Chapter One: The End of a Dream
To those who longed for the hot, sunny days of summer, the word was akin to death. They were the ones who couldn't wait for the ice of winter to melt away, bringing with it the promise of new life and young love. But for eighteen-year-old Yume Naegino, the ice was her second home, as warm to her as a mother's embrace or a favorite blanket. Every time she stepped on the ice, she felt her entire body ignite in fire, holding back the cold of the rink and almost bringing her to a state of euphoria.
That was exactly how she felt as she took the ice for her six-minute warm-up period with the five other girls in her flight, preparing for the most important free skate of their lives up until that point. Tonight, three of their dreams would come true, and there was a good chance Yume's would be one of them.
After all, it was All-Japan, one of the most important competitions of the year, and even more so this year. Not only were they competing for a spot on the world team, it was also an Olympic year, which meant three lucky ladies would be heading to Russia next February to skate for Japan.
It would be a tough competition, though. The strength and talent of the Japanese in ladies' figure skating had been rising ever since Shizuka Arakawa won the first gold for Japan at the 2006 Turino Games. (In fact, though Yume didn't remember it, having only been about two at the time, her mother swore that after watching Shizuka Arakawa skate on TV, Yume would not stop saying "Ina Bauer," the name of the Olympic champion's signature move, for a week.) Any one of the six girls in the final flight of skaters had a chance to take one of the three Olympic berths available; that was how close all of them were. They all had experience on the international level -- Yume had actually placed fifth at last year's Worlds in Warsaw, as well as won a bronze at the Grand Prix final behind two of her countrywomen and the gold at Four Continents -- and all were at the top of their game technically, performing some of the most difficult programs of all the ladies in the world. It would all come down to how well they performed in the free skate to decide who would win the coveted spots.
As she landed a perfect triple lutz, triple loop combination in the center of the ice, however, Yume tried not to think of that. It made her too nervous whenever she thought of the importance of her free skate. As her coach had told her that morning at practice, it was better just to think of it as just another competition, no more important than Skate America or the NHK Trophy, instead of the qualifier for the World and Olympic teams.
"Hey, Naegino-san, got a triple axel yet?" the current leader after the short program, Sugi Tanizaki, taunted as she passed Yume by and proceeded to perform a textbook triple axel right in front of her, ending with a satisfied smirk in Yume's direction.
The audience burst into spontaneous applause, but Yume, knowing Sugi was only trying to psyche her out, ignored her and practiced one of her spin combinations.
I wish I did have the triple, though, Yume couldn't help but think as she went down into a sit spin. She and her coach Akina Hasegawa had been working on the axel for the past couple of seasons, but while she could land it on occasion, it was nowhere near consistent enough yet to consider putting it in a competitive program.
Unfortunately for Yume, Sugi Tanizaki wasn't the only one with the axel in her arsenal of triple jumps. Inspired by skaters such as Midori Ito and, more recently, Mao Asada, the first woman to land two triple axels in a single program, Kiku Nogawa and Miyako Kazama also had the axel, and they were currently second and fourth, respectively, in the standings after the short program, book-ending Yume, who was in third place due to Miyako's slip during her serpentine footwork sequence and generally weaker spins. Yume's presentation was definitely more refined than Miyako's, and her technique was sound, but if Miyako skated cleanly with the axel and the quad toe she was practicing during the warm-up, Yume wasn't sure she could hold onto the last spot on the podium.
"Don't think about Kazama-san," Yume ordered herself with a shake of her head as she came out of her spin. "Jumps aren't everything. Artistry and presentation count, too, especially in the free skate. You can still do this."
Just then the whistle sounded, meaning the warm-up was over. Kiku Nogawa, who was skating first, stayed on the ice, while everybody else filed off backstage.
Yume wasn't skating until later -- she had drawn the next to last spot, her favorite -- so she sat down and started taking off her skates. A few seconds later, her coach joined her, giving Yume a pat on the back.
"You looked good out there, Naegino," Coach Hasegawa said. "Great landings on the triple/triple. Keep that up, and I say we'll be going to Russia."
