—— You come from a skating family, can you tell me about your start?
I started skating when I was around three years old, but I spent a long time just playing on the ice. I was always around skating because both my parents were skaters and coaches. They had both skated in the Olympics for Japan and were Japan National Champions so skating was part of my life from early on. When I was a girl my father was still actively skating and so I spent a lot time on the ice while my mother was busy taking care of my brother. They both taught me so much and showed me what skating was about. When I was younger it was more my father and then as I got a little older my mom took more and more of an active role in my training and coaching. I didn’t really get serious about skating until I was 10 or 11 years old. That’s when I really wanted to push it, but my parents were a little hesitant since they already had that experience and knew it wasn’t always going to be so easy... they knew the dedication and commitment it took. They also knew that things didn’t always go as planned and they were trying to save me from going through all of that. Looking back, they never really thought I was athletically talented enough to excel either. As a child I wasn’t very fast or strong... I always finished last in races and so they weren’t quite sure if skating was something that I should seriously pursue.
—— So they didn’t try to push you into it like many parents?
No, not at all! They thought the most important thing that I should learn from skating was the discipline, both mental and physical. They really liked the idea that it gave me something to do and some kind of goals, besides just my schoolwork. That was why they had me involved in skating initially, and then things sort of changed as they saw that I was getting a little bit better.
—— When you started skating did you ever think it could lead to all this.
Well as little girl I was always dreaming. In my case my dreams were always bigger and bigger than where I was at the time. I was always watching videos of skaters like Scott Hamilton, Barbara Underhill and Paul Martini as a pair team and Rosalyn Sumners. Back then I watched the tapes so many times... almost every day! Once I actually started competing at higher levels, however I didn’t have an idea to be like anyone else ̶ I had my own goals and was trying to be who I wanted to be. I was always too busy and focused on what I was trying to accomplish.
—— What kind of feeling do you get when you take the ice?
I think that this season, in particular, when I take the ice I have a little bit different approach or perspective. It’s not something I’ve purposely changed... I think it’s just something that’s come from my experience. This is my 10th year of skating as a professional and until last year whenever I took the ice I approached everything in a very serious and driven way. Now I haven’t lost that focus or determination, but along with it... every time I take the ice I enjoy it more ̶ like it could be the last time out there. I seem to have come to a place or realization that I wonder “How long is this wonderful career going to last?” so I enjoy every moment while I can. I don’t have any plans to retire yet, but I do know that some day I will. I’ve come to appreciate how fulfilling my career has been and I feel that if for any reason I had to stop skating tomorrow I wouldn’t have any regrets. I’m comfortable with it, so I skate as well I can and enjoy it while I can. Before it was always about establishing yourself and building a career, so I put a kind of pressure on myself. I haven’t lost any of that drive, but I’m gaining even more of an appreciation for what I do... I’m skating more for myself now.
—— How would you describe your skating style?
This year I’m the only singles female skater on this tour of “Stars on Ice”. We have four pairs and two men in addition to myself, so in comparison to the rest of the cast, the men and pairs, I’m not as powerful, so I try to take advantage of my more feminine and artistic side, using a little more finesse as opposed to power. The men and pairs are so powerful... they’ve got so much speed and strength. That is a point that I discussed with my choreographer and we decided to do something that took advantage of my artistry in addition to choosing music that fit in with the director’s vision for the show. We went for something that doesn’t compete, but rather balances out the speed and power of the other programs, while still engaging the audience.
—— How has your approach to skating changed over the years?
Well as I’ve grown and matured some things have definitely changed and these days my life’s changed a little bit too. Not only do I have my solo career, but I skate pairs with my husband, former U.S. Pair Champion Jason Dungjen. We perform and compete as a team in various projects and we’ve also been spending time coaching. A typical day may be to wake up and train for 3 hours or so then coach and try to fit in all the everyday things you’ve got to do. So depending on the season we can be very busy. More and more I’ve come to realize that I’m not 19 anymore so I dedicate more time and attention to taking care of myself and staying healthy so that I can still perform at a high level.
—— What’s it like to be on the “Stars on Ice” tour with such great skaters?
Well in many ways were like a big family, we end up spending more time with each other than with our real families. For the most part everyone’s great. Some of the guys, like Kurt Browning, are so funny... they’re always up to something interesting, and that helps to break up the monotony. On the other hand he can be very serious and extremely focused when it comes to skating. He’s always experimenting and trying to find something new. Depending on where we are people do different things. Sometimes we’ll go off by ourselves and other times we all get together to do things... we almost always get together for a nice dinner on our days off. Today since its nice today in Phoenix some of the boys are off playing golf, before we have to leave for San Diego. This year “Stars on Ice” visits around 60 cities, over a 4-month period, not including the five or six weeks of planning and preparation beforehand to get the show together, so that keeps us pretty busy.
—— What’s the biggest difference between skating as an amateur and as a professional?
They have both have their particular challenges, but in different ways. As an amateur there are so many things that that you have to do, so in some ways you don’t have to think as much, but in some ways that can be more limiting too. As an amateur my training was more rigid and I was required to work on some things, but as a professional I’ve been able to express myself more artistically and I’m free to be more creative. Now the training I do is up to me, so it takes more self-discipline if you want to keep competing at the highest level. These days I prefer shows to competitions... I really like to challenge myself, but when you compete, you have all these required elements and that takes away from the things I can do better.
—— What are some of the things that stand out from your amateur career?
Well representing Japan in the Olympics was great, but winning the ‘94 World Championships in Japan was a special moment for me. At that time it was definitely the highlight of my career, but I never really spent too much time looking back because I’ve always been looking to my next challenge and constantly looking for ways to take my skating to an even higher level. I’ve always been motivated to accomplish more and perform at the highest level possible.
—— What made you decide to leave Japan and come to the U.S.?
Well for me it was a natural progression. After winning the “Worlds” in 1994, I turned pro and began working on developing my professional skating career. As things progressed I felt I had accomplished as much as I could in Japan and the next step was the U.S. As far as professional skating is concerned the U.S. provides so many more opportunities. The market here is more sophisticated and developed than in Japan, so I was attracted by that and wanted to pursue my skating career here and see how far I could go. I was fortunate to have some success in Japan and wanted to see how far I could take it as a professional in the U.S.
—— As a pro you’ve taken part in many great shows, which have been some of the more memorable events?
There have been so many over the years, from competitions and performances, but I have to say being able to have worked with Scott Hamilton has been great. He’s done so much for our sport and profession ̶ to the point of practically creating what everybody considers to be the professional circuit. All of us have our careers because of people like him. Previously I had the opportunity to share some time with Scott during his “farewell” tour. It was quite an emotional tour and the fans just loved it. Working with him there and on some of his other shows and benefits is always something special. He’s such a tremendous talent both on and off the ice.
—— Do you still get nervous before a show or competition?
Absolutely! Skating is something I still love very much and I still get butterflies before I go out there. For me, that’s a very important part of my preparation, because I feed off of that energy and put it into my performance. It’s when I don’t feel nervous ̶ that I really get nervous! (laughing) I used to think I knew how I’d skate by how I felt beforehand, but I’ve tried to get out of the forecasting business. Now I know when it happens and I try to enjoy it as much as I can.
(02-16-2004 issue, Interviewed by Terry Nicholas)