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Machiko Yamada Looks Back on Her Decision to Part Ways with Mao Asada

Seventeen years after their alliance ended, Machiko Yamada says, "Mao possessed exceptional talent, and she had already exceeded the limits of our guidance."

In December 2005, under the watchful eye of coach Machiko Yamada, Mao Asada became the queen of the Grand Prix Final, creating a significant stir. Yet, at the World Junior Championships in March 2006, she faced a challenge, trailing behind her same-age rival, Yuna Kim from South Korea. 

Meanwhile, Yamada felt the need to change the then-15-year-old Asada's environment to foster her ongoing development.

The Sankei Shimbun and JAPAN Forward were privileged to interview the renowned figure skating coach. Comments and excerpts from Yamada's discussion of Asada and her coaching career during an interview in 2023 follow. 

Behind the Decisions to End Relationships Between Coach and Student

Mao possessed exceptional talent, and she had already exceeded the limits of our guidance. This was also the case with Midori Ito, [the 1988 world champion and 1992 Olympic silver medalist]. I felt she should consider moving on, perhaps to another coach. In Midori's case, she chose Nagoya.

Shoma Uno [the men's silver medalist from the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics and two-time world champion] was in a similar situation, too. I believe everyone should spread their wings, learn in various places, and discover what suits them best. While it's fine for those who want to stay with us, I think receiving guidance from different coaches allows each individual's positive qualities to shine.

Mao Asada in a May 2006 file photo. (ⒸSANKEI)

A Change of Scenery Helps Mao Asada Develop as a Skater

A few months after the World Junior Championships, Asada announced the decision to move her training base to the United States. Before becoming a future three-time world champion, she started working with coach Rafael Arutunian in California in August 2006.

I don't recall the specifics, but I might have told the press something like, "We will continue to do our best together," after the conclusion of the World Junior Championships. However, even at that time, both Mao and I were contemplating a change in coaches.

When Mao initially joined our team, she was at a level where we could still provide guidance, not yet among the top skaters in Japan. But with her exceptional skating, we were eager to nurture her talent. She progressed smoothly from there.

If she had expressed a desire to stay with our team, that might have happened. But I also felt that it might be better for her to move to another coach.

It's just a shoe!

Yamada was the one that initiated the ending of their mentor-student relationship.

Yes, I brought it up myself.

Machiko Yamada
Machiko Yamada speaks to Mao Asada in a December 2005 file photo. (ⒸSANKEI)

Machiko Yamada Shares Details of Her Coaching Philosophy

While she has successfully nurtured numerous top athletes, Yamada sees herself not as an "elite-focused" but rather a "popularization-focused" coach.

My primary objective is to "expand the base." Although I'm currently involved in top-class skater coaching to support certain athletes in our team, it's not my natural inclination. When Mao emerged as a top international skater, my intention wasn't to offer elite training. Rather, I recognized that she had surpassed the level we could coach.

Parting with a prodigy is no easy feat. It reflects both Yamada's kindness and depth of character.

It's undeniably heart-wrenching when athletes move on. Even with one's own biological children, parting is an emotional process. As a parent, contemplating your child's departure is saddening, but sometimes letting go becomes necessary. Mao's situation was somewhat akin to that. She was an incredibly talented individual, and if she could thrive elsewhere, parting was an inevitable aspect of her journey.

Machiko Yamada
Machiko Yamada interviews Mao Asada on February 14, 2009, at Chukyo University's campus in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture. (ⒸSANKEI)

Asada will always be Yamada's beloved disciple. Yamada continues to cheer for Asada's success even after her retirement.

Mao is a resilient individual. I've heard that the skating rink she always dreamed of is being built [in Tachikawa, Tokyo, and scheduled to open in the autumn of 2024]. She exhibits a level of composure and focus beyond my own. While I tend to "get along with everyone and go with the flow," Mao follows a different path.

Perhaps that's why she achieved so much, and I have no doubt she will continue embracing new challenges.

Getting to Know Machiko Yamada

Born in June 1943 in Nagoya, Machiko Yamada embarked on her figure skating journey at the age of 7. During her time at Kinjo Gakuin High School in Nagoya, she secured victory in women's singles at the Inter-High School Championships and the National Sports Festival. While studying at Kinjo Gakuin University at the age of 20, she became a coach, guiding athletes based at the Nagoya Sports Center. Throughout her career, she has successfully nurtured numerous top athletes. Her students included Midori Ito, Yoshie Onda, Mao Asada, Shoma Uno, and others. Today, she continues to guide and inspire a new generation of students.

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Interviewed by: Kentaro Hashimoto, The Sankei Shimbun

Read the article in Japanese.

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