"I don't know, coach," Yume sighed after taking off her second skate. "Did you see Tanizaki-san out there? Her axel was perfect, and she's the Michelle Kwan of Japan when it comes to artistry. It'll be hard for anyone to touch her."
"Don't worry so much about Tanizaki. That she will be given one of the berths is practically a given. She is, after all, the reigning World Champion. Your real threat is Kazama, that little jumping bean. It was lucky for us that she messed up her footwork in the short, but you're going to have to skate cleanly if you want to hold onto that third spot."
"Do you think I should put the axel in there?" Yume asked, wondering if she should take a gamble. "I did manage to land two this morning."
"How many times do I have to tell you that two out of ten is not a good enough percentage to take that kind of risk, Naegino?"
"I know, I know."
"Just stick to the program," the coach told her. "Better to be safe than sorry, right? And keep moving, sport. I don't want your muscles tightening up before you get on the ice."
After Coach Hasegawa left to fill up Yume's empty water bottle, Yume dug her iPod out of her duffel bag and set it to her music for her long program, a jazzy American blues number she had fallen in love with the last time she had gone to California to see her sister Sora. She then began lightly jogging around backstage, imagining herself performing a perfect program.
It was a technique her coach taught her called visualization. Supposedly, if a skater imagined herself skating a clean program, she was more likely to actually do it when it really counted. When Coach Hasegawa first told her about it, Yume thought it was a little crazy, dismissing it as some kind of New Age nonsense, but she had to admit it had seemed to help her focus more during competitions since she had started doing it regularly.
Triple lutz/triple loop…mohawk entrance into triple salchow…spread eagle into double axel…camel spin into illusions -- remember to keep foot pointed…triple loop…spiral sequence…serpentine footwork…a lutz -- don't flutz or Coach will kill you…triple flip/triple toe/double loop…layback…straight-line footwork…triple toe/double axel…high split…high split…combo spin…
Yume went through the program twice in her mind before Coach Hasegawa came back, nearly scaring her to death when she tapped Yume on the shoulder to get her attention. Pulling the earphones out of her ears, Yume switched off the music and turned around. In one hand, the coach held Yume's water bottle, which she immediately offered to a thirsty Yume, and in the other was Yume's cellphone.
"It's your folks," she said. "They want to wish you good luck, but don't talk too long. Kazama's free skate is about to begin, so you need to start putting your skates back on and get ready."
"I won't," Yume promised, taking the phone. "Mom? Dad?"
"Hey, it's me," her mother's voice said over the phone. "How are you doing, sweetie? Nervous yet?"
"That's to be expected, but remember your dad and I are here, cheering you on, and we will be very proud of you no matter what happens, even if you don't make the Olympic team. You should just go out there, have fun, and skate the best you can."
Yume smiled, grateful that her parents never were the type to put a lot of pressure on her when it came to her skating. A lot of the parents of the other skaters in her skating club were exactly the opposite, pushing their kids so hard, some would come to practice in tears. "I know, okaa-san, and I will. Thanks."
"I'm sure your sister would say the same thing if she was here," her mother added. "It's such a shame little Hana-chan caught the chicken pox at the last minute. I know Sora and Ken-san were really looking forward to coming to Japan and watching you compete at All-Japan."
Yume sighed, wishing her sister and her family could have been there as well. She had been extremely disappointed when Sora called the day before the short program to inform her about her daughter Hana being sick and that they wouldn't be able to fly out to Japan after all. Sora did promise that if Yume made the Olympic team, though, nothing and nobody would stop her from going to Russia.
"Did otou-san remember to bring the video camera?" Yume asked. They had promised Sora they would send her a tape of her performance since she couldn't be there in person.
"Yes, he brought it. He's putting in some fresh batteries as we speak."
"Good. Remind him to take the lens cap off this time before he starts filming."
Her mother chuckled. "That I will…oh!"
"What? What is it, okaa-san?"
