Monday, November 9, 2009

On Being an Ai-sama and Dai-chan Fan

Sure, we're dealing with head lice and what seems to be H1N1 here in the Constructivist household the last couple of weeks, but you want to know what's really gotten us down lately? No, it's not Tiger's inability to win from the final pairing yet again this year (the Full Metal Archivist is a Phil fan, anyway!). It's Daisuke Takahashi's performances at the NHK Trophy in his 1st of 2 competitions in the ISU's 2009-2010 Grand Prix.

He fell during his step sequence in the short program:

This is the guy known for his step sequences! Plus, he could barely land a jump in his long program:

This is the guy who, when he was healthy, made quads look effortless.

Yes, Dai-chan still came in 4th, because that's how good he remains, even while rehabbing a knee injury no skater has ever come back from. But he's got less than 2 weeks to regain the momentum from his win in the minors a month ago and qualify for the Grand Prix finals in Tokyo early next month. To do that, he needs to move into the top 6 in the standings. With Evan Lysacek and Tomas Verner likely to take 1st and 2nd in Skate America this week, they'll probably move into the 2nd and 3rd spots in the standings, sending Brian Joubert, who won in Japan, into 4th. Canadian Patrick Chan is himself coming back from an injury, so it's looking like Dai-chan's chief competition at Skate Canada the following week will be Czechoslovakia's Michal Brezina, who came in 3rd in Japan. Now, a Dai-chan win in Canada would tie him with Joubert and put him ahead of Johnny Weir, who came in 2nd in Japan. So even if Brezina finishes 2nd in Canada and moves ahead of both Joubert and Dai-chan in the overall standings, it's no problem--Dai-chan would still make it to the finals. But say Brezina beats him--then, he'd have to finish 2nd with enough overall points to beat Weir in the tie-breaker for the 6th spot. No pressure, eh? It's a good thing for Dai-chan that Evgeni Plushenko, who won before the home crowds in Russia, decided not to enter another Grand Prix event this season. If he had and had skated at all well in it, Dai-chan would have needed to win in Canada and beat Joubert in overall points to win the 6th-place tie-breaker. At least now he has some small margin of error!

If I'm this nervous for Dai-chan, I can't imagine what the Full Metal Archivist is going through. When Ai Miyazato began showing signs of life in the 2nd half of last season while coming back from an injury she suffered midway through the previous one, I was confident that she would eventually get enough events under her belt to regain her swing and her swagger. And, sure enough, it happened. Yes, I've questioned 2 of her decisions to skip key LPGA events. But her playoff loss to Nikki Campbell on my birthday and 1st so-so round in ages yesterday don't bother me at all. I truly believe Ai-sama's playing well enough to win the last 2 events of the LPGA season and take the money title, scoring-average trophy, and Player of the Year award away from Ji-Yai Shin. And even if she doesn't, I'm not worried for her 2010 season, as she's poised for an even better year, now that she's playing like herself again.

By contrast, skaters have so few events in which to make their mark that it's not just a matter of regaining your form but of remembering how to produce under pressure again, as well. To tell you the truth, I have no idea where Dai-chan's body or mind is at, with Skate Canada only 11 days away. And I have even less idea how we'll handle watching him live instead of on youtube.

To give you a sense of how big into Dai-chan this family is, imoto, who's all of 3 and a half, is already trying to do spinning jumps in our living room. When onechan went out on the ice for the 1st time last month in group skating lessons offered by my university, the 1st thing imoto said was, "Like Dai-chan!" So you can imagine how happy she was a couple of weekends ago when my mom bought her skates of her own and we ventured out on the Hamilton College rink for her 1st time on the ice. (First she didn't want to go on it, then she crawled on it, and finally she let my mom and I hold her hands.) Going out on the ice myself for the 1st time in over 30 years raised my awe level at what Dai-chan's accomplished and what he's attempting immeasurably.

Get this: the Grand Prix finals are huge, but 2010 is an Olympic year. The Japan Skating Federation has pinned all its hopes on Dai-chan, even though his rival Nobunari Oda will be the top-ranked men's skater headed into the Grand Prix finals. Moreover, Vancouver will most likely be Dai-chan's final competition. On top of all the competitive pressure, then, he'll be dealing with several other kinds: pressure to justify his Olympics selection, pressure to end his career with a bang, pressure to position himself for future endorsements. That financial pressure is nothing to scoff at: Dai-chan won all of $3,000 for his 4th-place finish in the NHK Trophy. A win is worth only $15K more. Basically, you can win more on the Futures Tour in a season than by being one of the best skaters on the planet. But all that pressure is nothing compared to that which comes from his fans. Check out the crowds at his exhibition skate--and what the announcer says in English at its end:

Gambare, Dai-chan!

[Update 1 (11/14/09, 12:21 am): Hold your horses! Lysacek skated well yesterday, but Verner screwed up, big-time. He's fallen to 11th place after the short program, more than 15 points out of 3rd place. He'll need an amazing comeback to 4th just to tie Weir in the overall standings, and a miracle to get to 3rd, which would tie him with Joubert. Anything worse and he's out of the running completely. Of course, given the previous results of those ahead of him at the moment, maybe he has little to worry about. We'll see!]

[Update 2 (11/15/09, 4:15 pm): OK, Lysacek won Skate America and moves into 2nd overall. Verner clawed his way back to 5th, which leaves him 5th overall with 20 points. So now Dai-chan has 3 main rivals next week, Czechoslovakia's Michal Brezina, Italy's Samuel Contesti, and America's Jeremy Abbott. The bottom line for Dai-chan is this: win, and you're in (you move up to 3rd or 4th in the overall standings, depending on how high your score is and whether you pass Joubert or not in the tiebreaker); if you can't win, at least finish 2nd (the worst Dai-chan can do overall in that case is beat Weir in a tiebreaker for 5th place--it doesn't matter whether Brezina, Contesti, or Abbott is the one to beat him); if you can't get a gold or silver, get a bronze and finish ahead of Brezina, Contesti, and Abbott (a bronze is only good enough to get Dai-chan into a tie-breaker with Verner, which he'd lose, since Verner's best finish was a silver, so Dai-chan would be the odd man out if anyone else pushed Verner from 5th to 6th). So a gold or silver next week from Dai-chan gets him into the finals, but a bronze leaves his future in 3 other skaters' hands. The odds of all of them screwing up are pretty slim. Looks like Verner's falls at Skate America didn't really relieve any pressure on Dai-chan for a 1st- or 2nd-place performance next week.]

[Update 3 (4:43 pm): Here's the latest Japanese tv special on Dai-chan:

Basically a recap of his 2009.]

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