Thursday, December 24, 2009
Figure skater Miki Ando has learned her lessons
An argument with her coach was the last thing Miki Ando needed.
Yet there she was, hours before the free skate at last March's World Figure Skating Championships in Los Angeles, in the midst of a volatile discussion with Nikolai Morozov. Ando was in position to medal, if not win outright at worlds, an event she also won in 2007 in her first season under Morozov's guidance.
Between that championship and Los Angeles, Ando did not win another significant event. She didn't even get to defend her world crown in 2008.
And now, a potential meltdown.
"In the free program, I did not do a triple-triple," Ando said, referring to the combination jump that is becoming commonplace in women's skating. "In the morning skate practice I did it, but he said not to do the triple-triple (in the competition) because he knows it's difficult to get and they are going to downgrade it for sure if I miss.
"And I was just worried what the Japanese people would say. I did not feel comfortable with this. I was worried because I am Japanese."
Ando believes the jumps are so ingrained in the culture of the sport in her nation that to not attempt them shows weakness. It is something she's needed to overcome because, as Morozov explains, "there's a time to do certain things and a time not to."
Morozov, who helped Shizuka Arakawa win the gold medal at the 2006 Turin Games for Japan's first Olympic figure skating victory, has stressed to Ando the importance of being natural on the ice. It took Arakawa years to overcome that fear of letting down her country, and here was Ando experiencing the same feelings in Los Angeles.
"I go to Nikolai and I say, 'I am worried if I don't do the triple-triple what the people will say," Ando recalled, smiling uncomfortably. "And he is getting so mad."
Angry enough that Morozov asked Ando if she no longer trusted the way he was training her, or if she had second thoughts about moving to Ice House in Hackensack, N.J., to work with him. Then he told her if she had such doubts, he would not attend the free skate that afternoon and their coach-skater partnership would be over.
"You have to understand that figure skating is not only jumps, it is how you are skating and feeling and how you want to show people how you are," he told Ando.
How she was at that point was confused, a little scared even. Ando had experienced enough career ups and downs to fill an entire free skate routine. The last thing she needed at that point was a major upheaval.
Instead, she had something of an epiphany.
"Then I finally understand what in figure skating the audience wants," she said, this time with a radiant smile. "Because in Japan, they kind of like jumping, and if I did a quad or a triple-triple, they will say, 'She is going to win, she is going to get a medal.' It is that culture because we don't have any history in Japan in figure skating.
"So I just finally understand before the worlds long program what he means. I went to Nikolai and said: 'I will trust you, I will not do the triple-triple.'
"So I kind of had my self-confidence and I trusted Nikolai and I was very much enjoying my competition and I got the bronze medal. I felt like it was one package in the competition for the first time in my life."
The 22-year-old Ando has done a sensational job building off that bronze performance behind South Korea's Kim Yu-na and Canada's Joannie Rochette.
Ando won Cup of Russia and NHK Trophy during the Grand Prix series and was second to Kim at the circuit's final in Tokyo to wrap up one of Japan's three Olympic berths. Once known primarily for -- yep -- her jumps, including the first and only quad completed by a woman in competition (2002 Junior Grand Prix final), she now is among the most fluid and engaging skaters around.
Ando is surging as she competes at the Japanese nationals this weekend. Mao Asada, her friendly rival who also is from Nagoya, has struggled since winning worlds in 2008 and is considered a long shot to challenge the marvelous Kim at February's Vancouver Games.
At the Turin Games, Ando barely could stand and finished 15th. That led to criticism she didn't belong on a Japanese team that left behind several other quality skaters.
Instead, Ando, finds inspiration from those Olympics and the mesmerizing performance by Arakawa.
"Shizuka actually gave me the dream to go into the Olympics," Ando said. "After the (1998) Nagano Olympics, my dream is I am going to meet her and take a picture and I want to skate like her and go to the Olympics. She was 13th place, but she was like something shining. For me, it was a woman from the same country and I didn't know then that the top skaters were not in Japan. She was my idol.
"I was so happy for her (at Turin). I was watching her from upstairs with the audience, and I was crying because I know her. I went to summer camp when I just started skating and I just did double jumps. She did triple-triples, of course. So I know her for a long time and I know her skating and I was training with her when she won worlds in 2004. I feel like she's a sister for me.
"That's why I wanted to go to Vancouver, because I saw her at Torino and I was thinking to quit skating after Torino. But she gave me the dream once more."