One of Japan’s most popular athletes should have known she couldn’t leave quietly: Mao Asada’s press conference Wednesday to officially announce her retirement from figure skating attracted some 350 media and was telecast live across Japan.
Asada led her country’s figure skating scene since her teens with her trademark triple axel. She started skating at the age of five and won world championships in 2008, 2010 and 2014 in an illustrious career that included a silver medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
The 26-year-old Asada decided to take a break from competitive skating in 2014 and made a comeback the following year.
While she had some positive results, including a bronze at the 2015 NHK Trophy, a career-low 12th-place finish at the national championships last December convinced her it was time to call it a career.
“I got off to a good start after my comeback,” Asada said at a packed meeting room in a Tokyo hotel Wednesday. “I was able to practice and compete but I did notice things were more difficult after coming back, and after the national championships I felt it’s enough, it’s OK (to retire).”
Asada, who announced her retirement from her 21-year career on her blog two days ago, occupied a special place in the Japanese sports landscape. Her popularity far exceeded that of other figure skaters, even those who won gold medals.
The youngest of two daughters, Asada had a personality that endured her to her legion of fans. Soft-spoken and exceedingly polite, many regarded her as their own “younger sister” and her photogenic looks added to the aura.
Throughout her early career, Asada’s mother, Kyoko, was a constant companion, attending all of her competitions and monitoring her progress up the ranks.
Asada qualified for the 2011-12 Grand Prix Final in Quebec City, but had to return home when her mother became seriously ill. Her mother died of liver cirrhosis while Asada was flying back from Canada.
She was in her early 20s at the time and her loss struck an emotional chord with her fans.
“Over my long career, I encountered a lot of mountains,” Asada said. “I was able to get over those mountains thanks to the support of many people and I’m full of gratitude.”
Gutsy performance in Sochi
At Wednesday’s press conference, Asada called her performance in the free skate at the 2014 Sochi Olympics her most memorable.
“It’s difficult to pick just one,” Asada said. “But the free skate in Sochi is definitely one that stands out.”
She placed 16th in the short program in Sochi after falling on her triple Axel, under-rotating a triple flip, and doubling a triple loop.
But in a stirring free skate, Asada rebounded, earning a personal best score of 142.71 making her the third women to score above the 140 mark after Yuna Kim’s 2010 Olympics score and Yulia Lipnitskaya’s 2014 Olympics team event score.
That placed Asada third in the free skating and sixth overall. Even though she didn’t win a medal, it was a performance that many will never forget.
As for what’s next, Asada said she is ready to take a new step in her life and will continue appearing in figure skating shows.
“I have no unease about the future,” Asada said. “I want to try new things and keep moving forward in a positive way.”