Mai Mihara: “In the short program I express my love for figure skating. This program is a thank you to everyone who supported me and waited for my return.”
Translation of the article and interview with Mai Mihara in Russian media.
source: sports.ru dd. 4th January by Maya Bagriantseva
Miniature Mai is 23 years old and the Japanese national team’s oldest figure skater; Kaori Sakamoto is a year younger. It’s already her 7th senior season. Before her, the last winner of the Grand Prix Final among women who were over the age of 20 was Mao Asada in 2013. Mihara does not jump ultra-c, but is remembered for her easy gliding and graceful choreography, getting high scores due to the components of her programs.
However, Mai herself did not believe in the success of this season. She did not qualify for the last two Olympics, and the last time she went to the World Championships was back in 2017. Her career has been a roller coaster ride: four medals from the Four Continents Championships (two of which are gold), failures at the Nationals that prevented her from competing in the Worlds and Olympics. In addition, she had to miss almost two seasons due to an exacerbation of a serious illness.
Mihara started skating at the age of 7; in an interview with Sports.ru, she recalls how she decided to take up figure skating.
Mai Mihara: “I saw Mao Asada on TV and that was it. It was 2005 when Mao won the Grand Prix Final. She was so incredible that I fell in love with her and figure skating. I told my mom, “I want to learn how to skate and be like her.”
Mihara convinced her parents to take her to the city ice rink. And when she arrived there, she immediately paid attention to the girl on the ice, who was already doing various jumps, unlike Mai, who could hardly stand on skates then. The girl’s name was Kaori Sakamoto.
Mai Mihara: “I’ve been a big fan of Kaori since I was a kid. We have been skating with the same coach (Sonoko Nakano – Sports.ru) for almost 11 years at the same rink, and every year I admire her more and more. She has incredible jumps—athletic and very dynamic—and the style of her programs is not like anyone else’s.
Kaori always supports me. Right after winning my Grand Prix events, she was the first to send messages of congratulations, so I always feel that she is there. For me, to train with her in the same group is an honor and a unique chance. Although we didn’t see each other very much in the first half of the season, we had different GP stages, and we could only train together just before the Final.”
After the National Championships, Mihara admitted that it was a great pleasure for her to stand on the same podium with Sakamoto: “Kaori is a real hard worker; I reach for her, so I owe some of my results to her.”
Health problems began in her last junior season. She came to the Junior Grand Prix Final with a pain in the joints. She was persuaded to withdraw, but this was the first significant competition in Mai’s career, so she categorically refused.
She performed on painkillers, although she remained the sixth of six participants.
Upon returning home, she had a full medical examination and a shocking diagnosis: juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, a serious autoimmune disease.
Such a disease usually shows up in adolescence and interrupts even amateur sports. The knees, ankles, and cervical spine suffer the most from it. Pain, swelling, and “stiffness” of the joints; frequent fevers; and constant fatigue—a condition not very compatible with a career in figure skating. All that doctors can do in the case of Mihara’s disease is slow it down and put it into a dormant state. The pain temporarily goes away but can return at any time.
Mihara spent two weeks in the hospital using a wheelchair. She watched the Japanese Nationals of that year from a hospital bed and promised herself that she would definitely perform there again. Doctors stopped the disease, and Mai began preparations for the first senior season. The pain did not disappear, but treatment minimized it.
At the pre-season training camp, Mai could not jump and just skated in circles around the rink. And by the end of the 2016/17 season, she had the first gold of the Four Continents Championships, the bronze of the Grand Prix stage, and a place in the top five at the Worlds.
In the spring of 2019, the disease reminded itself of. Although Mai never said it directly (complaining and talking about health is not at all in the Japanese tradition), in a thank you letter to fans, she mentions her “deteriorated physical condition” and the decision to “focus on treatment.” Mai returned to the competition only after 20 months, but due to the pandemic, the first full season was postponed until 2021.
