Sunday, December 2, 2012

State of Skate: The Ladies




It isn’t easy being a ladies champion. The demands are great: beauty, athleticism, flexibility, femininity and a pre-pubescent body accompanied by a competitive mettle with the ability to melt steel. The ladies have largely spent the years following the Olympics shifting, tumbling and grasping for salience. With the Olympics now approaching, the competition has come alive as the contenders are emerging. While there is far from a clear-cut favorite, the absence of a true leader is making this often snooze-worthy discipline something worthy of debate.

The ingredients to winning were once simple and finite: seven triples, two lutzes, a beautiful dress, graceful spiral and an expressive program choreographed by an underachieving Canadian.

The post Vancouver skating establishment has been left largely confused by the ladies’ discipline as the technical requirements have largely evaporated. When Yu-Na Kim ruled the world, a competitive short program included a Triple Lutz+Triple Toe, Triple Flip and Double Axel. Three years later, the ladies routinely struggle to muster a Triple Toe+Triple Toe, Triple Loop and Double Axel. As Tarasova’s Mink put it best, “It is no secret that the Finnish ladies and their full arsenal of doubles have even begun entering the medal ranks of the ISU Grand Prix.”

With Sochi looming just fourteen months away, it is time to examine the contenders of this lacking generation:



Ashley Wagner


If there is a standout favorite of the last nine months, it is none other than America’s own ladies champion. Never has a lady craved or celebrated surmounting a giant pile of meodiocrity quite like our girl, but our tempestuous ladies champion has been with us for the long haul and she is ours’ to enjoy and blame. We first met her as a tomboyish two-footing jumper who snubbed Caroline Zhang on the medal rostrum at the 2009 Junior World Championships after years of toiling in the shadows. Our instincts were flagged when we learned that she had a habit of yelling at coaches despite her best efforts of channeling Amanda Bynes’ ‘Ask Ashley’ protagonist on her video blogs. The worse she skated, the happier she got. We knew she was made of total win when she smiled upon the demise of Sasha Cohen at the 2010 National Championships and refused a trip to Junior Worlds feeling it was beneath her. After numerous coaching changes and botched short programs, we were most excited to receive confirmation of her craziness when she sported a mask to advertise her illness as the reason for underachievement at a National Championships so bizarre that Alissa Czisny earned a second crown. Yes, the American ladies champion is one of a kind.

Wagner’s on-ice ability has improved, but her biggest strength is her consistency. While she was more of a jumper as a junior, Ashley Wagner is someone who is very balanced in terms of her skating ability. Up until recently, every aspect of her skating hovered around the B/B+ level. Nothing was truly special, but the weaknesses weren’t great either. The psyche of our diva is most impressive. Before, there was a swagger to Ashley’s attack that masked insecurity when it came time to land her jumps. Over time, Wagner became known as the two-foot queen. Her clunky free leg marred just about every jumping pass. While many athletes struggle with living up to expectations following unexpected success, Ashley’s confidence has grown with every win. Lately, her jumps are getting bigger, more confident and landed with better edges. Her Triple Flip and Triple Loop are her greatest strength. Her biggest weaknesses are a Flutz and the lack of a clean triple-triple or double axel+triple toe. Should she be able to do either without a two foot landing, she will remain in contention through Sochi.

A year ago, I considered Ashley’s pedestrian Swan Lake to be one of the true eye-rolls of the skating season. Talks of the almost girl’s artistry have largely been replaced by inane commentators focusing on the remarkable surname of the reigning American junior champion. There remains an overall truck driver quality about Ashley’s skating. The crossovers are still pumping and the skating is largely on two feet, but the added confidence and increase in speed have the judges looking the other way. Her components have jumped more than five points since the World Championships. She is now within a point of the marks Kostner earned for her World victory, which is alarming, noteworthy and ultimately, utter bullshit. There is no way Wagner matches the edge quality or skating skills of the reigning World Champion, but her ‘90s-inspired free skate does reveal more of an authentic performance than the clunky footed tomboy parading around as a poseurish ballerina. There has been a steady improvement, but don’t kid yourself that Ashley’s grasp on the gold will be eternal. The best of the rest is getting it done, but change is always just around the corner.

