They say the great moments of life happen when you least expect them. For Japan’s Mao Asada that great moment came Thursday night.
While the world awaited South Korea’s Yuna Kim and Russia’s Adelina Sotnikova to begin their on ice battle for figure skating’s crown, Asada stood in the wings practicing her moves with a much different achievement in mind. The 2010 Vancouver silver medalist came into the Sochi games as an odds on favorite to beat Kim for gold. If anyone was going to do it, Asada was the girl.
As Asada took the ice for Wednesday night’s short program the world waited to see what she would create of her next two and half minutes. But stumble after stumble left Asada in tears by the end of her program and reality quickly sunk in that not only was the gold gone, she had no shot of making the podium either; she was in 16th place by the end of the night.
With a top three finish too far out of reach for any great come back, Asada’s skate on Thursday night became about something far greater than medal color or podium height — it was about redemption.
Skating to Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2”, Asada gave the performance that was set in place to win her gold. And with a fearful flawlessness that left anyone watching absolutely breathless by its end, she floated through her twists, turns and even the jumps, including that triple axel she is as famous for landing as she is for not landing.
When the music stopped and she struck what was perhaps the final pose of her career, only seconds passed before Asada broke into heaving sobs amidst the cheers of an adoring crowd. Stress, release of doubt, heartbreak, joy, accomplishment, passion, only Asada knows what was behind the tears that seemed as much a celebration of accomplishment as they were tragic.
Asada will go home to Japan this week without the gold. But her performance was more than a series of moves meant to win an award. It was the showing of an athlete’s true character, it was the reason the Olympics unify the world and as commentator Johnny Weir proclaimed directly after, it was the reason we watch figure skating.