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Daisuke Takahashi broke the news of his retirement from competitive skating at a press conference in Okayama, Japan, in October 2014. He said he was moving to the United States to search for a new goal in life. But that was only part of the story.
Skating had been a central part of his life for 20 years, but the Japanese star was burnt out and needed a change. He quietly stepped away from the limelight without any further fanfare.
The 2014 Olympic season had been a struggle for Daisuke Takahashi. He finished fourth at 2013 Skate America, before bouncing back to win NHK the following month. He qualified for the 2013-2014 Grand Prix Final, but was forced to pull out due to a leg injury.
At Japanese nationals, he placed fifth overall but was assigned to the Japanese Olympic team. In Sochi, there was more disappointment with a sixth-place result. After withdrawing from the World Championships the following month, Takahashi was left pondering his next move.
“That season I did not want to work at all. I went away because I wanted some time for myself. If I am being honest, that is the reason I gave in order to escape,” he admitted with a sheepish laugh. “It had come to the point where I really did not know if I even wanted to skate anymore. If I’m not motivated to do something, I cannot do it. So I felt that skating in public when I was in that frame of mind would be disrespectful.
“For about six months prior to announcing my retirement, from the Olympics until October of that year, I really did not want to skate at all. I appeared in shows, but that was only because I had agreed to do so already. I kept thinking during that time, ‘What am I skating for if my heart is not in it?’ I was trying my hardest, but I felt that it was not right to continue in that state of mind.
“I am the kind of person who is either zero or 100. Even more so, because I am that type of person, I think I was gradually getting fed up with skating. I just wanted to get away from it at that point.”
The five-time Japanese champion came to the realization that his lack of motivation had been present for some time. “Those two years leading up to Sochi were really tough,” he said. “I think it was mostly mental. I did have some injuries, but I was probably just burnt out.”
The level of expectation to improve on the Olympic bronze medal he won in Vancouver had weighed heavily on his shoulders. This contributed to his sense of deflation once the Sochi Games were over. “It felt more like I was shedding my skin than relief that it was over,” he explained. “Even the things I wanted to do, which had nothing to do with making money, I could not find the motivation to do them. I did not want to skate. I did not want to do anything.”
When Takahashi moved to Long Island, N.Y., to study English in April 2015, he did not pack his skates. “I did not skate at all when I was living in the U.S. When I went back to Japan to skate in shows, I had no choice but to skate again, even though I did not really want to,” he said.
However, after eight months of living in America, Takahashi had not adjusted to his new life and made the decision to return to Japan. “I was thinking when I went to New York that I would be living there for a long time, maybe three or four years, but it never really felt like I was living there,” he said in reflection. “I had hoped to discover there what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, but in the end I did not find it.”
Takahashi returned to the ice last December, performing in the “Christmas on Ice” shows in Osaka and Yokohama. “When I was not skating it did not feel strange to me at all. I never had a moment where I thought I wanted to skate,” he said. “But if you ask me which time is most enjoyable? I think probably right now is the most fun, in terms of being able to skate and then go out on my days off. I am more fulfilled in that sense now.”
Takahashi was the first Japanese man to win the World Junior, World and Grand Prix Final titles. However, the one regret of his skating career was not winning an Olympic crown. “I have had so many wonderful results and experiences — more than I ever dreamed of when I first started skating,” he said. “However, once I started being successful, my dream became winning an Olympic gold medal, and I was not able to achieve that. Everything else I was the first Japanese man to do. Initially, I did not realize I was the first to achieve many things, but when you keep hearing that you really become conscious of it.”
With the passage of time, he has become more philosophical about not accomplishing that ultimate goal. “I was not able to be the first Japanese man to get an Olympic gold medal, but the experience I had in Sochi was so valuable. Not getting the result I wanted was fate. If I had won gold in Sochi, even if I had continued skating afterwards, I think I would have just stopped at an early stage.
“Because I was sixth and had to start over, I believe I was able to begin again with a fresh perspective. I have not yet found a clear dream or goal, but I feel like I have a purpose now.”
When Takahashi began taking lessons at age 8, figure skating was not the popular sport it has since become in Japan and, as a result, he had no role models growing up. “I did not have any skaters that I looked up to. When I was small, there was never anyone I wanted to become — I just loved skating,” he said. “There were skaters that I liked. I am a big fan of Jeffrey (Buttle) and Stéphane (Lambiel). At some point, I started feeling like I wanted to surpass both of them in terms of how they performed.”
“With regard to Stéphane, I was not such a fan at the beginning, but more and more his expression became something that was attractive, even if you are a guy. He has a sensibility no one else has and I really like the way he moves. With Jeffrey, we skated a little bit together as juniors. At the time I thought he was amazing and I was a fan from then on.”
