have landed three of them in competition.
But while Asada performs the jump well during practice - a November session at her home rink saw her land it cleanly on every attempt - keeping that same focus in competition remains an issue and has been the centrepiece of her pre-Sochi efforts.
Asked what she thinks about when she skates, she said: “Making sure I skate the way I’ve been skating in practice. I leave it up to my body and skate with all my heart.”
She spends the last minutes prior to any competition pacing the corridor by the rink, her face set.
“Basically I’m just concentrating. The first (triple) Axel is the key point, so I’m always visualising that,” she said. “To relax, I do deep breathing - a deep breath in, then a long breath out. I try to be aware of that.”
A perfect first triple Axel brings relief and, often, a big and unforced grin. “But if that doesn’t go well then I really concentrate on making up the points elsewhere.”
Asada began skating at the age of five, enticed into doing it to follow her big sister, Mai, two years older and a skater herself.
She began to draw attention while still on the junior circuit and now is a household name in Japan, known by the affectionate nickname “Mao-chan”.
But after taking silver to Kim’s gold in Vancouver, Asada began to re-learn her skating from the basics, undergoing several painful years before making the new skills her own.
“The first year and second year I was thinking all the time when I practiced. It’s all an issue of sense, of feeling,” she said.
“There’s nothing I can put my finger on, but basically it was just a matter of practicing every day until I got it.”
She suffered a further blow in December 2011, when the news came that her 48-year-old mother, Kyoko, was in critical condition with liver disease.
Asada pulled out of a competition in Canada to fly home, but before she could reach Japan her mother had passed away.
She went into a slump during which she “hated skating,” going as far as to tell coach Nobuo Sato that she might be thinking of quitting.
However, she was lured back into skating by the lively music her choreographer played during a visit, as well as the fun of putting together an exhibition programme.
After the Olympics and giving up competition, Asada would like to take part in ice shows but before that, she’d like to go on vacation - preferably to “some place like Bali, where I can really relax”.
“Now, it’s really fun. I’m expecting a lot of myself but I’m hopeful,” she said.
“It’s not the kind of fun you have while shopping, but doing everything I can every day and finishing the day with a sense of satisfaction. I’m doing what I must right now, and in the end I think I’ll be pleased.”
Editing by John O'Brien