“An Ashley Wagner victory would be like a Romanian team winning gold during the Belu era: we celebrate their consistency while deploring their lack of creativity.”-Tarasova’s Mink


Kostner


Carolina Kostner has been absent from the Grand Prix this season due to injury and a lack of certainty regarding her participation in the sport, but she is aiming to compete at the Italian National Championships before the month’s end and is threatening to appear at Zagreb.  We may never have thought we would miss the up-and-down career of a skater with a history of visible tampons and curious wet spots, but we do. After years of darting across the ice and performing triples that skimmed across the surface without any height, Kostner slowed down and mastered her jumps, her skating and her artistry over the last two seasons. Now that she isn’t mopping up the ice, we are able to recognize that Kostner is the only skater whom Lori Nichol bothers to expend any effort for when collecting her yearly choreographic fee.

If Wagner is receiving 8s for components, it is about time that Kostner is awarded 9s. Her skating skills, transitions and choreography exceed abilities of the other skaters, always delivering the unexpected. Her patterns are interesting, even for the most ardent of skating aficionados. Where others do three turns and Mohawks, Kostner moves from element to element with rockers, counters and brackets just because.  To quantify Kostner’s skating ability compared to her competitors at Worlds, one must become comfortable with ladies champions who can be excused for a lack of jump contents due to steps, spins, components and gorgeous landings.  With the return of Kim looming, Kostner will need to add in a Triple Flip+Triple Toe that was reserved for the practice ice last season. With her speed under control, the content should be there and keep her in the mix.

Kostner’s World Championship victory was accomplished with three level 4 spins, a level 4 step sequence, and five clean triples. She will need a sixth and a triple flip+triple toe in the short to remain on top and possibly a seventh if the judges somehow deem Ashley Wagner on her level.

The most curious aspect of Kostner’s return may be her choice of music: Bolero. If ever there was a piece of music not to choose, it is Bolero. There is no way to ever recreate the magic of Torvill and Dean, especially under the International Judging System. Many have tried and many have failed. The music is largely cursed, with even Kwan unable to escape the wrath the Uncle Dick and the legion of North American ice dancers who narrated the sport with a thinly veiled desire to be ravaged by Christopher Dean.  Ironically, an injured, aging Kwan was pushed off the podium by Kostner when skating to Bolero the year before an Olympic Games. History may very well repeat itself.


Mao Asada


If ever there was a dramatic, depressing downfall in the sport, it is Mao Asada skating in the aftermath of Yu-Na Kim’s decisive Olympic victory.  When Mao first announced her decision to take from the Satos, I warned my bitchy friends that a level of sucking that only Fumie and Chika Suguri can exhibit was likely around the corner. Nobuo’s own daughter escaped to Canada in order to win a World Title before only ever returning to her home country for commentating or other economic opportunities.

While Mao was knowning for flutzing and underrotating a few triples at her peak, the Satos managed to undermine Mao’s confidence and competitive moxie by reworking her jump technique over the last two seasons. While her actual technique doesn’t look all that different, her ability to execute and rotate the jumps has all but disappeared.

Maochan’s Swan Lake long program may be her absolute best long program, but it is hindered by an inability to deliver the technical goods. Though she escaped the Grand Prix with two gold medals this season, the world took notice of her wanting technical execution during the NHK Trophy. If ever there was someone who needed to embrace the black mark of Tarasova on a daily basis and ignite the spark back into her life and her skating, it is Mao. Perhaps Mao’s spirit was sapped by the illness and ultimate death of her mother last season. With little time to mourn, Mao’s skating has never seemed to recover.


While many applaud Mao’s light-hearted short program, it is worth nothing that it is almost the exact same program Lori Nichol gave to Mirai Nagasu five seasons ago, down to the hands-on-the-knee gestures during the footwork sequence. Though Mao had no reason to pay attention to American Nationals during that time, those of us who did are able to witness yet another crime committed by Canada’s own PCS expert.


Though perilous finishes may be near, Mao’s programs this year have breathed life back into her skating for those who watch her. Her back split during her footwork sequence and powerful ending to her free skate would earn her nines for interpretation and choreography if she were willing to give us eye contact and dramatic facial expressions. Her spins and level 4-footwork are there; it is time for her jumps to return. It is remarkable how long she has remained with her coach by Japanese standards, especially given the level of on-ice deterioration.


