Why Mao Asada Will Go out on a High in Sochi

Kevin McRaeFeatured ColumnistFebruary 9, 2014

Japanese figure skating icon Mao Asada has her work cut out for her in Sochi.
Japanese figure skating icon Mao Asada has her work cut out for her in Sochi.Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images

If you could pick one word to describe the career of Japanese figure skating icon Mao Asada, it would probably be "overshadowed." 

In spite of her immense talents and accomplishments—she's a two-time world champion and the 2010 Olympic silver medalist in ladies figure skating—she’s struggled to find any air in the room heading into the Sochi Games. It’s almost as though she’s an afterthought.

That can largely be attributed to her longstanding rivalry with Korea's Yuna Kim.

The one time they dueled in the Olympics, Kim set more than one world record en route to crushing everyone in the field.

The two ladies have been competing against each other for years, and with both saying this will be their last Olympic GamesAsada is down to her final chance at unseating her rival on the biggest of international stages. 

Kim enters as the obvious and heavy favorite, but in the past, Asada has shown an ability to hang with the defending gold medalist. Whether or not she snags that elusive gold herself, she'll end her Olympic quest with nothing to be ashamed of.

Asada is obviously the underdog, along with the rest of the field, but she did capture silver in Vancouver four years ago. Were it not for two absolutely stellar performances by Kim, she might've captured gold. 

At the 2010 World Championships, held just about a month after Vancouver, Asada got a measure of revenge, holding off Kim for the gold medal—her second in that competition—after her rival struggled mightily in the short program. 

Shortly after, Kim decided to take some time away from the sport to recharge her batteries, while Asada undertook a rigorous regimen to refine her skating, add a few new wrinkles and strengthen some of her technical elements and jumps that had gone into disrepair.

It wasn't all fun and games, though, and Asada struggled mightily during her reboot.

She ended up with consecutive sixth-place finishes in the worlds before rallying for a bronze medal last year. Can you guess who captured gold at that event? 

Her old friend, Yuna Kim. 

You know, just to remind everyone she was still the biggest dog on the block heading into Sochi.

But that's in the past.

None of those results will carry over to the Games, and each woman will begin the competition with an equal chance, at least in theory, of capturing gold. 

And with Asada still able to pull a vaunted triple Axel out of her bag of tricks, all bets are off.

Asada says she feels a lot less tension heading into these Games than she did heading into Vancouver. That may come as a surprise to some people, given that it's Kim, and not her, who has the benefit of effectively playing with house money.

"In Vancouver, there was tension throughout my time there,” Asada told Jack Gallagher of The Japan Times. “Now, because it’s my second time, it almost doesn’t feel like the Olympics.”

That's an interesting position to take.

The desire not to get swallowed up in the moment is understandable. On this stage, everyone has earned the right to be here, and all of them come with the same goal.

The vast majority walk away from the Olympic Games with the experience of a lifetime, but without the prize they sought and worked so hard to achieve.

Asada hopes to avoid that fate, and she's confident that she can emerge from the pack victorious. But either way, she has complete faith in herself, her abilities and what she's accomplished.

“I’m nervous, but feel secure about myself. So I’m looking forward to it,” Asada told Gallagher. “I love being back on this grand stage."

What she didn't add is that she will be on the Olympic stage for the last time, and that means only one more chance to snatch gold from Kim and anyone else who gets in her way.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling like something is good enough. Everyone does it at some point in his or her life.

Most people would be thrilled at the prospect of having earned an Olympic silver medal. For most, that would be gravy and just qualifying would be more than enough. But don't count Asada among them.

She wants better and told that to Jere Longman of The New York Times in December:

Obviously a lot of people would be happy to have a silver medal in the Olympics. But that season, most of the jumps I couldn’t do. I wasn’t happy about it. That’s why I came back, to be perfect for myself, the jumps and everything.

She's ready to go and ready to shine. But, is she ready to finally take down Yuna Kim with Olympic glory on the line? She seems to think so.

"The time has come. That's how I feel," Asada said to Kim Young-jin of The Korea Times just before leaving Japan for Sochi

Will she be right? 

That remains to be seen.

But it almost doesn't matter. Regardless of where she stands on the podium, or if she makes it at all, Mao Asada will walk out of Sochi with her head held high.

She's earned it.