Japanese skating legend surprisingly announces retirement prior to the Olympic season, ending a career that included three world titles and Olympic silver.
At this time last year, fans were hoping to see Mao Asada, Japan’s most decorated female skater, at one last Olympics next year. But already it looked like she wasn’t going to make it. And now we won’t be seeing her on the competitive ice at all. On Monday, Asada announced her immediate retirement from competitive skating.
It’s a shocking decision, but nonetheless ultimately an understandable one. She had a disastrous season, in which it became clear she could no longer keep up with her own country’s field, let alone the international one. Meanwhile, Japan managed to earn only two ladies berths at the Olympics. Between those two things, Asada’s chances of making it to Korea are very low indeed. It makes sense for her to lose her motivation, as she said she has.
Her bad final season, however, ultimately should not mar too much the long and illustrious career Mao Asada had. As well as their most decorated lady, she had been Japan’s most technically accomplished lady, one of only seven ladies who have landed the hardest of triple jumps, the triple axel, in international competition. The jump was her signature, but she backed it up with further technical strength, excellent skating technique, and strong lyrical artistry that made her a delight to watch even in her final competitions, when her jumps kept getting downgraded.
Asada first hit the scene as a junior skater. When she was fourteen, she became the youngest lady to ever land the triple axel internationally at the 2004 Junior Grand Prix Finale. (Years later, she would become the oldest too.) After winning the 2005 World Junior Championships, she next took on the senior Grand Prix, and was the surprise winner of that Finale.
Although the rules of the time allowed her to compete on the Grand Prix, she was, sadly, two months too young to compete at the 2006 ISU Championships, or the 2006 Olympics. Had she been able to attend those, she may well have won Olympic gold.
Instead, her most successful quadrennium was the 2007-2010 one, where she battled for everything against Korean superstar Yu-Na Kim, one of the sport’s greatest rivalries. They would both be upset at the 2007 World Championships, but in 2008, Asada became the first of them to be crowned World Champion. She was arguably at her peak then, at her technical height with her artistry now fully matured:
But throughout her career, Asada had her ups and downs, sometimes making a few mistakes too many or otherwise struggling. 2009 was her first hard year, where she failed to medal at Worlds or make the Grand Prix Finale, and when she’d won again the previous year. Meanwhile, Kim too had reached her height, and when they faced off at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the Korean proved unbeatable, especially when Asada made a couple of mistakes in her long program. But Asada still did well for herself, becoming the first lady to land three triple axels in one competition, having already become the first to land two in one program, and taking silver:
She ended the Olympic season well, too, winning her second World title that March. After that, however, having spend years being penalized for technical issues in some of her jumps, she decided to spend time breaking them down. This meant the following two seasons were not too successful for her. It was a time of personal grief for her as well; she ended up withdrawing from the 2011 Grand Prix Finale due to her mother’s death. But in 2013, it looked like it was paying off. During that season she was undefeated until Worlds, and there she won bronze. That fall she won the Grand Prix Finale for the second year in a row. It looked like the 2014 Olympics might be her versus Kim once again.
But in perhaps the most heartbreaking moment of her career, she skated a bad short program in Sochi, which cost her any chance at another medal. However, she followed it by one of her strongest moments, with the brilliant free skate with which she salvaged her second Olympics.
As she had four years prior, she followed Olympic disappointment with Worlds triumph, claiming her third and final title that March.
After taking the post-Olympic season off, she came back in the fall of 2015. She did well enough in the fall, but perhaps even then the field was finally passing her. At 2016 Worlds, she ultimately never got near the podium. But even then, she was still getting better artistically, bringing the house down with yet another gorgeous long program:
That is one side of her we can hope not to lose. Although she describes herself as currently uncertain of her future, it can easily involve plenty of ice shows. She even has her own annual show, The Ice, which tours in Japan in the summer. Her competitive career may be over, but she need not be at all.