The first time Mirai Nagasu landed the triple axel in competition, a feat 10 years in the making, she didn’t even crack a smile.
“’OK, Mirai, not the time,’” Nagasu told herself at the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in September. “’Regroup.’ That music doesn’t stop, or else I would do a mini dance if I could.”
Now Nagasu’s hopes and dreams revolve around the 3½-revolution jump, which she believes “will give me a little bit of a power boost” onto her second Olympic team.
That would be the time to celebrate.
None of the other favorites at the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose, California – the final event to determine the U.S. Olympic team – have such a potentially high-scoring jump or a move that’s attracted so much attention.
“You should make a big deal out of it,” Nagasu said, “because I’m one of three (women) to land it in the U.S. and I’m really proud of that fact. I think it’s something that I can really use to my advantage and I hope to be rewarded for it.”
If the 24-year-old Californian makes Team USA, that would be a 180-degree turn from her bitter disappointment four years ago.
Although Nagasu placed third at the 2014 U.S. championships and was fourth at the Olympic Winter Games Vancouver 2010, she was passed over for the Sochi team. A selection committee chose U.S. champion Gracie Gold, runner-up Polina Edmunds (who had never competed in an international senior event) and fourth-place finisher Ashley Wagner based on results from a year’s worth of competitions.
“Of course, it was heartbreaking,” Nagasu said. “But that is just how life rolls. Sometimes I get speeding tickets that I’m like, ‘I don’t think I deserve this,’ but you just have to show up in court and pay the ticket, and skating is the same way. You might not always agree with the decisions you’re thrown, but it’s how you react to them and how you become stronger from them and how you learn as a person.”
Nagasu, who for the record has only been stopped for speeding twice and talked her way out of one ticket, said she views this Olympic season as “a job interview.”
“This time I’m making myself a resume that they can’t say ‘no’ to,” she said.
Starting with the 2017 U.S. championships, where Nagasu was fourth, she has posted mostly solid results, including the bronze medal at the 2017 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships. This season, Nagasu took silver at the U.S. International Classic with triple axels in her short program and free skate (she got full base credit even though both were two-footed) and was fourth at NHK Trophy in Japan in November.
She said she has made improvements since then.
“I think our programs are living, breathing things,” Nagasu said. “I’m a human being – I make mistakes all the time – and when I make those mistakes I’m prepared to make up for it in other places, so I think it will be better than what you last saw in Japan.”
Wagner, who has skated with Nagasu since they were juniors – both then making their senior debuts in the 2007-08 season, praised her rival as “an American woman who is pushing the boundaries and doing a triple axel. And as a competitor and as someone who has been with Mirai literally from the start of our careers, I think it’s so incredible what she’s able to accomplish out there on the ice.”
And Wagner said, “She is such a fighter.”
No one can deny that Nagasu was spurred by the decision to leave her off the 2014 Olympic squad.
“That motivated me even more,” she said, “because I was so unhappy and so unsatisfied that one decision could make me feel so sad and depressed.”
She thought about quitting the sport that has been part of her life since she was 5 years old.
“I kind of wanted to wash my hands of figure skating,” Nagasu said, “but I also thought about how I would be quitting because of a decision that wasn’t even in my hands. I did not like that it wasn’t going to be ‘I’ve done the best that I can and it’s time to move on.’”
While she didn’t agree with the decision to leave her home, Nagasu respects the right of U.S. Figure Skating to put the skaters it feels are best-suited to compete on the Olympic team, “and so I stand by my federation and I’m proud of to be a part of Team USA,” Nagasu said.
Since she burst onto the senior scene to claim her only U.S. title in 2008 at age 14, Nagasu has been in the public eye.
“I’ve had ups and downs where sometimes I’m jumping with glee to times where I’m literally sobbing on TV,” she said. “And I think that’s what makes me so lovable is that I’m not afraid to show everyone who I am.”
She has placed in the top 10 at nationals every year since – another point of pride – and is trying to become the first women’s champion to win titles 10 years apart since Theresa Weld Blanchard in 1924.
However, she said, “I don’t necessarily feel like I have to win. I think as long as I put two strong performances out there that I’m going to be on the team.”
Well, placement does matter. Nagasu wants to be in the top two so she has a strong chance to be a part of the team event in which the United States won the bronze medal in 2014.
“Team spirit is something that is a little bit foreign to me,” she said, “because I’m a singles skater and out there by myself. To put my two cents in and to try to get a medal, that’s something I would do really well with.”
And her triple axel could score well for Team USA.
