TOKYO (AP) — One of Japan’s most popular athletes should have known she couldn’t leave quietly: Mao Asada‘s press conference Wednesday to officially announce her retirement from figure skating attracted some 350 media and was telecast live across Japan.
Asada led her country’s figure skating scene since her teens with her trademark triple axel. She started skating at the age of 5 and won world championships in 2008, 2010 and 2014 in an illustrious career that included a silver medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
The 26-year-old Asada decided to take a break from competitive skating in 2014 and made a comeback the following year.
While she had some positive results, including a bronze at the 2015 NHK Trophy, a career-low 12th-place finish at the national championships last December convinced her it was time to call it a career. Asada had dealt with a reported knee injury in her final season.
“I saw my score in the kiss and cry, and thought, ‘Maybe I don’t have to do this anymore,” Asada said, according to the Japan Times, adding that she made up her mind in February. “I’ve competed at the national championships since I was 12, and I ended with the most disappointing result that I ever had. It factored into making the decision as one of the biggest reasons.”
Asada, who announced her retirement from her 21-year career on her blog two days ago, occupied a special place in the Japanese sports landscape. Her popularity far exceeded that of other figure skaters, even those who won gold medals.
The youngest of two daughters, Asada had a personality that endured her to her legion of fans. Soft-spoken and exceedingly polite, many regarded her as their own “younger sister” and her photogenic looks added to the aura.
“I still have photos of myself as a 5-year-old skating in a crash helmet and knee-pads,” Asada said, according to Agence-France Presse. “It’s amazing I’ve been able to compete for such a long time.”
Throughout her early career, Asada’s mother, Kyoko, was a constant companion, attending all of her competitions and monitoring her progress up the ranks.
Asada qualified for the 2011-12 Grand Prix Final in Quebec City, but had to return home when her mother became seriously ill. Her mother died of liver cirrhosis while Asada was flying back from Canada.
She was in her early 20s at the time and her loss struck an emotional chord with her fans.
“Over my long career, I encountered a lot of mountains,” Asada said. “I was able to get over those mountains thanks to the support of many people and I’m full of gratitude.”
At Wednesday’s press conference, Asada called her performance in the free skate at the 2014 Sochi Olympics her most memorable.
“It’s difficult to pick just one,” Asada said. “But the free skate in Sochi is definitely one that stands out.”
She placed 16th in the short program in Sochi after falling on her triple axel, under-rotating a triple flip, and doubling a triple loop.
But in a stirring free skate, Asada rebounded, earning a personal best score of 142.71 making her the third women to score above the 140 mark after Yuna Kim‘s 2010 Olympics score and Yulia Lipnitskaya‘s 2014 Olympics team event score.
That placed Asada third in the free skating and sixth overall. Even though she didn’t win a medal, it was a performance that many will never forget.
She will long be remembered for her rivalry with Kim.
“We competed with each other since we were about 16 years old,” Asada said, according to the Japan Times. “We really inspired each other, and I think we shook up figure skating together.”
Asada had said at the 2016 World Championships that she planned to compete through the 2018 Olympics.
“I was conflicted because I announced my goal publicly and didn’t carry it out,” Asada said, according to the Japan Times.
As for what’s next, Asada said she is ready to take a new step in her life and will continue appearing in figure skating shows.
“I have no unease about the future,” Asada said. “I want to try new things and keep moving forward in a positive way.”
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