Suzuki


Akiko Suzuki is suddenly the top Japanese skater, especially if you ask our friends at British Eurosport. The performance of Akiko’s life earned even more attention thanks to poor judging by a panel that awarded even Mao’s popped jumps with plus ones and twos. 

While Akiko’s choreography and style is not yet at the level of Asada’s, her personality engages on the ice and her success is captivating after a career of struggle and inconsistency. Her speed and confidence have never been better. The only true weaknesses of her program at the NHK Trophy were two edge calls and an underrotated Triple Loop. In the words of Oprah, Akiko is currently ‘being her best self.’ Expect a win at Japanese Nationals if the judging is remotely accurate or the performances consistent with what we’ve seen this year. Given a history of surprises at the event, that may be asking quite a lot.


The Russians


We have long heard that the Russian ladies would dominate the Sochi Olympics. Experience may have taught us never to trust junior ladies to materialize into viable seniors, but the sheer number of budding jumpers made us all pause. Thus far, the Russian ladies have had mixed results now that Tuktamysheva and Sotnikova have emerged as true senior competitors.

Sotnikova exhibited numerous growing pains last year as she attempted to adjust to a developing frame. While Russia has a tradition of beautiful lutz jumps, Sotnikova and Leonova are notable flutzes despite their reputations as being more technically minded than artistic. Their descent into the house of Russian trash is also noted. While I never cared for Sotnikova’s spin position, many find her beautiful. There is little explanation or excuse for the egregiously tacky Burlesque long program performed by the 2011 Junior World Champion. It is simply an eyesore without jumps to legitimize it. Luckily, Sotnikova’s flip has disappeared in the short program, yet her coaches continue to have her include it as a solo jump for added torture.


Tuktamysheva is experiencing growing pains of her own. While Sotnikova ascended to Volchkova-like height, Elizaveta’s growth has made Terry Gannon’s grating pronunciation of her name downright offensive and tacky. My beloved coach blows out her cheeks when discussing the latest happenings of last year’s wunderkind. 

Due to injury and puberty, Tuktamysheva’s jumpers were M.I.A. during Skate Canada, but she largely has them back. A few weeks with David Wilson raised her components from the level of a 5 to a 6, but he is not a miracle worker. Her dangling free leg is even more noticeable now that Shawn Johnsons’ thighs are skating her programs. Like Leonova, Tuktamysheva’s program disappears between jump elements and much of the choreography consists of shaking her non-existent breasts. Dark Eyes has never depressed us this much. Though Tuktamysheva’s technical content is returning, Mishin’s female eyesore is going to need a Triple Axel if nothing can be done to remedy her offensive style.


Lipnitskaya may not be a senior, but she is exhibiting a growth spurt of her own and has the nagging injuries to go with it. Despite an impressive showing on the Grand Prix, her jumps are not quite as consistent with the added height. Her jumps characteristically have a forward tilt that is a hindrance with extra inches throwing her off.  My inner Peggy Fleming is dying for her to take advantage of her flexibility and beautiful natural line by holding out her movements and extending. Unfortunately, her programs this season are largely exhibitions by Gumby on Ice with high leg kicks abound. Dick Button is screaming at his television set for her to kick up her leg and hold it in position to make something of her movement, because her accompanying talent is truly extraordinary.


North America


"Her arms, they have lovely fingers and it's nice presentation, but they never go below the waist. There's never a scooping, a low movement, a full movement. ... There's this presenting 'up' all the time. I wonder if you looked at it in detail, it would add more appreciation, more expression, if it had the full range in movement from the bottom to the top" - the British Eurosport commentators on Gold's LP at Rostelecom Cup

On the North American front, cries for Joannie Rochette to return continue to echo, though Canada now has an emerging talent by the name of Katelyn Osmond. The new darling of Debbi Wilkes and PJ Kwong may lip AND flutz, but she has managed to hold it together in a way her countrywomen rarely have in any jumping discipline.

Christine Gao has emerged as a consistent force with a "tribute to Karen Kwan" short program and a sexless tango for her long. Her jumps are consistent and clean, which should earn her a trip to the World Championships should the USFSA have any desire for a third spot next year.


