TOKYO (Reuters) - Shoma Uno first stepped on the ice at five, but it was the rough-and-tumble of hockey he had his eyes on - until a chance meeting with a Japanese figure skater changed everything.
The skater was Mao Asada, now a Japanese household name and two-time Olympian who retired earlier this year. She told Uno he was cute, and asked if he’d ever thought of figure skating.
Now Uno, at 20, is known as a phenomenal jumper who in 2016 became the first to successfully land a quadruple flip in competition and is hard on the heels of compatriot and Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu for a rising number of podium finishes.
“There he was, learning hockey, and Mao was on the ice nearby. She suggested he try figure skating,” Uno’s grandfather Fujio told weekly magazine Shukan Shincho in April 2017.
“If he hadn’t been living that close to a rink, he might never have gone or gotten that invitation.”
Some 13 years after that meeting, Uno was world junior champion. In April 2017, he won silver at the world senior championships, finishing just points behind Hanyu.
“I haven’t really felt I’ve met that many obstacles up to now,” Uno said after taking silver at the Grand Prix Final last year, after Hanyu withdrew with an injury.
”If at first I‘m nervous and think something is a big barrier, then I just do the same thing every day and what I’d thought was an obstacle, a wall, just becomes normal.
“So far I’ve been able to come along doing what I like, what I can only do at this age.”
His narrow loss to Hanyu at the world championships made him start to believe that he might actually be beatable.
“The general image is that Hanyu is first, and then there are a lot of skaters right after him,” Uno told the Nikkan Sports daily in October.
“I want to become good enough to line up there with him.”
Known in some circles as the “Pocket Rocket” for his diminutive height - he stands only 1.59 metres tall, compared to Hanyu’s 1.72m - and his jumping ability, Uno is charging into his first Olympic season.
Ahead of the Grand Prix series, he told a news conference his motto for the year is “attack” - and apart from the Grand Prix silver, he also set a personal best in September’s Lombardia Trophy.
Uno, however, has tried to downplay the significance of his form this season heading into next month’s Winter Olympics in Pyeonchang.
“If you ask me how I feel about the season so far, I’d say I‘m unhappy with more competitions than I am happy,” he said at the Grand Prix Final.
“As for my goals for the season, not making mistakes isn’t everything. I want to grow, I want to make this a growing year, so I‘m always challenging myself.”
While Uno has his own fans, he remains somewhat stuck in the shadow of Hanyu, whose presence is so ubiquitous in Japan that his face adorns advertisements ranging from chocolate to mattresses.
Uno has said at the moment prefers to remain in Hanyu’s shadow because he it reduces his stress, but he still has that burning desire to beat everyone, including his compatriot.
“I don’t really like the word ‘rival,'” Uno told Nikkan Sports in August 2017, referring to Hanyu.
“But I do want to beat him.”
Editing by Greg Stutchbury