Whenever I saw Mao Asada skate well, which she did often, I was reminded of the second line in one of the most famous arias in the operatic canon, “La Donna è Mobile,” from Verdi’s Rigoletto.
When you get past the trope of the aria’s title and opening verse, which scoffs at women for being flighty, you come to the nature of the flight: “qual piuma al vento” — like a feather in the wind.
That is the best description for the way Asada moved on the ice, even in the later years of her career, when she added the mature elegance of a woman in her mid-20s to the jump that had separated her from nearly every other woman in the sport over the length of that career.
She became lighter than air.
That is how I will remember Asada, who announced her retirement Monday at the age of 26. The timing was a surprise, even if her struggling performances and knee problems over the past two seasons made it clear the time had come.
She leaves the competitive side of the sport as the indisputable No. 2 skater of the international judging system era, which began with the 2003-04 Grand Prix season. In those 14 seasons, only the achievements of South Korea’s Yu-Na Kim surpassed those of Asada: Olympic silver medal; three world titles, plus silver and bronze world medals; four Grand Prix Final titles; three Four Continents Championships titles; and six Japanese titles in highly competitive fields.
Asada set a world-best total score in 2006 at age 16 and the top short program score in 2014 at the age of 23, a remarkable and unmatched span for such brilliance, which also included a world-best free skate score in 2007.
Beyond that, even when the overall level of her skating was criticized during the two season comeback following her post-Sochi Olympic “gap year,” not a single person in the sport had anything but the highest praise for Asada as a person. Not then. Not ever.
Asada was the best female skater in the world from the fall of 2005 through the 2008 World Figure Skating Championships. That was her “Mao? Wow!” period. But for the absurd inconsistency of International Skating Union rules in place at the time — which kept her from the 2006 Olympics while allowing her to compete on (and dominate) the senior Grand Prix circuit that season — she would have been a contender for the gold medal in Torino.
At the Junior Grand Prix Final in 2004, she had the first of many history-making achievements with the triple axel, a jump that became her calling card and, later, something of an albatross.
“I don’t consider the triple axel to be a burden,” she insisted at the 2014 Olympics. “It gives me something to shoot for.”
Only seven ladies are credited with having landed the jump, and just two others since Asada hit her first.
In 2006, Asada became the first to land a triple axel in the short program; in 2008, the first to land two in a program at an international competition; in 2010, the first to land one in an Olympic short program and two in an Olympic free skate, and the first to land three in any competition.
Asada made mistakes in winning silver at the 2010 Olympics, but the totality of her skating was remarkable, especially given the burden of skating to overwhelmingly lugubrious music in the free skate. That she still finished 23 points behind Kim shows just how bogglingly brilliant the South Korean’s performances were in Vancouver.
But in the final years of Adada’s career, when the triple axel became a seemingly hit-or-miss obsession for her, its impact had been subsumed into the overall quality of her skating. Her exquisite edges, striking body positions and sublime footwork were a testament to a level of refinement few if any rivals could match.
She could play the vamp, as in the “Bei Mir Bistu Shein” short program from the 2015- 16 season, or the introspective and finally joyful philosopher, as in her two-season (2011 and 2012) free skate to Lizst’s “Liebestraum,” or the consummate ballerina, as she did for her free skate to Swan Lake during the 2012-13 season.
Even in the fall of 2006, the start of Asada’s first season as a senior worlds-eligible skater, her artistry was as captivating as the way she floated through her powerful jumps.
This is what I wrote about her short program at Skate America in 2006: “It was one of those moments to remind everyone why this sport can be so extraordinary, when a skater fuses art and athleticism with consummate ease into a performance that transports an audience to a state of stunned admiration.”
And this is what Dick Button said of her even after a poor free skate left Asada in third place at the same event: “I have never seen anybody like Mao…with such fluidity, such soft elegance, such creativity and the athleticism to handle wildly demanding technicality.”
She was so tiny then – maybe 90 pounds over a body under five feet tall – that a deceiving air of fragility followed her for years to come.
Asada was a battler. That much was evident when she won her fifth of six national titles only a few weeks after her mother’s untimely death in the fall of 2011. You could see it again at the 2014 Olympics, where her medal chances ended with a triple axel fall to open a dismal, devastating 16th-place finish in the short program. She came back from that rough performance to place third thanks to a wonderful, near-flawless free skate in which she landed the triple axel and won the hearts of everyone in the building as well as the millions watching on television.
Asada sobbed when it was over. She was not even close to being the only one crying.
“I just have to say I am teary-eyed for Mao Asada, makes my heart smile!” tweeted two-time Olympic silver medalist and three-time world champion Elvis Stojko of Canada.
“Mao Asada – made me cry…a performance that we will all remember forever!” tweeted five-time world champion and two-time Olympic medalist Michelle Kwan. Asada, like Kwan, is the rare skater who did not have to win an Olympic title to be remembered forever.
In my mind, she always will be skimming across the ice with feathery grace.
By Philip Hersh for The Sport Intern
Philip Hersh, a long-time sports writer for the Chicago Tribune, is a 2016 Distinguished Service Award winner from the United States Sports Academy for his commitment to reporting on the global world of sport, including his notable coverage of the Olympics.
This story first appeared in the blog, The Sport Intern. The editor is Karl-Heinz Huba of Lorsch, Germany. He can be reached at ISMG@aol.com. The article is reprinted here with permission of Huba.