Mirai Nagasu and Gracie Gold are in contention, but both are known for being anything but consistent. Nagasu looks extremely happy without Frank Carroll and some of the joy has returned to her skating. While Tim Goebel would tell us it is the absence of Frank, the lack of a three to four hour daily commute may have something to do with it. 

Gold is the latest sister of Shawn Johnson, Katy Taylor and Kimmie Meissner. The unrefined talent is capable of missing Nationals one year and winning the next. Anything is possible in Gracie world.




With the Grand Prix Final mere days away, the sport’s attention will largely be elsewhere, as Yu-Na Kim is returning to (hopefully) erase the suck. Though it wouldn’t take Kim at her full strength to win, there is hope that the reigning Olympic Champion will skate with a modicum of the fervor and inspiration that was missing from her skating and the ladies discipline as a whole following her blowout victory in Vancouver. 

28 comments:

  1. Honestly these skaters are so bad, that I hope at the Olympics, they just decide to not award Gold or Silver medals. None of these skaters are really medal worthy. I think the most amazing thing is now dull the American skaters are. Remember when Scott Hamilton said he thought Agnes {I am not going to attempt her name} {{ she is the skater that skates like a lesbian}} was going to be a world champion in 2 years. I would have to ask him in what sport. She is not even worthy of a mention in this column.

    What is also amazing is that the most interesting thing Kostner has done is skate with her tampon issues. They are all that bad.

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  2. I think it is worth pointing out how worthless Scott Hamilton's commentary is as anything other than verbal adrenaline rush. It's like an audio insulin injection.

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  3. I'm not feeling the Kostner love. She telegraphs her jumps almost as badly as Irina. I also fail to see all the intricacy and innovation in her skating. Her jumps were good at Worlds, I will admit (except the one she popped), but her jump content is not impressive. And if she deserves a 9 in skating skills, she deserves no better than a 7 in performance/execution.

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    1. I agree - I have always found Kostner to be rather ungainly and lacking in refinement.

      Her SP last year was one of the first programs I've seen her skate that REALLY made good use of her odd qualities - but that didn't wipe away all the bad years...

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  4. I for one am not too worried that Ashley will win in Sochi. If it's not Yuna, I am optimistic someone will step up to the plate. We cannot have another repeat of Salt Lake City. I am hoping it is not Tuktamysheva. Ms. Lipinski may disagree, but I am firm on my opinion of this.

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  5. I think Kostner love increases the more years you spend on the ice trying to do the fucking steps she does.

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  6. So thrilled to see a new post Joyce!

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  7. Why do you think there's been such a deterioration in the ladies event this time around?

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  8. Nice to see you back!

    I think in terms of genetics, Gao has won the jackpot. While most girls have to scramble for what success they can before the threat of impending womanly bodies, Gao seems to have matured with the lean, supple frame ideal for skating, so that she has the potential to continue improving. I really was shocked by how good she looked in the first Grand Prix, as I had snoozed through her performances in prior years.

    Gracie Gold. I'm just not seeing anything there yet. There is something so generic about her whole 'package'. She needs a Jenny Kirk-like makeover or something.

    Ashley is OK - to be honest what bugs me most about her is her acting ability is forced - she tries too hard, pulls too many faces. But there is a really pleasing quality to her ability to take her time in getting into the 'pocket' of the music if you know what I mean. I wish to god she could donate some of her confidence to Jeremy Abbott.

    Mirai - it almost made me cry to see her not seeming to hate being on the ice - it gives me some hope although I think Gao may pass her by.

    Lipnitskaya is like Sasha Cohen with even more flexibility and minus the artistry. Her SP this year was pretty great because it demanded only raw energy, but her LP, eh....

    Tut - what can I say, I like her spunk and that's enough for me to overlook her other problems.

    Suzuki...most skating fans admire her and find her adorable, but her odd face takes some getting accustomed to and I think the ISF does not give her gold medals for fear of scaring potential/casual fans away. If she didn't fall just a TAD short of brilliance, they probably could not get away with that kind of unfair discrimination, but that's my interpretation of what's going on with her situation (on the flip side of this we have Kira Korpi).

    As per Mao, it was interesting to see you relate many of her problems to Mr. Sato, I have been wondering about the same thing and the whole 'reworking' of her 'flawed' jump technique.

