It is amazing how fast an athlete can go from being overshadowed to casting a shadow.
Just over one year ago, Takahiko Kozuka skated in the Vancouver Games as the third member of Japan’s men team. Veterans Daisuke Takahashi and Nobunari Oda were mentioned early in the conversation about medal prospects, with Kozuka considered more of a hope for the future.
Takahashi earned the Japan’s first Olympic medal ever for men with his bronze in Canada, while Oda placed seventh.
Kozuka came in a respectable eighth, but behind names like gold medalist Evan Lysacek and silver medalist Evgeni Plushenko, was still pretty much off the radar.
But with the dawning of another Grand Prix season came new hopes, and Kozuka has capitalized to put himself front and center as a legitimate contender to take the world championship from Takahashi in Tokyo in March.
First came GP victories at the Cup of China and Trophee Bompard. Next up was the Grand Prix Final in Beijing, where Kozuka was favored but had to settle for third place behind Canada’s Patrick Chan and Oda.
Undaunted, the 21-year-old went out and earned his first major title as a senior with his win at the national championships in Nagano in December.
In an exclusive interview with Ice Time last month, Kozuka spoke analytically about his quest for that breakthrough achievement just days before accomplishing it.
“I don’t think it is necessary to care about winning the title too much,” he said. “When I perform well, I can get good scores and if I can get good scores, the title comes to me.
“When I’m not good enough and perform just 80 percent, I’ll be ranked fourth, fifth, sixth. Now I have some career achievements under my belt. When I show my best, the ranking will be first, second or third.
“Compared to last year, or two years ago, I feel I am closer to that title now. I don’t say I’m not aiming at the title, but I don’t think it is necessary to think of the title too much.
“Before this season, I was not good enough to think of winning the title. Now I don’t need to think of it. What I need to think is performing perfectly in short and free programs.”
Reflecting on the disappointment at the GP Final, Kozuka was straightforward in his assessment of what went wrong.
“I could have done better,” he noted. “After the France competition, I didn’t have enough time for conditioning before going to Beijing. I’m still figuring out how to retain my condition in such a short term. Mentally, I was ready, but my body condition was not because I was tired and didn’t have enough sleep due to the jet lag.
“Also I had a flu shot, and after that I felt a pain in my rib and couldn’t jump.”
The task only became tougher after he and Takahashi had a high-speed collision in practice before the event.
“I’ve never experienced the collision during practice or before the competition,” Kozuka stated. “I was shocked. Takahashi is a good friend of mine, and he said he was OK. I got myself bruised a bit, but I was OK, too.”
In our conversation, Kozuka, the 2006 world junior champion, came across as cerebral and mature beyond his years. When asked what he needed to do to improve going forward, the Nagoya native didn’t hold back.
“I’m still just concentrating on skating itself,” he said. “I need to make eye contact with judges more while skating. I think I can do this better than before this season, I still have to keep working on it.
“I also need to improve my performance between the poses. My individual elements are OK, but between the elements, for example, one turn and another turn, I need to keep my concentration and to be consistent during the whole performance. Continuity between elements is very important for me now.
“When you take a pose, you take care of the details such as the very top of the fingers, but between the two different poses you just skate. You have to focus on the details — your form, legs, fingers, eyes — even when you skate to get ready for the next element.”
This has been an interesting season in more ways than one for Kozuka. His Hall of Fame coach, Nobuo Sato, has taken on a new charge — two-time world champion Mao Asada — who trains alongside Kozuka now.
Instead of the move being a distraction, Kozuka has found inspiration in skating with Mao.
“Mao is the reigning world champion and the effort she displays in workouts illustrates why she deserves to be the champion,” he said. “Watching her motivates me to work hard. After practice we talk, but not special topics.”
With Sato being based at the Shin-Yokohama Skate Center, Kozuka and Mao alternate training between there and Nagoya.
“Nobuo-sensei sometimes comes to Nagoya and I’m used to moving a lot from my childhood,” Kozuka commented. “It’s only an hour and a half. Not a big issue. Mao’s joining has not affected my workout schedule at all.”
Kozuka not only has the skill to be a champion, but also the bloodline.
His father, Tsuguhiko, was a three-time Japan champion who skated in the 1968 Olympics (placing 18th) in Grenoble, France.
Kozuka’s mother, Sachiko, was an ice dancer.
Perhaps the most famous member of the Kozuka clan is his grandfather, Mitsuhiko, now 94, who never had the chance to skate in the Olympics, but is considered a prominent figure in the early skating history of the nation.
Television cameras descended on his home last February to chronicle the moment as he watched his grandson skate in Vancouver. It was quite a scene as the man who was born long before television was invented took it all in.
Kozuka admitted that comparisons to his father have bothered him in the past.
“I used to be told by Japan Skating Federation members, ‘You have to go to the Olympics like your father did.’ Every time I heard that, I felt like, ‘Who cares?’
“But later on, following in my father’s footsteps became one of my goals. And at some point my dad became a person to respect. But before that, I didn’t like to be told that stuff by people around me.
“After the Olympics became my goal, I felt like, ‘Hey, I know that. You don’t need to tell me that.’ “
Kozuka’s inspiration to skate came from seeing Yuka Sato (Nobuo’s daughter) win the 1994 world title in Chiba. They say it’s a small world — in skating it’s even smaller.
“When my dad went to that world championships, he played the role of the team captain,” he said. “He took me to the competition after taking me to Tokyo Disneyland. I remember I took photos with my dad and I saw him working at the championships.
“Then I met Nobuo-sensei, whom my dad had known for a long time, later. Nobuo-sensei and my dad talked and decided to put me in the training camp and that was my start. Before that, my parents had no desire to make me a skater.”
Life has really come full circle for Kozuka, who now corresponds with Yuka, who lives and coaches in the U.S.
“Yuka gives me a lot of advice through phone calls and e-mails,” he said.
In addition to Yuka, Kozuka also looked up to four-time world champion Kurt Browning (who has also choreographed for him) while growing up.
“I studied tapes of both of them,” he recalled. “I also have tapes of my father and Nobuo-sensei when they competed.”
Though the 2014 Sochi Olympics are still three years away, Kozuka was asked to look ahead and give his thoughts.
“During the competition, you fight yourself, not other athletes,” he said. “When you practice, you have to care what the other skaters are doing, but in the competition, you concentrate on yourself. That is my mentality. I believe that leads me to the best performance in any kind of competition.
“This is also a promise that I made with my dad. He told me when I was a kid, to do my best whether it’s a small competition or a big one. I keep that in my mind. If I can do that, I can keep my poise even at the Olympics.
“To me, the competition is the stage where I show what I have been doing in practice.”