In the background, Yume heard a faint applause that made her heart sink since she knew it was for Miyako Kazama, her rival for the third spot, who was currently on the ice. Her mother, however, was quick to brush it off. "It's nothing, Yume," she assured her. "Just do your very best, okay?"
"Okaa-san, did Kazama-san do the quad?" Yume asked, squeezing her cell so hard, she was positive her knuckles were white.
Instead of answering, her mother said, "Oh, look at the time. You're skating next, aren't you? Then I should probably let you get ready now. Remember, we'll be cheering for you. Gambatte, Yume!"
With that, her mother hung up, and Yume groaned, sitting down to put on her skates. If Miyako managed to pull off a quad, which her mother's refusal to confirm all but confirmed it, any hope Yume had of making the Olympic team was just about gone. How could she possibly compete with that when she didn't even have a consistent triple axel?
"Naegino, Kazama is almost finished. Time to go," Coach Hasegawa announced. "Chop, chop."
Yume, having finished lacing up her boots, reluctantly stood up, smoothed down the fabric of her midnight blue velvet costume trimmed with sequins, and followed her long-time coach to the entrance onto the ice. She got there just in time to see the very end of Miyako's program, and the audience burst into enthusiastic applause as the sixteen-year-old jumping prodigy completed her final layback spin. Personally, Yume thought Miyako's layback position was horrible, nothing graceful or beautiful about it at all, but the audience didn't seem to care, tossing dozens upon dozens of bouquets and plush toys onto the ice as Miyako headed to the area commonly referred to as the Kiss-and-Cry to wait for her score.
"Don't let it get to you, Naegino," her coach said as Yume took off her skate guards and stepped out onto the ice. "Remember what I always told you? It's good to go after someone who just had a great skate. The audience is already pumped, so you've got something to build on."
"Right." Smiling, Yume tried her best to sound confident, but she must not have done a good job, since Coach Hasegawa frowned.
"Don't lose focus out there. I know you're tempted to go for the axel, but stick to the program. Kazama, despite what you might think, did not have a perfect program. She flutz'd her lutz, and some of her landings were a bit shaky."
"But she did land the triple axel and her quad, didn't she?" Yume asked, fearing to hear the answer she already knew.
Coach Hasegawa, after a short pause, nodded. "But don't think you're out of the running just yet," she was quick to add. "Your spinning ability is far superior, your spiral sequence is considered the most elegant in the competition, and your footwork would give even Yagudin-san a run for his money back in the day. Remember, Naegino, skating is not just about the jumps. Repeat that back to me, and say it like you mean it."
"Skating is not just about the jumps."
"Good. Now, go get them, tiger."
After taking one last drink of water as she listened to Miyako's score, Yume skated to the center of the ice and got into position to begin the most important skate of her life.
Skating is not just about the jumps. Skating is not just about the jumps. Skating is not just about the jumps…
As she waited for her music to begin, Yume silently repeated Coach Hasegawa's words in her head like a mantra, her heart pounding against her ribcage. Her coach was right. She couldn't allow herself to think all hope was gone just yet, even if Miyako Kazama had just posted one of the highest technical scores ever seen at All-Japan, catapulting her ahead of Kiku Nogawa in the standings. As long as she skated cleanly, it was still possible she could make the Olympic team.
With that in mind, her music started, and Yume began her program, the familiar fire of performing spreading throughout her body as she prepared for her first jump, a difficult triple/triple combination. While she had performed one perfectly during the warm-up, the second Yume jumped in the air, she realized something was wrong. She was only able to complete a double lutz, landing shakily on her right back outside edge and making it impossible to add the triple loop.
"Shimatta! I didn't get enough height," Yume thought to herself. "At least it wasn't a fall. I can still add the triple loop to my second lutz, and since that's near the end of my program, I can get a bonus. It may just be enough to make up for the double."
Her next element was the mohawk entrance into a triple salchow, so Yume put the minor mistake out of her mind and focused on completing one of the easier jumps in her program. She managed to do the required three revolutions, but, unfortunately, she two-footed the landing.
Focus, Yume, focus!
