Mai Mihara, whose career nearly ended in hospital, now atop figure skating

Mai Mihara She has not been selected to represent Japan in figure skating at either of the past two Olympics. At one point she spent 20 months between competitions. She started the year without a top-level win since 2017.

She will finish undefeated internationally in 2022, winning four titles and establishing herself as the best in the world.

No wonder she repeated that line in an interview after winning her biggest ever crown at the Grand Prix Final two weeks ago.

“It reminded me of how I had never been on the podium,” Mihara, 23, said through an interpreter. “I suffered quite a bit in my own situation.”

She was able to use these words to describe many of her challenges. Mihara was second after Thursday’s short program. Free skate is Saturday.

Mihara inspired by seeing 15 years old Mao Asada At the age of 13, he won the 2005 Grand Prix Final and won the national junior silver medal. She almost withdrew, but she competed anyway and in a field of six women she finished sixth.

She was then diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis, which causes joint swelling and stiffness, and was hospitalized for a reported two weeks. It was uncertain to compete again. But those who know Mihara speak of her absolute joy with her skating.

“She’s the one who stands near the tunnel and goes on the ice, cheering everyone on, watching every performance, and learning as much as she can from other skaters,” said the NBC sports analyst. Johnny Weirhas toured with Mihara in non-competitive shows and said in a recent broadcast:

While in the hospital, Mihara watched the Japan Championship on TV and hoped to return. did.

Mihara won his senior debut after failing to jump at the start of preseason training, earning a bronze medal in his first Grand Prix series start and placing third at the Japan Championships.

A highlight was winning the Four Continents Championships in February 2017, a competition featuring top North American and Asian skaters at the 2018 Olympic venues in South Korea. She then recovered from 15th place after the short program at the World Championships, placing her 4th in the free skate and 5th overall.

The following years had a series of heartbreaking consequences. In her next four Japan Championships she placed 5th, 4th, 5th, 4th, 2018 and she won the 2022 Olympics and the 2018, 2019, 2021 and 2022 Olympic Games. At the World Championships she missed two or her three women’s teams.

Among them, she did not compete at all from April 2019 to November 2020. At the time, the Japanese media reported it was for unspecified health reasons. A recent report said it was due to her arthritis. Mihara wrote a letter of thanks to his supporters.

“In the off years, we weren’t quite sure what was going on. They were very secretive about it,” said the Canadian David Wilson, has choreographed Mihara’s programs for several seasons. “She’s struggled with her health and she’s been a little bit harder than others. But she just keeps persevering and will come back. She’s really inspiring.”

The latest comeback began during the COVID-19 pandemic. She won the Four Continents Championships in January (Most Olympian skipped) won.

Then, in the roughly 10 months leading up to Mihara’s first competition of the season, Russian skaters were banned because of the war in Ukraine, the top two Americans retired, and Japan’s second-placed woman Wakaba Higuchisuffered a stress fracture in his right shin and was forced to miss the 2022-23 season.

Mihara stepped in and won two starts at the November Grand Prix, calling her first start perhaps the greatest achievement of her life. And this month’s final is the most exclusive competition ever, pitting the top six women in the world against each other.

“I didn’t have a lot of confidence coming in,” Mihara said through an interpreter. “My coach Ms. [Sonoko] Nakano You said you were the one who actually came with me [two Grand Prix wins]but you’ve actually been very lucky up to this point.

All six struggled in the free skate, with four falling, but Mihara managed to move up from second place in her personal best short program to maintain the top score of the day.

“I was very nervous, but I tried to do my best,” Mihara told Arena in English on the mic shortly after the event in Turin, Italy. .”

She became the oldest woman since American to win a full-fledged Grand Prix Ashley Wagner Competing in Grand Prix in 2016, it was the most Grand Prix appearances since Wagner in 2012 before winning one (nine).

Wilson, who usually doesn’t go to skateboarding, watched the Grand Prix Final from his home in Canada. Although at a much lower level than Mihara’s, his competitive career was cut short by a debilitating knee problem in his teens.

In a phone interview, Wilson recalled a stretch in 2019 and 2020 when Mihara wasn’t sure if she would skate again. asked.

“It was an honor,” he said.

Wilson also shared a recent memory. Mihara spent her two weeks at his Toronto club, which included many young skaters, and “all the kids fell in love with her,” he said.

“She’s the same girl she was when she was 15,” Wilson said of Mihara’s passion. “By comparison, what she has now over her past and others is her maturity about her, which now comes across in a different way.”

NBC Sports research contributed to this report.

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