“I have always worked on this jump since I was 13 years old because I have always wanted to push the boundaries,” said Nagasu, who didn’t work on it consistently because of injuries. “I like to think of myself as a princess, but also whenever I step onto that competitive field, I feel like I’m a warrior princess. And so I like being spoiled and I like pretty things, but also I’m a fighter. I’m not afraid to take a hard fall.”
She’s taken plenty of hard falls on the triple axel. Out of the six jumps possible, the axel is the only one that steps from a forward takeoff.
Working with coach Tom Zakrajsek in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Nagasu trained in a harness with a motor helping her rotate.
“This year I was able to really get a feel for it and so when I started to land it,” she said, “it was a very satisfactory feeling. I could always visualize myself doing the jump, it was just getting my muscles to react as they needed to.”
The only other U.S. women to land the jump in competition are Tonya Harding (1991) and Kimmie Meissner (2005). Tiffany Chin landed it in practice.
“Tonya Harding’s triple axel is just like brute force, like whoa!” Nagasu said. “If you watch her landing, I think most of the time she’s surprised she lands them, because it’s so powerful, and then Kimmie’s is a little more cautious. I think I’m a good medium in between that. I would actually say that my triple axel is more relatable to Tiffany Chin’s triple axel. It’s on YouTube and it’s absolutely gorgeous.”
But while Harding and Meissner backed off on practicing the triple axel too much because it’s such a punishing jump, Nagasu can’t get enough of them.
“The more reps that I can do, the better I feel and the more confidence I gain from it,” she said. “Every time I do a jump, I learn something new. I’ve been told by my coach that I need to become comfortable with toning down the reps, but I would say I do at least 10 per day – but way more actually.”
Nagasu said in the summer she was 70-percent successful on the triple axel, going up to 80 percent in the fall.
And now? “I think it’s as good if not better than some of my other jumps,” she said. “I’ve been really working on the technique and the timing and I think the preparation going into the jump is equally as important as the jump itself, so I will continue to do many, many reps before the U.S. championships.
“No jump has a ‘guaranteed’ label on it. That is the excitement of competition, so going for that jump in competition I will only have faith that I will nail it.”
She has the triple axel in both programs at nationals.
Nagasu’s short program music is the same as last year: Chopin’s Nocturne in C-Sharp Minor.
“It was a big hit last year and it showcased a side of me that I don’t think people have seen before,” she said. “It’s very hauntingly beautiful and I love the way it makes me feel. And I love when I’m on the ice and people are silent because just that’s the effect the music has. Obviously, it must be good because the current world champion (Russia’s Evgenia Medvedeva) is also skating to it.”
Nagasu’s free skate music is from “Miss Saigon.” “It’s a beautiful tragedy,” Nagasu said. “I get goosebumps and I tear up a little bit. People make sacrifices all the time.”
Nagasu gave up her comfort zone and living close to her family in April 2014 when she moved to Colorado.
“Honestly I think it was the best thing I could have done,” Nagasu said. “When I made that decision, it was like, ‘Mirai, you’re willing to take that extra step and to move away from family to pursue your own dreams.’ To become independent of my family has been super good for me, because I know I want it for myself, and it’s not just my parents pushing me anymore. This is something that I want and I have to motivate myself. And also it’s probably best for me that I’m not at home because my parents are amazing cooks.”
They own a restaurant and, said Nagasu, “Their sushi is divine.”
She enrolled at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, where she is a junior majoring in international business, and longs to someday work for the United States Olympic Committee.
“I would still be a part of the Olympic movement,” she said, “but kind of more behind the scenes.”
Even college had to take a backseat this year to her Olympic push.
“In the last semester, I was sleeping only four hours a day, and it was really difficult to balance school and skating,” she said. “I feel so much better when I sleep at least nine hours a day and I read online that LeBron James sleeps 12 hours a day.
“I know that skating is something I have limited time in and I want to enjoy to the fullest.”
Going into nationals, Nagasu has a different mindset than she had 2014.
“I think the problem with the last cycle was that I was really afraid,” she said. “I went into the Olympic season and I was very timid and I made a lot of mistakes and I was afraid of making mistakes. And now I’m in a much better place.
“I used to think that I wasn’t good enough. Every time I competed, I was like, ‘Oh, everyone is better than me.’ Now I don’t feel that way. I feel like I’m capable and I have what it takes to be on the team and I want to face that challenge head-on.”
She said she would be more upset with herself if her fear of failure outweighed her desire to go for everything.
“I want to have a program that will melt everyone’s hearts,” she said. “And I have the tools to complete that.”