After the salchow came a spread eagle into a double axel. Despite her coach's warnings to stick to the program, Yume knew that if she wanted to make up for her first two mistakes and have any chance of standing on the podium, she had to do something drastic. Sometimes, taking risks was necessary, and if she managed to pull it off, she knew it would pay off big time.
"Sorry, coach," Yume mentally apologized, moving into her spread eagle, then launching herself the air with all the power she could find within herself.
Yume grimaced as she landed hard on the ice, realizing with that disastrous fall that her Olympic dreams were over. Though wanting nothing more than to stop her program and go cry in her mother's arms, Yume forced herself to get back up, smile, and continue on with her skate. As Sora had often said to her over the years, a true star always finished her performances no matter what happened, because that was what the audience deserved.
What was that American saying she was so fond of saying? Oh, right.
The show must go on.
It was true. Even if the judges would mark her low on her score, Yume vowed to spend the rest of her program entertaining the audience, and that was exactly what she did. Without having to worry about the judges or her score anymore, Yume was a free as a bird, skating with more passion than she ever remembered having in her entire life. She even opted out of her most difficult jump sequence in her program -- the triple flip/triple toe/double loop -- and added in a backflip landed on one foot a la Surya Bonaly, though it was completely illegal in amateur competitions.
What did she care anymore?
The audience ate it up. They didn't care about the mistakes made in the first half of her program; it was as if her fall never happened. They cheered and clapped as if they were watching a gold medal winning performance, and when Yume finished her combination spin and struck her final pose, the standing ovation she received was almost deafening.
"Wow, was this how onee-chan felt when she completed the Legendary Great Maneuver?" Yume wondered as she caught her breath and bowed.
Flowers and plush toys rained on the ice at her feet. Yume gathered all she could carry in her arms and headed over to the Kiss-and-Cry, where her none-too-happy coach was waiting for her with her skate guards.
"Yume Naegino, what the heck was that?" Coach Hasegawa demanded to know as Yume placed the guards over her blades. "Do you realize what you have done? You just ruined your chance at an Olympic berth! If you even remain in the top six after that performance, it will be a miracle. I told you to stick with the program, not add in inconsistent triple axels and illegal backflips!"
"I don't care anymore," Yume said, grinning, and the strange thing was, she really didn't. As wonderful as going to the Olympics would have been, she realized then that she just wasn't cut out for competition. She wanted to perform for the audience, not for the judges.
Coach Hasegawa shook her head in bewilderment, but didn't say anything else as they sat down and waited for her scores. As expected, her technical score was low, and she received a heavy penalty for the backflip, but amazingly, her score for program components was the highest in the competition. That still didn't stop Yume from dropping down to fifth place, though, with one more skater left to go -- meaning that unless Sugi Tanizaki's free skate was a total disaster, she would end up in sixth place.
"I can't believe this, Naegino," Coach Hasegawa sighed as they headed backstage. "Do you realize with a program components score that high, you might have still medaled even after the mistakes on the first two jumps had you not attempted the axel and stuck with the program?"
"But I never would have been able to skate like that had I not stopped worrying about what the judges would think," Yume explained. "It was knowing that I had lost the berth that allowed me to skate so well during the second half of the program."
"Well, we'll just have to work on making that a permanent aspect of your skating when we start putting together your programs for next season. I suppose one good thing about all of this is that we'll have extra time to prepare since your competitive season is over for the year. Tanizaki and Nogawa are bound to turn pro after the end of the season, so next year can be ours. By the time the 2026 Olympics come along, you'll be unbeatable."
Yume shook her head. Now was not the time.
The next few days following All-Japan, Yume did not show up for practice at the rink, telling Coach Hasegawa that she wanted to take some time off after the stress of All-Japan. The coach had not been happy about that, wanting them to start planning Yume's programs for next year right away, but she reluctantly agreed to the mini-vacation with the promise that Yume would at least listen to some CDs she had given her and start thinking about what music she wanted to use for the new programs.
Yume kept the first part of the deal. She dutifully listened to the CDs -- a mix of classical, ballet, and soundtrack music -- but it was only for entertainment purposes, not to select music for next year's programs.