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  9. Loop Jumps take off forward by the way. Anyone who actually skates knows this. Mao has issues, but it isn't the takeoff direction of her loop. It's her dlutz and horrid flip/loop take off telegraphs. Why don't hesitate Japanese women have such ungodly telegraphs/jump preparations.

    Koster is overrated and I have no clue why wagers scores have inflated, except for the fact she's us champion.

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    1. There are degrees of loops taking off forwards. If you watch Mao, her takeoff edge is moving a full 1/2 turn on the ice, which is far more severe than a normal loop takeoff. Watch her loop vs. loops by other competitors. Her upper body is not leading the way, she is actually turning.

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    2. A loop takeoff that does actually turn the skate on the ice 1/2 turn is considered an acceptable technique. Usually the skate has to turn somewhere between 1/4 and 1/2 turn for the jump to work. Leading with the upper body but not turning the foot at all would lead to a mess of a jump that likely wouldn't rotate well at all. The whole body has to move in one piece to muster the force to rotate the jump.

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    3. Look, I skate. I know how to do a Loop, and apparently you're being an armchair technical specialist. That never works out well. While we can decry Slutskaya for skating like a Lesbo at a rodeo across the ice, I think we can all agree her jump technique was great - loops in particular. Fortunately, she's done triples both as the back end in combinations:

      http://imageshack.us/a/img812/9568/sluteloopcombo.png

      And as a solo jump:

      http://imageshack.us/a/img96/7535/sluteloopsolo.png

      and her you can see her take-off is clearly forwards on both points. I can go back to 1995 and guess what, nothing changes. You can look at Tara Lipinski's loop, which is also fabulous and it's the same. Check Kwan's while you're at it. Everyone does them that way, cause you cannot get a straight and balanced air position trying to take off side-ways on that jump.

      All jumps take off forwards or close to it. Axels are more sideways past forwards (the rest can be somewhat sideways preceeding forward-facing; this is common for toe jumps especially Flips and Lutzes).

      I don't know any elite skater that goes straight back into any "backward take-off jump"(as in the moment their toe pick leaves the ice, they are not facing backwards; they are forwards or almost there) nor do I know any that go straight forwards into their axel (Double and Triple Axels would prove challenging trying to do them with a take-off akin to a waltz jump from some Learn-to-Skater.

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    4. I do skate and apologize for bring wrong about Mao's jump. It does look odd as she is using her arms more than her legs to get into that air and has issues rotating as a result , but I have been assured that her loop is ok and will edit this later.

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    5. Here is Michelle's triple loop, in slo mo. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qee8nWmbzQo
      Is it backwards or forwards?

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    6. It's a clear forward take off.

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  10. I am enjoying Kira K's homage to Tuesday Weld in her long program. As for the rest of the ladies, oy.

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  11. russian girls will be back. julia all does is cry cry cry. she will grow up and be stronger. liza already growed chest. once used to chest they will skate faster and beter. leonova no longer skates good. morosov took. her soul. now adelina will have to skate with beter jump. triple flip not good now but better for nationals. i want adelina to become world champion. maybe later.

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  12. I don't know who Ginka is but I love her (him?) and can she be a guest blogger please? LOL

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  13. If Gracie Gold skates clean at Nationals, she will go to Worlds with Ashley (who is odds-on favorite to place first). She may even go if she doesn't skate clean. Mirai is not a model of consistency and the jury is still out on Gao. Gracie has more potential, I think, that Meissner, and certainly more than Katy Taylor! She is already 17 and still has all her jumps and good technique. She is also the pretty princess that the USFSA has been looking for ever since Michelle and Sasha left the stage. She needs work on her artistry, but who needs it in this field and with this scoring system?

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    1. Gracie hasn't really proven to be all that consistent this season on the GP circuit either. Gao has shown more consistency than both Mirai and Gracie.

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    2. Gracie has no track record on which to judge her consistency. This is her first year on the Senior Circuit and she has a silver medal. Not bad. Gao has been around for several years and never been on a National in international podium before this year. Maybe she has improved markedly or maybe she has just been lucky. Time will tell. To be named to the World team, she will have to get silver at Nationals (assuming gold is out of reach for her). I don't think she will get silver against a clean Gracie Gold. Gracie will be seen as the future of USFSA--the new pretty ice princess who can compete for gold.

