On the Return of Daisuke Takahashi

Horrible Figure Skating Fan™ confession time: I missed the Daisuke Takahashi glory years. I maintained a casual interest in skating from 2005-2015, but I was not an avid viewer. I missed the heyday of several skaters that everyone remembers fondly and now I have to catch up on YouTube. So when Takahashi announced his return to competition this season after a four year retirement, I regarded it as a rare opportunity to experience a skater I missed the first time around.

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Figure skating comebacks are difficult and the results are uneven. Just ask Patrick Chan. Chan took a year off and went from Olympic gold medal favourite and three time World Champion to a skater lucky to make the final flight at Worlds. A single season hiatus was all it took to lock Chan out of the medals at every non-Grand Prix series event following his return in the 2015-16 season. It doesn’t take long for skaters to fall behind the pace of the sport.

The seismic technical shifts in the men’s field between 2014 and now have completely reshaped the competitive terrain that Takahashi once knew. Remember, Takahashi announced his amateur retirement in October 2014 following a series of injuries, surgeries, and competitive disappointments. If you were able to land three quad jumps between two programs in 2014, you were in the medal hunt at any competition. In 2018, you need to have three quad jumps in your free skate alone if you want to be a serious contender. The ISU also introduced a series of technical changes to IJS scoring that amount to death by a thousand cuts if they hit a skater all at once. The men now run 4 minute programs instead of 4:30 in the free skate. The repeat rules for quads are more stringent. The GOE scale has changed. Footwork and spin sequences are an endless list of bullet points enumerating the number of turns, positions, and changes of direction to merit maximum level grading. It’s exhausting to think about, let alone skate. For anyone to try and return to the men’s field after any absence is akin to climbing Everest without oxygen: it’s possible, but the difficulty will leave you breathless.

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Given the diligence of Takahashi’s preparation for this competition, it’s clear he took the task of returning to skating form seriously. He earned his spot at nationals by competing through rounds of sectional and regional competition. He probably could have negotiated a bye to nationals with the JSF, but he worked through those cold competitions in tiny rinks before arriving in Osaka to face competitors nearly a decade his junior. He retrained his quad toe, and he landed beautiful triple axels in both segments of the competition. He came ready to play and walked away with a silver medal and a spot on Japan’s World team.

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Takahashi’s successful performance at nationals isn’t weighed in the score alone but in the substance of his programs. Both the short and the free skate are arrestingly beautiful, and Takahashi chose his choreographers well. David Wilson knows how to prompt a languid line from Takahashi that’s a perfect match for the mournful romanticism of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s theme from The Sheltering Sky. Benoît Richaud was an inspired choice to highlight Takahashi’s fluid modernity with an unexpected music choice in the free with Pale Green Ghosts.

These programs showcase all the gorgeous Takahashi touches that make him a timeless skater: soft knees, effortless extension, and speed. Takahashi intuits where to position his body within the choreography for maximum musical and technical effect and his choreographers know well enough not to tamper with that instinct. So many skaters will skate through their choreography, miming the moves they’ve been taught but thoughtlessly and without intention. Every movement in Takahashi’s programs has a purpose and a place in the music, held for just the right moment.

There is a maturity and a patience in Takahashi’s skating that can only be earned with time. It’s rare for a singles skater to seriously compete beyond 27, and to land triple axels in your 30s prompts jokes about walkers and knee replacements. On paper, the technical content in both of Takahashi’s programs is fresh out of 2014: a triple flip triple toe combination leaves him several points short of the quad flip Shoma Uno pulled out in the short program. The points matter, but so does quality. I’ve watched both of Takahashi’s programs on repeat, filing them in my folder of “Programs to Show to Non-Fans that Explain Everything Beautiful About this Infuriating Sport I Love.” There aren’t many programs from the IJS era that I’ve felt so strongly about right from the start, but such is the quality of Daisuke Takahashi. Even now, at 32, he still has something to say.

Inevitably, people will argue the merit of Takahashi’s silver medal. Shoma Uno was injured and Yuzuru Hanyu was absent, and those two skaters lead the men’s field domestically and internationally. That silver medal was no participation prize, and Takahashi still scored ahead of several current contenders, some of whom are at least a decade his junior. I think the JSF was absolutely right to offer Takahashi a World team spot, even if he ultimately declined to take it. The quality still counts, and Takahashi is still a world-class skater no matter the year. We’re all just lucky we got the unexpected gift of wish fulfillment in 2018.

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