Teenage talent Arakawa wins Japan's only medal

It was the allure of the costumes that drew a five-year-old Shizuka Arakawa to figure skating, but by the age of eight she could perform a triple salchow, and when she was 16 she represented Japan at the Winter Games in Nagano.

She was clearly hugely talented. Arakawa was the senior national champion in Japan in both 1998 and 1999 and her Olympic debut, in front of the Japanese fans, was attended by the Emperor and Empress of Japan. A glittering career seemed certain, with her 13th place in Nagano seen as the springboard for greatness.

But then her career faltered. Arakawa came second in the national championships in 2002 and so failed to win a place in the Japanese team for the Games in Salt Lake City. Apparently undeterred, she carried on competing and winning medals, but there were rumours of retirement. In fact Arakawa had even made plans about what to do when she gave up the sport until, to her own surprise, she won the world championship title in 2004.

This gave her a problem. She had decided on a plan, after all – and it involved retiring after the world championships. But now that she had won that title, and won it on the back of seven clean jumps, she no longer felt like stopping.

Results were still patchy for the next 12 months. The 2005 World Championships saw her finish a lowly ninth, but her determination was growing, an intention to deliver one final great performance before leaving the sport. It came in Turin.

Third after the short programme, her free routine was clean and stylish. Her rivals, American’s Sasha Cohen and Russia’s Irina Slutskaya, were first and second, but the gap at the time was wafer-thin, with only 0.71 points covering the three skaters. Everything now depending on the free programme.

Arakawa skated first and completed a clean routine that included five triple jumps. The judges liked it, awarding over 125 points – a personal best. Cohen's challenge stumbled when she fell twice during her warm-up, and then again during the routine itself, although also landed five triples. Cohen went into second place, leaving Slutskaya to challenge for gold.

But her challenge never looked convincing, and when she fell while attempting a triple loop, it was clear that the gold was going to Arakawa. It was Japan’s first Olympic figure skating title, and the country’s only medal of the Games.

Remarkably, at the age of just 24, Arakawa was the oldest women's Olympic skating champion for more than 80 years.


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