She still hadn't told anybody of the decision she had made following her free skate at the All-Japan, not even her parents. She wanted to be certain she had made the right choice before making her announcement, but the more she thought about, the more she felt it was the best thing for her.
Not to say there weren't some things she would miss about competitive skating. Looking up at the collection of various trophies and medals she had won over the years, Yume sighed. She had one day hoped to add an Olympic medal to that collection, but if she decided to turn professional, that dream would never come true.
Yet, Yume did not want to continue competing for another four years just to have another shot at her Olympic dream. By that time, she would be twenty-two years old, and while that didn't seem very old to a normal person, it was practically middle-aged to a competitive figure skater. There were bound to be other Miyako Kazamas coming up the ranks with their triple axels and quads, and Yume just did not feel up to competing with them when all she really wanted to do was to perform and have fun on the ice.
"It's time," Yume finally decided, sitting back up on her bed. "I need to tell them."
Determined, Yume headed downstairs where she found her parents in the living room, engaged in their usual evening activities. Her father was watching the news, while her mother was busy figuring out the Sudoku puzzle from that morning's paper. They both looked up when Yume entered the room.
"Yume, dear, what are you still doing up?" her mother asked. Since Yume usually had practice at the rink from six to seven-thirty in the morning before school started, she rarely stayed up past nine o'clock, not even on weekends when she could afford to sleep in a little later. "I know you're on a break from skating, but you don't want to mess up your sleeping schedule too much. It'll be tough to get back into rhythm when you resume practicing."
"I know," Yume said, taking a seat beside her mother on the couch, "but there's something I want to talk to you and otou-san about. It's about my skating, actually. It's kind of important."
At that announcement, her father clicked off the TV and her mother set aside her puzzle, the both of them giving Yume their undivided attention.
"What is it, Yume?" her father asked.
"I-I've made a decision," Yume began, nervous even though she knew her parents would support her no matter what, as they always did. "I want to quit competitive skating and turn professional."
As she expected, her parents were thrown by the sudden announcement. "Why?" her mother asked. "Is it because you didn't make the Olympic team this year? Oh, honey, I know you were disappointed, but you can always try again in 2026."
"It's not because of that. At least not entirely." Folding her hands in her lap, Yume tried to think of the best way to describe her reason for wanting to turn professional. "Yes, of course I wish I could have gone to the Olympics. I've dreamed of winning an Olympic medal ever since I was six years old."
"Then why do you want to give up your eligibility, Yume?" her father inquired. "Like your mother said, you could still make the next Olympic team."
"I'm tired of competing, otou-san. After I fell on my triple axel attempt at All-Japan, I realized something: I love performing much more than I do the competitions. I don't need medals and trophies; all I need is the applause of the audience. That is the only reward I really want, to know that I've made the audience, not just the judges, happy with my skating."
"I suppose we can understand that," Yume's mother admitted, glancing over at her husband. "After all, Sora had a similar experience while competing at that circus festival in Paris. For a while, it even seemed as if she would give up Kaleido Stage all together, remember, Chikara?"
Yume's father nodded. "Yes, very much so, but she eventually returned to America and rejoined Kaleido Stage."
"Onee-chan never entered another festival after that, though," Yume reminded him, knowing where he was leading, "and I know I don't want to compete any more, either. I just want to skate."
"If that's what you want to do, Yume, that's your decision," her mother said. "Your father and I just want to make sure this is something you really want to do before it's too late."
"It is," Yume assured her. "Since I only have a few more weeks left before graduating high school, for now, I'll concentrate on my studies. Then, once that's over, I'll start thinking about joining a tour or an ice show."
"You really have been giving this a lot of thought, haven't you?" her father commented. "Well, we'll support you whatever you do."
Smiling, Yume gave her mother a hug, then walked over to the armchair to give her father one as well. "Thank you for understanding, otou-san," she said.
"We just want you to be happy."
DISCLAIMER: Kaleido Star doesn't belong to me.