Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of articles ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympic Games, which kick off on Feb. 7. The series will cover Japanese medal favorites and their rivals, as well as people devoted to the athletes’ pursuit of gold.
Their competitive lives have been so intertwined that perhaps it is only natural that figure-skating rivals Mao Asada of Japan and Kim Yu-na of South Korea sound synchronized in their responses to reporters.
Before the Skate America competition last October, Asada was in a Detroit restaurant, surrounded by a dozen or so reporters who wanted to know if she considered Kim a rival she desperately wanted to defeat.
After bursting out with a laugh, Asada said: “We have been competing together since we were in junior competition, so in my teens I had a strong sense that she was my rival. But now, I myself have become more of an adult so I feel that I want to express what I have done until now through my skating.”
Although the questions were direct ones that Asada does not normally get, she did not change her relaxed expression.
About two months later, Kim was at an airport in South Korea preparing for her first international competition this season since recovering from a foot injury. She was asked about Asada.
“We have been constantly compared since we were in junior competition so I always considered her a rival,” Kim said. “While we want to avoid each other, having her there also gave me motivation and stimulation.”
Their long rivalry will end this year at the Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia.
Born 20 days apart in September 1990, Asada and Kim had become national heroes in their respective nations when they were in their mid-teens.
Asada was known for her jumps, while Kim was considered better at artistic expression.
When they faced each other at the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010, Asada made mistakes in her jumps and had to settle for the silver, while Kim ran away with the gold.
Asada continued to compete after Vancouver, saying she wanted to totally revise her skating. She began training under a new coach, Nobuo Sato, who has always had a policy of letting his skaters take one day off from practice a week. Asada asked Sato, “What’s wrong with practicing every day?”
Having totally changed how she performed jumps, Asada was unable to return to her past form and struggled in competitions. She also experienced personal tragedy, losing her mother to illness. Although her motivation reached a low point in spring 2012, she only skipped two weeks of skating.
Asada's choreographer Lori Nichol of Canada selected more positive music for her new routine because she did not want to see a sad look on the figure skater. That music seemed to give Asada a more confident attitude toward her skating.
Kim, meanwhile, was more active outside the skating arena. She became a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF in summer 2010. The following year, she took part in the campaign to bring the 2018 Winter Olympics to Pyeongchang, South Korea. Her speech at an IOC meeting was a major reason her home country will be hosting its first Winter Olympics.
Although Kim greatly reduced the number of events she competed in, she rarely rested from practice. In spring 2012, she admitted facing difficulties training the same way on an almost daily basis for more than a decade.
However, she had a change of heart due to a comment made by Shin Hye-sook, who once again became Kim’s coach after Vancouver.
“If you do not win spots for South Korea at the next world championships, your juniors will not be able to appear in future Olympics,” Shin told her.
With a new goal, Kim’s wavering disappeared and she announced she was continuing as an active skater. She won the world championships in 2013, giving South Korean women three spots for the Sochi Winter Olympics.
Figure skating can be considered a sport where bringing out all of one’s abilities is more important than competing with rivals.
For that reason, Asada’s coach, Sato, said: “I have said all the time that the opponent you face on the ice is you yourself. I feel Asada now feels the same way.”
Sato’s ideal relationship between rivals is one “of friends and comrades capable of pushing each other higher while holding respect for the other.”
In that vein, Asada says that she has been able to grow through the friendly competition with a worthy rival.
Kim has similar words about the rivalry: “I would not have been able to grow as much as I have if it wasn’t for Mao.”
Asada was chosen for Japan’s Winter Olympics team for the second time following the Japan Figure Skating Championships in December.
Indicating this would be her final season as a competitor, Asada said: “I want to throw all of my feelings built up over the four years since Vancouver into the competition at Sochi. I want to do my best to put on a performance that matches my ideal in my final season.”
Kim has said, “While this will be the second Olympics in which I compete, I have already achieved my dream of winning the gold. This will be my last Olympics.”
The two skaters may have taken greatly different paths since Vancouver, but they share the same vision of wanting to put on a performance they are satisfied with on their final stage.
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