Mirai Nagasu has soared and stumbled through many peaks and valleys in her career, but one thing is certain: you can never count her out.
The engaging skater with the disarming sense of humor has been a fan favorite since 2007, when she won a surprise U.S. junior figure skating title. Since then, the 23-year-old has shown brilliance and inconsistency in almost equal measure. Achievements like the 2008 U.S. title, a fourth-place finish at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games and, more recently, a silver medal at the 2016 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, were countered by disappointing finishes at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, including a 10th place in 2015.
The start of the 2016-17 season was no different. Nagasu won the Autumn Classic International in Montreal in early October, performing a career-best short program including her most difficult element, a triple flip-triple toe loop combination of jumps.
Weeks later, she arrived at Skate Canada in Mississauga, Ontario, fit and ready, only to falter on jumps in both her short program and free skate and end up ninth.
“I put maybe too much emphasis on the importance of this competition and so I almost over-trained for it, and when things didn’t go accordingly, I panicked a little bit,” Nagasu said in Mississauga. “I was really excited about coming here because I felt I was really trained, better than I ever have (been), so to skate like I haven’t been training was really disappointing.”
The Southern California native, who trains in Colorado Springs, Colorado, has another chance to soar at the final grand prix event of the season: the NHK Trophy this weekend in Sapporo, Japan. She will be tested against Japanese champion Satoko Miyahara and Russian world bronze medalist Anna Pogorilaya, among others, and she’s approaching the event with a different strategy.
“I was hitting at my goals so hard (before Skate Canada), I just let it slip past my fingers,” she said. “I think I’m going to take it easier on myself and not put too much emphasis on how important skating is for me. I think I should just enjoy myself a little more and, most importantly, relax out there because when I compete, I feel myself tense up.”
Nagasu’s life doesn’t just revolve around skating. A student at University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, she took four courses this fall — business law, statistics, calculus and financial accounting — toward her goal of earning a business degree. Her midterms were held the week before Skate Canada.
“I cry through it — just kidding,” she said. “For the most part it’s skate, come home and study, go to school, and then repeat. (Training partner) Max Aaron and I struggle through it. I’m taking a full course load, which I’m really proud of, but somehow Max is taking 16 units and I’m only taking 12, so I don’t know how he balances it all.”
Tom Zakrajsek, who coaches Nagasu and U.S. silver medalist Aaron, thinks academics and skating are a good mix.
“Maybe a test didn’t go so well, maybe you weren’t happy with your grade on an assignment, but you have to go to the rink to skate,” Zakrajsek said. “And then if skating doesn’t go well that day, you have to get in your car, drive to class and get totally get engrossed in school. It forces compartmentalization, which is necessary and a great skill for figure skaters.”
Nagasu didn’t take any classes this summer, freeing up time to perform in Japan with three-time world champion Mao Asada’s “The Ice” tour. In July, she traveled to Toronto to choreograph programs with Jeffrey Buttle, the 2008 world champion, and David Wilson, who also created programs for world champion Javier Fernandez and Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu.
“I like that my short (to Chopin’s “Nocturne No. 20”) has a set choreography to each musical note, and the music has a quiet beauty,” she said. “It’s more about subtle movements, and I really enjoy that instead of being so in-your-face.
“And the long (to the Abba classic “The Winner Takes It All,” covered by Sarah Dawn Finer), I really like how beautiful the music is and how I can relate to it. I try to focus on that, instead of just the stamina portion of it.”
Abba’s anthem has special meaning for Nagasu. After placing third at the 2014 U.S. championships, she thought she had earned a spot on the Sochi Olympic team. But U.S. Figure Skating bylaws specify only U.S. champions are guaranteed Olympic berths, and Nagasu was left off of the team in favor of three-time U.S. champion Ashley Wagner.
“I did enjoy representing the U.S. at the Vancouver Games, it’s an experience I won’t forget, and of course I wanted to represent the U.S. at Sochi, but it wasn’t in the cards,” Nagasu said. “I think another Olympic Games would be an amazing challenge I want to face.”
Zakrajsek, who has trained Nagasu since March 2014, doesn’t doubt she has the ability to get to PyeongChang in 2018.
“I have some criticisms periodically, but most of the time I’m going, ‘Way to go, great job’ throughout her training peaks,” he said. “I think a lot of people on the outside, including myself when I didn’t coach her, often thought, ‘Wow, this girl has great potential, I wonder why she’s not reaching it.’ Mirai knows she is very capable of doing more than she has done so far in her career.”
While Nagasu cannot qualify for the Grand Prix Final held next month in Marseilles, France, a strong performance at NHK Trophy would build confidence for the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Kansas City, Missouri, in January, where a top-three finish would likely secure her a spot on the U.S. world team. To do that, she must gain full credit for more of her triple jumps, which are too often deemed under rotated by technical panels.
“Tom and I have been working on hitting my jumps over and over again, repetition is a huge practice point for me to build my confidence,” Nagasu said. “It’s hard when you want something so badly, you just want it right away. It’s not like shopping when you have that satisfaction of wanting to buy something, and it’s instantaneously there. You have to work towards it so it’s much more gratifying, because it’s a work in progress.”
Someday, perhaps during the Olympic season, Nagasu and Zakrajsek hope to unveil a triple axel, a three-and-a-half revolution jump that is a staple of men’s programs but done by very few women.
“It’s a jump I work on every day because I like to challenge myself and axels are strong for me,” Nagasu said. “It’s definitely hard on my body, I take a lot of hard falls, but I enjoy working on it and I’ve landed a couple now, which I’m really proud of. I want to put it in my program when I’m confident in my ability to land it consistently.”
“She knows she can do it cleanly, as opposed to having landed it (under rotated) for a while,” Zakrajsek said. “When it’s ready, I know she will want to have it in her programs.”
Landing a triple axel in competition — and making a second Olympic team — would go a long way to achieving another goal: proving that a few disappointments, no matter how big, don’t have to mean the end of a figure skater’s career.
“I think it’s my will to prove to myself I can still get better,” Nagasu said. “I know I’ve been on the scene for a long, long time, but I was fortunate enough to make my debut as a really young skater. I would like to be a role model to all the younger skaters who think they fizzled out, that if you continue to work hard, you still have a lot to improve upon. That’s why I continue skating.”