Thursday, September 9, 2010

A Model of Severe Serenity

This is a few days overdue, but I just have to start this with: On February 1, 2010, I was right.


When Mao Asada announced that Tatiana Tarasova would no longer be her coach after the 2009-2010 season and that she would next seek a Japanese coach, my mind went immediately to Hiroshi Nagakubo and Nobuo Sato. I was leaning more heavily towards Sato, mostly because he has been more successful and well-known internationally, but in fact both predictions were correct. Mao has been working with Nagakubo for her jumps, and Sato will become her official coach.

To be perfectly fair, there weren't that many guesses I could have made. Despite the success of Japanese singles skaters in recent years, Nagakubo and Sato are two of only several well-established Japanese coaches. Machiko Yamada of course is another, but for quite obvious reasons she is someone who sets foundations (some shaky, I admit, despite my deep admiration for her and her philosophies) before letting students go off to be polished. Daisuke Takahashi has a Japanese coach, although I don't know what her name is or whether she has taught anyone else significant, and Nobunari Oda had his mother. Needless to say Mao was not going to go to Oda's mother.

Anyway, the point is, I thought that Sato could end up being the perfect fit for Mao. It goes without being said that training under him allows her to stay in Japan and utilize the rink that was built exclusively for elite figure skaters. The language and cultural barriers are gone. For another thing, and somewhat independently of him, her training mates would include Takahiko Kozuka. Although it is my (not-so-) secret wish to see Takahiko and Mao end up together, the more important point is that they are very good friends. Many have noted in the past season or two (oh hello, Tarasova) that some of that pure joy Mao used to have when she skated had left her, and I think that being in a fun and friendly training atmosphere can help relax her.

This is not to say, of course, that Sato is good for Mao because he is relaxed. In fact, I think the opposite is true--he may be calm and unruffled, but one can sense how intense and strict he is in training. In keeping with this image, various reports and observers have noted his emphasis on the basics, which is very good news for Mao as it seems Yamada has a tendency to let certain things slide, Rafael Arutunian was content to "let Mao be Mao," and Tarasova was just anywhere but with her. Hopefully Mao's speed will return with more intense practice of stroking and edges, and the combination of two strict Japanese men will really solidify her improving Lutz.

Finally, Sato's pillar-like presence should help keep Mao grounded and focused as the pressure again mounts, especially because the Japanese media will now have constant access to her training instead of having to rely on their overseas correspondents. He will know how to calm her and talk her through the high-stakes competitions, and not let her get lost in the hype, the politicking, or the fur. It is interesting to note, however, that this may be the first time that he's truly coached an internationally high-profile skater, and while I don't see him letting anything slide just because she's Mao it is possible that he will need to figure out a few new ways of navigating the skating world as well.

Good luck, Mao Asada!

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