As figure skating has grown in popularity in Japan, many of the new generation of skaters consider Takahashi and his style of skating an inspiration. He is genuinely puzzled, though, when he hears that younger skaters aspire to be like him. “It makes me happy, but I think there are other people more talented than me. It would be better to aspire to be like someone else more talented,’ he said with a laugh. “I have never really looked at my own skating, so I suppose I cannot say anything.
“I do not think there is anything special about me, but everyone tells me that when they think of ‘Daisuke Takahashi’ my step sequences come to mind, so I am pleased because it makes people happy. Artistic expression is really subjective, isn’t it? You like what you like and you don’t like what you don’t like.” Shoma Uno is one of the skaters who has publicly expressed the influence Takahashi has had on his skating. Takahashi has been watching the progress of the 2015 World Junior champion.
When asked if he has any words of wisdom for the teenager, he said his only hope is that Uno continues to develop his individuality. “I do not really have any advice for him. As he grows older and experiences lots of things, he will find that his range of expression will widen. It is a matter of not taking things too seriously. That is probably the advice I would give. Living spontaneously broadens your horizons. If you become too serious, your range of expression becomes too narrow.
“You need to train diligently, but be true to yourself. So long as you are true to yourself, you can be spontaneous the rest of the time. When you have free time, have fun. If you can do that, I believe you can express yourself better.”
The 2010 World champion is grateful that the early part of his skating career was outside the full-blown glare of the spotlight that young skaters in Japan now face on a daily basis. He said he could not imagine being thrown into such a high-pressure environment at an early age. “Right now, everything gets picked up by the media. Skaters from my generation did not get so much coverage,” Takahashi said. “We were much more carefree. Even if we failed, we thought, ‘There is always next time.’
“It was never ‘I have to win,’ but rather, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I won?’ Compared to our time, I think the skaters now are under too much pressure. I would say to them to not worry too much about what’s going on around you. You are still young and you’ll only have the chance to make mistakes now. Once you get older, you will not be able to do what you want anymore, so I think it is better to fail as much as you can now.”
At age 30, Takahashi now has set his sights on new challenges. He will be a guest performer in “Love on the Floor,” a dancing extravaganza created and produced by two-time “Dancing with the Stars” champion Cheryl Burke. Takahashi took some dance classes while he was living in the U.S., but said this would be a new experience.
“In New York, it was only a hobby. I got offered the show when I came back to Japan. Cheryl’s show is about expressing love through various dance genres, so that is what I am hoping to learn about. It looks like I will be doing lots of different dance genres, like Salsa and Latin. Nothing has been decided yet. I have not even started lessons.”
Takahashi is also stepping into the world of television. This summer he worked as a commentator for Fuji TV at the Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janiero. Starting next season, he will cover figure skating for the network as a live commentator and conduct one-on-one interviews at Japanese nationals, Four Continents and the World Championships.
Beyond that, Takahashi has no idea what the future holds but said he will be exploring many avenues. “I think in five years I still will not know what I want to do. I will probably be trying a lot of different things. In 10 years, I hope I will have something concrete. I think I will have found something by then.”
But he is now certain that skating will continue to be part of whatever he does in the future. “As a skater, my big, vague dream is to produce a high quality ice show that tours Japan; a show where people come not to see a certain skater, but to see the show itself.
“I really learned a lot skating in ‘Ice Legends’ and ‘Art on Ice.’ I also learned a lot about choreography with Jeffrey (Buttle) when I skated on Stars on Ice. Maybe if I could do something like that in 10 years time, that would be great.”
Despite being recognized as one of the most expressive singles skaters of his generation, Takahashi has no choreographic ambitions. “I definitely do not want to be a choreographer,” he said. “When Jeff choreographed for me, I thought ‘I will never do this.’ I prefer receiving choreography to perform myself.”
Now based in Osaka near his former training venue at Kansai University, Takahashi has had the opportunity help his former coach Utako Nagamitsu on occasion. “I have been busy recently, but from time to time I go in to help with lessons,” Takahashi said. “I have learned a lot of things through that. I hope to do what I can in future.”
He credits Nagamitsu for pushing him to make it as far as he did. “She demanded more of me than I ever did of myself. She believed that I could do it more than I did,” he said.
Though all the Japanese singles skaters who went to Vancouver in 2010, other than Mao Asada, have retired and forged new careers, the bond between them is still strong. “All the skaters of my generation are now walking different paths,” Takahashi said. “We have known each other for so long. It is going to be interesting to see the directions we all go in.”
Takahashi said his only wish for Asada is that when the day comes for her to retire she has no regrets.
“I have regrets,” he said. “I did not have a performance where I was able to make a statement that I was retiring. I got injured and stuck in a rut without being able to get out of it and that is how I finished competing. So I would say to Mao: ‘Give it your all until you feel you have given it all you can, and then you will feel good about moving on to the next stage of your life.’”