The second gold medal of the Four Continents Championships, but only fourth place at the Nationals. Mihara admits that not getting to the Beijing Olympics was hard.
Mai Mihara: “This was a big blow for me. Perhaps I wanted to go there too much and could not cope with my nerves. Of course, now my main goal is to get to the next Olympics; my dream is Milan 2026. But I try not to make that mistake again and not to think much about it. Now I go slowly, step by step, year after year.”
Mai told that now the disease does not interfere with skating. And she really hopes that she has a few quiet years in store.
Mai Mihara: “I have my own, not the easiest path. There were falls and times when I didn’t understand what was the point of going to the ice at all. But my friends, family, and fans help me a lot to not give up. I feel their support every day. I realized that I can’t quit—I need to skate as long as I can do it.”
Perhaps it was the disease that prompted Mihara to make an unusual decision: to donate her hair to charity.
Mai Mihara: “My parents have a beauty salon where they do a lot of hairstyles and even design wigs. I once saw a girl come in not just to have her hair cut, but to have her long hair specially cut off so that a wig could be made for sick children.
The fact is that often during treatment, people lose their hair and feel uncomfortable because of this. They have to wear a wig, which gives them confidence during this difficult period. When I realized that I could help those in need, I didn’t hesitate.”
Mihara also thinks about her future after the sport.
Mai Mihara: “I completed the first part of my studies at the university and received a bachelor’s degree in psychology. I will continue to study, now for a master’s degree. I chose psychology because it is very interesting to me; I deliberately decided not to narrow the scope of my interests to purely sports psychology. But at the same time, all this knowledge helps me every day on the ice—I become more confident and consistent.”
But now all thoughts are about the World Championships, which Mai is finally going to.
Mai Mihara: “Of course, my dream this season is to get into the national team for the Worlds. I couldn’t do it for 6 years, and this year it will be held in my home country, Japan, which was especially important to me. I remember too well my feelings when I stopped so many times just a step away from the pedestal. So I’m grateful and still can’t believe it.
I’m still terribly nervous at the competitions. Even at press conferences after competitions. I’m just getting my confidence back.
The short program of this season has a special meaning for me. It was choreographed by David Wilson; he says that it is about me, about my path, about my whole life. I tell my story by skating it. David chose the music; he thinks that I can express my love for figure skating in it. When I skate this program, I kind of tell the audience how happy I am that I can perform again. This program is a thank you to everyone who supported me and waited for my return.”
Wilson even came to support Mihara at the Grand Prix Final in Turin, although he usually doesn’t travel to competitions with the athletes he choreographs for. According to him, Mai’s story is special.
David Wilson: “I was not sure if her health would allow her to continue her career. The situation was really difficult. But Mai is a fighter. And when her coach called me and asked if I was ready to resume working with Mai, I could only answer that I would consider it an honor.”
It is probably no coincidence that Mihara’s favorite Russian figure skater is Elizaveta Tuktamysheva. The fates of the athletes have a lot in common. The Nationals are the most difficult competition for Mai just as they are for Elizaveta.
Mai Mihara: The fact that we have so many strong skaters in our country certainly motivates me, but I won’t hide it: the Japanese Nationals is the scariest competition of the year for me. I can’t always pull myself together and give my best performance there; I’ve often left this event disappointed.
Therefore, it is unusual for me to represent Japan in international competitions. I haven’t done it that often lately, but I like to travel. When I missed the season, I was afraid to believe that I could skate again. So today I am happy and grateful that I have the opportunity to represent my country at international competitions.
Maybe hard times are ahead again; health is unpredictable. So I just plan to enjoy the chances that come my way.”
Tuktamysheva calls Mihara a friend, and in response, Mai admits that she is always happy to hear kind words from Elizaveta.
Mai Mihara: “I am a real fan of Tuktamysheva; it is such an honor that such a figure skater is rooting for me. I admire her. She jumps the triple axel so beautifully! And when I saw her quadruple toe loop, I was speechless. She is an example that anything is possible.”
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