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Mai Mihara, whose career could have ended in a hospital, rises to the top of figure skating

Mai Mihara

PALAVELA, TURIN, ITALY - 2022/12/10: Mai Mihara of Japan celebrates in the Women’s medal ceremony during day three of the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final. (Photo by Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images)

LightRocket via Getty Images

Mai Mihara did not make Japan’s figure skating team for either of the last two Olympics. Her lone world championships appearance was six seasons ago. At one point, she went 20 months between competitions. She began this year without a top-level victory since 2017.

She will end it undefeated internationally in 2022, winning four titles and staking a claim as the world’s best.

No wonder the single word she repeated in interviews after bagging her biggest crown yet, the Grand Prix Final two weeks ago: Surprised.

“My own feeling was that I just remembered how I could not make it to the podium until now,” Mihara, 23, said through a translator. “I quite suffered in my own situation.”

She could have used those words to describe a number of challenges. This week, she competes at her national championships, bidding to make the three-woman team for March’s world championships. Mihara was in second place after Thursday’s short program. The free skate is Saturday.

Mihara, inspired by watching a 15-year-old Mao Asada win the 2005 Grand Prix Final, won a national junior silver medal at age 13. By age 16, she started having severe joint problems going into the 2015 Junior Grand Prix Final, to that point the biggest international competition of her life. She nearly withdrew, competed anyway and finished sixth in the six-woman field.

Afterward, she was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis, which causes joint swelling and stiffness, and was hospitalized for a reported two weeks. The pain was so severe, she had such trouble walking that she moved around the hospital in a wheelchair. Competing again was uncertain. But those who know Mihara speak of her absolute joy for skating.

“She’s that one that stands near the tunnel to go onto the ice and cheers everybody on, watches every performance, learns as much as she can from other skaters,” NBC Sports analyst Johnny Weir, who has toured with Mihara in non-competitive shows, said on a recent broadcast.

While in the hospital, Mihara followed the Japanese Championships on TV and was motivated to return if able. The pain didn’t completely subside, but she was well enough to get back on the ice for the following season, her first on the senior international level.

Mihara went from being unable to jump at the start of her preseason training to winning her senior debut, earning a bronze medal in her first Grand Prix Series start and placing third at the Japanese Championships.

The highlight was winning the February 2017 Four Continents Championships, a competition including top skaters from North America and Asia, held at the 2018 Olympic venue in South Korea. Then she rallied from 15th place after the short program at the world championships to place fourth in the free skate and fifth overall.

The next years brought a series of heartbreaking results. She placed fifth, fourth, fifth and fourth at her next four Japanese Championships, missing the two- or three-woman teams for the 2018 and 2022 Olympics and for the world championships in 2018, 2019, 2021 and 2022.

Among all that, she didn’t compete at all from April 2019 until November 2020, which Japanese media reported at the time was for unspecified health reasons. More recent reports said that it was due to her arthritis. Mihara wrote a letter to show gratitude for her supporters.

“In the year off I didn’t really know what was going on. They were very private about it,” said Canadian David Wilson, who has choreographed Mihara’s programs for several seasons. “She’s had her struggles with her health and had it a little bit harder than most. Yet she just keeps persevering and comes back. It’s really inspiring.”

The most recent comeback began during the COVID-19 pandemic. She placed fourth or fifth at five consecutive top-level competitions in 2020 and 2021 before busting through by winning this past January’s Four Continents (which most Olympians skipped).

In the nearly 10 months between that and Mihara’s first competition this season, Russian skaters were banned due to the war in Ukraine, the top two Americans retired and Japan’s No. 2 woman, Wakaba Higuchi, suffered a stress fracture in her right shin that ruled her out for 2022-23.

Mihara stepped in, winning two November Grand Prix starts, calling the first one possibly the biggest achievement of her life. Then came this month’s Final, the most exclusive competition pitting the world’s top six women.

“I didn’t have that much confidence coming in,” Mihara said through a translator. “My coach Ms. [Sonoko] Nakano said that you are actually the one who came in with [two Grand Prix wins], but you’re actually quite lucky up to this point.”

All six struggled in the free skate, with four falling, but Mihara persevered with the top score on the day to move up from second after a personal-best short program.

“I was so nervous, but I tried to do my best,” Mihara told the arena in English, holding a microphone moments after the event ended in Turin, Italy. “It’s so unbelievable. I can’t speak.”

She became the oldest woman to win a full-fledged Grand Prix since American Ashley Wagner in 2016 and had the most career Grand Prix starts before winning one (nine) since Wagner in 2012.

Wilson, who usually does not travel to watch his skaters compete, followed the Grand Prix Final from home in Canada. His competitive career, albeit on a much lower level than Mihara’s, was cut short by a debilitating knee problem as a teen.

In a phone interview, Wilson recalled that stretch in 2019 and 2020 when he didn’t know if Mihara would skate again. Then her coach called to ask if he would resume working with her.

“It was an honor,” he said.

Wilson also relayed a more recent memory. Mihara spent two weeks at his Toronto club, which includes many younger 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. “What she has now over her past and over the others, by comparison, is a maturity about her that is coming across now in a different way.”

NBC Sports research contributed to this report.

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