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  14. Enjoy your commentary, but your references to tampons indicate that you really don't understand their use & performance in actual practice.
    It discredits & underminds your commentary, and makes it appear that you're trying too hard with your writing (ironic in light of your Ashley comments- takes one to know one! ha!).
    Stick to what you know-you may know skating, but you don't know tampons.

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    1. I just went back and read the tampon reference. You're right! Visible tampons? I don't think so!

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  15. Hi I absolutely love the way you insult Mrs. and Mr. Satos and blame them for Mao's results.

    The reason why Mao needed to start working on her techniques was only because she neglected them when she was younger. Her jumping techniques have always been wonky since her childhood.

    She has had numerous chances to work on them with world-class coaches.

    Mao left Artunian and chose to stay in Japan to coach herself. Was it his fault? No.

    Mao chose TAT and decided to stay in Japan to coach herself. Was it TAT's fault? No. Mao only made occasional visits to TAT or invited TAT to Japan for a couple of times. I know no other students that make their coaches travel all the way to another continent. Mao declined her suggestion to stay in Russia after the worst GP showing in the Olympic season. Instead, she decided to stay in Japan and coach herself. Was this TAT's fault? No.

    It was only because of the kindness of Mr. Nagakubo, Akiko's coach, that she was able to receive technical advice from him. This helped her win the Olympic Silver.

    The coachless state had continued for as long as two years. This was the worst choice a skater can ever make.

    She decided to rework on her techniques because she lost almost all her jumps except for her old friends, 3A, 3Lo, and 2A. She did not have 3Lz and 3S in her Olympic programs at all and her 3F was getting worse than ever. She made mistakes on 3F and 3T at the Olympics.

    It was her choice to rework on her techniques. She should have done so many years ago.

    Mrs. and Mr. Satos are excellent coaches who are known for great basics. Yuka Sato has never had any weird techniques on her jumps. Another student of them, Takahiko Kozuka has jumps that are also text-book quality.

    What's happening with Mrs. and Mr. Sato is that Mao doesn't listen to them. She stays mainly in her university rink and only occasionally visit them at their rink.

    Again, she likes coaching herself.

    They have had great difficulty communicating with her because she is so stubborn.

    It took them two years to make her understand that something as basic as the importance of the speed. According to Mao, she never learned the importance of the speed when she was with foreign coaches (i.e., Artunian and TAT). I don't think that they didn't teach it, but perhaps Mao just didn't communicate well enough to understand them possibly due to language barriers and her choice to stay only in Japan.

    The lack of speed was one of the major reasons why she lost to Yu-Na. She underrorates because of the lack of the speed. Her slow speed also negatively affects her PCS. It's 2013 and she's still noticeably slower than any other top skaters.

    This season, Mr. Sato has often commented that Mao has better communications with them and understands them better. Please note that it's the third season since they started to work together and they are communicating in Japanese. That tells something about her.

    I don't think it's Mrs. and Mr. Satos who should be blamed for the bad communications. Mao has had a history of it. She didn't have any trouble under foreign coaches bc of the language barriers and the distance.

    Mao has been a top skater mainly because of her pure talent.

    But it's absolutely wrong to blame her current and past world-class coaches for her bad techniques. She loves coaching herself and is too stubborn to listen to valuable opinions from coaches. This is why she doesn't understand the importance of artistry and well-balanced program at the sacrifice of the exclusively on 3A.

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    1. Let me also add that Mrs. and Mr. Satos declined many times when they received the offer to coach Mao. They finally accepted the offer after many requests from the JSF. Mao is obviously a very difficult student who doesn't listen to or understand the teaching of a coach. Yet, she is such a big name that a lot of ppl like yourself blame them without knowing their situations. Mr. Sato is already around 70 and I wish if Mao left him so that they have a more peaceful life. But Mrs. and Mr. Satos are very good-natured people who are sincere enough to treat Mao so patiently and kindly and she decided to stay with them.

      I hope that you will write a more respectful post after researching their coaching situation more properly. Please don't blame Mrs. and Mr. Satos without assessing the self-responsibility of Mao.

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