The first time Akiko caught my eye was in 2008. I don't remember how I came across the video but my introduction to Akiko was this incredible exhibition to "Libertango." I was completely floored by this performance: the commitment to the music, the great choreography, the tension in her movements and the way she sold the hell outta the program. If there's one thing I always stress it's how much I love to see skaters who really perform, and this was an amazing performance.
I was intrigued by her so I did some research and found that Akiko had been competing for years but was just starting to break through internationally. I learned about her struggles with an eating disorder and how she fought her way back from it and I must say, that endeared her to me even more. I started searching for her performances on YouTube and realized that Akiko was every bit as awesome as I thought she was. The girl was a natural born performer! I found her "Dark Eyes" FS from nationals that year (2008) and just marveled at how amazingly she matched the energy of the music and really grabbed the crowd. From then on, I was a fan.
2009-2010 season was a pretty great one for Akiko and luckily, I was able to witness it. She really moved up that year, winning Cup of China, placing 3rd at the Final and 2nd at Four Continents. I fell in love with both of her programs that year. As the years went by, I realized that Akiko and her team were masters when it came to selecting music and pairing it with choreography that worked for her. She always embodied the character of the music and brought it to life in a way that very few people ever could. Her level of performance was always among the class of the field even though her marks rarely reflected it.
Both programs were great but I really loved Akiko's "West Side Story" FS. It was fun and upbeat and she really knew how to pull the energy from the music into her performance. Akiko placed 2nd at nationals that year and earned herself a spot on the Olympic team. With the heavy hitters like Yu-Na, Mao, Joannie and Miki in the field in Vancouver, a spot on the podium was never in the cards for Akiko. She didn't have the technical content or reputation to compete at the top but she did put forth a great effort. She placed 8th with two solid performances and I was thrilled for her.
Akiko was already older than most of the major competitors at that time so I didn't expect her to stay in for the full post-Vancouver quad...I'm definitely happy she did though. With Yu-Na absent and Mao struggling, Akiko rose in the ranks and became one of the top competitors of the quad. Post-Vancouver she helped to carry the Japanese ladies, especially during the 2011-2012 season. Miki Ando was on hiatus and Mao was still finding her footing. Akiko was the anchor that year and ended up having the best season of her career: 2nd at Skate Canada, 1st at NHK Trophy, 2nd at the Final and a bronze medal at worlds.
I still feel like Akiko deserved silver at worlds that year, but her bronze medal was a major accomplishment and put her in a position to be competitive at the top. The judges finally stopped lowballing her so much in PCS and scored her fairly. For the longest time she deserved much higher scores in areas like choreography, interpretation and performance; finally, the judges woke up and started giving her her due. Without the judges blocking her, Akiko was able to step up and prove that she had the goods to be the top competitor for Japan.
The judges improved Akiko's scores for the most part but they still found ways to screw her over. Usually Akiko's scores were on the money; it was the way other skaters were scored in relation to her that was totally effed up and unfair. 2012 Skate Canada and 2012 NHK Trophy stand out the most to me, especially the latter of the two. Most people felt Akiko was cheated out of the gold medal. The margin of victory was minuscule (only 0.05); but given Akiko's 6-triple FS to Mao's 3-triple one, the favor should have gone Akiko's way. The crowd was stunned when the final numbers came up...even Mao looked uncomfortable and a little embarrassed. Despite the craptacular judging, Akiko still held her head high and handled the entire situation with nothing but class.
Though the outcome definitely left a black mark on the competition, nothing can destroy what has ended up becoming my absolute favorite FS performance of the last quad: Akiko's gorgeous performance of "O". I've gone on and on about this FS but I just can't say enough about it. There's something so magical and touching about this program. The music, the choreography, the costume, Akiko's delivery...it's on another level for me. The emotion and freedom she exudes at the end is just incredible. It gives me chills every time I watch it.
Akiko started off the 2013-2014 season decently enough. She medaled at both of her event but, thanks the surge of Russian newbies, she missed out on the Grand Prix Final for the first time in four years. The rest seemed to have done her good because she lit up the arena at nationals that year. After placing a disappointing 4th the year before, Akiko was able to redeem herself with a gold medal--her first ever in 13 years of competing at the event. It was an amazing moment for her and to see her receive the scores she did (however inflated they were) was such a wonderful way for Akiko to end her senior career at nationals.
The Sochi Olympics wasn't a great outing for Akiko. She struggled in the team event and again in the individual event. I think the nerves got the better of her; she was very hesitant and a little too careful in all of her performances. Even with her less than stellar skates Akiko managed to finish 8th at the Olympics for the second time in her career. She never really got her footing back and ended up placing 6th at the world championships in her final competitive appearance. It wasn't a storybook ending but to wrap up her career in Saitama in front of a home crowd must have been satisfying.
I love Akiko so much. I really do...there is no one out there who performs the way she does. Akiko never had the best jumps or spins but she was a master at playing to her strengths. She found music and programs that complemented her style, gorgeous dresses that worked well with her body type, and she made it all work. The fact that she managed to hang in there with the younger skaters and keep herself in the medal hunt despite not having big 3-3s and bendy spins for this long is a testament to her skill as a skater and ability to adapt.
The thing I'll miss most about Akiko is her heart. It sounds cheesy but it's really true: she skates with her heart. When Akiko is out on the ice you can see that she genuinely loves skating and loves what she's doing. Her ability to project that joy outward is remarkable. Akiko's skating is first and foremost honest; there's nothing fake, manufactured or rehearsed about her when she performs. You can see it's coming from a very pure and real place, and I think that's why so many fans connect with her.
Akiko has been through a lot in her very long career but she fought and persevered through it all. Her resume' isn't full of gold medals and world records. She won't be remembered for having the biggest jumps or best results. Akiko is going to be remembered for the way she skated with heart, joy, passion and emotion. Skaters with that intangible and innate sense of musicality and performance are very rare and, for me at least, are just as deserving of praise and recognition.
"The way she skates reminds me of Akiko Suzuki," will be one of the highest compliments I can give and it will not be given lightly. Akiko is the only skater other than Michelle Kwan who has truly touched my heart.
Goodbye, farewell and thank you, Akiko.
As of now, Yu-Na and Akiko are the only ones who have officially retired. Mao Asada is taking a break from competition and the thought is Carolina Kostner may take a hiatus as well. Once it's official, or it becomes apparent that neither will return, I'll do my farewell post for them.
Coming up next, Off Season Fun 2013-2014! Check back soon!