GANGNEUNG, South Korea – Mirai Nagasu said she “knew in my heart that this day would come.”
Nagasu became the first American woman to land a triple axel in Olympic competition, helping Team USA win its second straight bronze medal in the Olympic figure skating team event Monday.
“This is definitely history, or herstory, whatever way you want to put it,” said Nagasu, whose triple axel was the best she’s ever done.
And it was truly a team effort at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
Alexa Scimeca-Knierim, who had competed in the pairs portion of the event a day earlier with her husband Chris, was in the Team USA cheering section in the country’s box rinkside with her teammates.
As Nagasu skated, she could hear Scimeca-Knierim’s voice.
“Before my last jump, she said to me, ‘You did it, girl!’” said Nagasu. “And I was like, ‘I still have one more jump.’ It was a nice little giggle at the end because the long program is a test of our muscle ability and stamina and so for her to make me laugh like that, it made me relax a little bit. So to nail that last jump was everything.”
Nagasu scored a personal best of 137.43 points to finish second in the women’s free skate, earning nine points.
“I felt a lot of pressure,” Nagasu said, “because it’s a responsibility and a job and I owe it to my teammates as well.”
Canada won the team event with 73 points, followed by the Olympic Athletes from Russia team with 66 and Team USA with 62. In 2014, when the event made its debut, Russia was first and Canada second.
In the free dance Monday, Maia and Alex Shibutani were also second with nine points while Adam Rippon, who was thrilled with a clean program, was third in the men’s free skate for eight points.
The Shib Sibs and the Knierims also skated the short program, along with Nathan Chen and Bradie Tennell.
That meant eight skaters will return home with some hardware no matter how their individual competitions go.
The Knierims become the first husband and wife to win an Olympic medal together for Team USA since Karen Lende O’Connor and David O’Connor won equestrian bronze in 2000.
And 28-year-old Rippon has something else that can never be taken away from him.
“This is a moment I’ve been waiting for my entire life,” he said. “Now I’m actually an Olympian. They have footage. They can pull it up. So let the record show, Adam Rippon is an Olympian.”
A Long Road To PyeongChang
The Olympic bronze medals were long-awaited and well-deserved.
Nagasu, 24, just missed a medal at the 2010 Games, finishing fourth in the women’s event at age 16, while Rippon, 28, has competed on the senior level since 2009, missing the 2010 Olympic team.
Neither made the 2014 Olympic team. Nagasu placed third at the U.S. championships that year, but was left off the team in favor of Ashley Wagner, who had been more consistent that season. Rippon was shattered to finish eighth at the U.S. championships.
The Knierims are first-time Olympians while the Shibutanis competed at the 2014 Games, but did not appear in the team event since Meryl Davis and Charlie White skated both segments en route to their Olympic gold medal.
Rippon had tears in his eyes watching Nagasu skate.
“I just remember four years ago Mirai and I were in a dark place,” he said. “We were so upset and sad and, honestly, we were like depressed that we weren’t at (the Olympic Games).
“It was bad,” he said, turning to Nagasu. “It wasn’t good. I told her as we were going through that, I said, ‘Mirai, I’m so lucky to have you by my side. We’re going to get through this together.’ And I kept telling her. I say it every five minutes. We room together at the village.
Added Nagasu, “He says, ‘Can you believe this is happening? We’re here at the Olympics together.’ And I go, ‘OK, let’s go get ready to compete now.’
Rippon scored a season-best 177.41 points as the final free skates capped the three-day event at Gangneung Ice Arena.
Rippon, the first openly gay American figure skater to compete at the Games, was trending No. 1 worldwide on Twitter.
“It’s about getting out there and sharing your story and its given my skating a greater purpose,” he said. “I feel like I have a great story – I’ve changed it from good to great. I want people to get to know me and I feel like I’ve really done a good job of doing that. But today, it’s about this really awesome group of people and I’m so glad that I can be a part of it. These are some pretty sweet, awesome human beings.”
But he knows that he also is a vocal advocate for the LGBT community. “I go out there and it’s not just I was a young gay kid. I think that everybody can relate to being different or feeling like they’re not good enough or they’ll never make it because they’re from a small town or maybe they just don’t feel like they’re good enough.
“Well, I had those doubts, too. I say that you know what? I can go out there and I want to show those young kids that anything is possible. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what other people say about you, you can put that all behind you and you can go out there and you can show the world what you have to offer.”
Withstanding The Pressure
Rippon had a new costume, newly-bleached white teeth that matched the costume and the ice, and in the last few seconds of his program, he knew that he was having the Olympic skate he’d always envisioned.
“I was saying, ‘Baby, you better keep it together,’” he said. “And I was going into my last spin and I remember looked at one of the judges, I pushed forward and I said, ‘You were never known for your jumps, so you better spin the hell out of this last spin.’”
And he did. Going into the final day of competition, Team USA was only one point ahead of Italy.
“There’s a lot of pressure and I was like, ‘No, I’ll be fine,’” Rippon said.
But he wasn’t. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so nervous at 10 a.m. in my entire life,” he said.
Backstage, he told himself, “You’re going to miss every element in your program,” but then he reassured himself that he’s “done it a million times.”
He did play it safe by substituting a double axel for the quadruple lutz that usually opens his program, mostly because missing the jump can be disruptive.
On Twitter, people were upset that his score was low. “I can’t control the score,” he said, “but to the people that were distressed, I hope maybe you can be on a judging panel sometime.”
The women’s judging panel was impressed by Nagasu, saying that none of her jumps were under-rotated, including the all-important triple axel.
Only Japan’s Midori Ito and Mao Asada have also done the triple axel at the Olympic Games.
When Nagasu took the ice, she was so nervous hesitated to start as the clock ticked to 30 seconds. Scimeca-Knierim also came her to her rescue there.
“I train with Mirai and I see how hard she works,” Scimeca-Knierim said, “and I would want nothing more than for her to be on her game and to be absolutely perfect like she was, and today when the clock was almost hitting 30 seconds, I was like, ‘I’m not going to let her lose a point for that. So I was screaming, ‘Start!’”
“Thanks for keeping me from the deduction,” said Nagasu.
Or as Maia Shibutani said, “We had each other’s backs.
“I’m just so proud of this entire team,” she added. “It was so special for us. This is the first team event that Alex and I were a part of. To have this experience at the Olympic Games, to come away with a medal for our country and for each other, I think we’ll come into the individual event with so much more confidence.”