DETROIT — While the four reigning U.S. national champions have solid figure skating followings, arguably the one truly global superstar at Skate America this weekend is Japan’s Mao Asada.
The Vancouver Olympic silver medalist and two-time world champion pleased hundreds of Japan-flag waving fans at Joe Louis Arena, thousands of miles from home. After Asada ended the short program in the lead, three dozen Japanese reporters stood waiting for her off the ice Saturday.
At 23, Asada has said this will be her last season after she wiped the slate clean following the 2010 Games and started rebuilding her skating with a focus on her triple jumps.
“Compared to four years ago, I’ve focused more on the technical aspect of my skating,” Asada said Friday through an interpreter. “I have started from scratch, and now feel like I’m seeing the result of that.”
Asada benefits from her triple Axel, specifically, in the ladies event where it is a rarity. Saturday she hit it — if not perfectly — to help her into first place over two-time U.S. national champion Ashley Wagner.
Wagner, who has publicly been chasing a triple-triple combination herself, said the Axel is what sets Asada apart.
“Mao does triple Axels like nobody’s business,” Wagner said. “It’s inspiring to be around. It makes me want to get better. I definitely think that now that she has her triple Axel back and solid she is a force to be reckoned with. I would like to think that as my programs develop and my spin levels get there I feel like I’ll be able to get closer and closer to her. She’s a strong and solid competitor, so she’s giving me something to work for — I can’t slack off.”
There has been no slacking for Asada since her silver medal in Vancouver, revamping to try to close the gap on reigning Olympic champion Yuna Kim. And while Asada won’t say she wants gold in Sochi, she seems to imply it.
“After Vancouver, part of me that was very happy about [winning silver] and part of me wasn’t happy about it,” Asada said. “Because this is my last season and [it’s] an Olympic season, I’m hoping everything comes together for the best at every event.”
Asada has experience and accomplishments on her side: she won skating’s Grand Prix Final at the Iceberg Skating Palace –- the Sochi Olympic venue –- in December 2012.
“The last time I was there, the result was very good,” Asada said through the interpreter, smiling. “And I was very comfortable. That helps me; I’m looking forward to going back.”
Asada said she notices her picture being taken in public every now and then but isn’t overwhelmed by it. The popularity of figure skating has soared in Japan with Shizuka Arakawa winning Olympic gold in 2006 and Daisuke Takahashi capturing bronze in 2010, the first men’s singles medal for the country.
“When I’m down, fans and everyone are trying to cheer me up,” Asada said of the attention. “Other than that, I have a pretty normal life.”