Mirai Nagasu skates in the figure skating team event at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on Feb. 12, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea.
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- Since Mirai Nagasu’s first Olympic Winter Games, she moved 1,000 miles away from her California home to train in Colorado. To help pay her figure skating expenses, Nagasu got a job, and it wasn’t just cleaning dishes for quarters at her parents’ sushi restaurant like she did as a child. Over the past few seasons, she has started to master the triple axel. And most of all, she’s waited.
Nagasu just missed the Olympic podium in 2010, finishing fourth at age 16. In 2014, she didn’t make the Olympic team, despite placing third at U.S. championships. Yet, she said it wouldn’t have been like her to simply abandon the quest for an Olympic medal, even if she would have to face a lengthy, four-year wait in between each attempt.
“I'm not a fade-away type of person,” Nagasu said. “I don't have that personality.”
Eight years since her Olympic debut in Vancouver, the 24-year-old has finally returned to this stage in PyeongChang. With a bronze medal from the team event already secured last week, Nagasu begins the women’s competition on Wednesday with the short program.
U.S. teammate Vincent Zhou called Nagasu’s clean free skate the highlight of the team event. In that performance, Nagasu became the first American woman to land a triple axel at an Olympic Winter Games.
“When she nailed the triple axel, I jumped up screaming,” said Bradie Tennell, who was part of the bronze-medal-winning team. “It was just incredible.”
Adam Rippon, Nagasu’s longtime friend and Olympic Village suitemate, also erupted with joy in the U.S. box where skaters watch their teammates perform in this unique event that debuted in 2014. The jump meant Team USA stood one step closer to earning a coveted spot on the podium, but Rippon cheered because he understood. He had become a main character in Nagasu’s story, one of shared heartbreak, persistence and now Olympic-sized fulfillment.
Rippon met Nagasu at U.S. championships 11 years ago, but the two became close when he moved to Los Angeles six years ago to train. Needing a place to stay, Rippon turned to his coach, Rafael Arutyunyan, and lived in his basement. On most weekends, Rippon said he would stay in Nagasu's guest bedroom since she lived nearby.
At U.S. championships in 2014, Nagasu and Rippon found themselves in similar spots. Nagasu finished third, while Rippon ended the competition in eighth. Neither made the team for the Sochi Games.
During those Games, they spent a night sitting on the roof of Nagasu’s California home, where Rippon said they ate burgers from In-N-Out and “animal style” fries, which come with cheese, grilled onions and a Thousand Island-like sauce. Rippon told Nagasu how he was thankful for their friendship and how, together, they would get through the disappointment.
“It's a little bit embarrassing that we're athletes and we're just crying on a rooftop,” Nagasu said. “But we needed that moment, and we needed to look out into the horizon and say, 'There's so much more to life than just skating and the Olympics. Let's just dig into these burgers because they can provide minute satisfaction.'”
The 2018 Games have so far proved to be worth the wait for both athletes. Rippon had three solid skates, first a free skate in the team event and then two quality programs in the men’s competition. Even without the technical difficulty of other skaters, his clean and artistic performances handed him a 10th-place finish. Nagasu nailed her free skate during the team event and still has two more programs on the way.
Together, they stood on the podium for the team event as they received their first Olympic medals. Rippon joked that, “If you're ever depressed, go to In-N-Out and four years later, you can be at the Olympics.”
Landing her triple axel cemented Nagasu’s name into U.S. figure skating history since no other American woman has done so on the Olympic stage. With that milestone has come a flood of support, especially through social media, Nagasu said.
“She will inspire so many younger skaters that the impossible is possible,” U.S. Olympic teammate and 2017 national champion Karen Chen said in a pre-competition press conference. “I think that I see a future [where] all of us could potentially have a triple axel as long as we have the grit like Mirai.”
“I’m available for lessons,” Nagasu chimed in.
Nagasu has been on the international figure skating scene for a while; this is her 11th year skating as a senior. She’s outgoing and comfortable in a room full of reporters stretching their recorders toward her face.
Nagasu mentioned how she reached out to U.S. men’s ice hockey player Jim Slater with a good-luck pun: “Make sure you Slay-ter tonight.”
She later referenced a line from the 2004 movie “A Cinderella Story” to explain the chances of a U.S. woman landing on the podium in the individual competition: “If you just believe, anything is possible.”
She’s experienced and at ease, while her two teammates, Chen and Tennell, are younger and at their first Games. Answering questions in front of a crowd is much more intimidating than skating for thousands, Tennell said.
“Just kind of watching how [Nagasu] interacts with people and the way she handles herself,” Tennell said, “I must confess to trying to be a little bit like her.”
Toward the end of the press conference, Nagasu interrupted the question-and-answer flow and started to speak into her microphone. She had sincere questions directed toward the media, ones she wouldn’t have needed to ask had this taken place two weeks earlier.
Nagasu asked: What do Olympians do with their medals? How do they keep the ribbon from fraying? And is it possible to get replacement ribbons?
If reporters found answers, Nagasu instructed them to tag her on social media. After all, she’ll need to know when she brings her medal and possibly even another one home from PyeongChang.
“I really wanted that medal in Vancouver,” Nagasu said. “I stuck around for a really long time, and I feel like I really deserved a medal, so I kept at it and kept at it.”
Her wait — for a medal and for another Games — is finally over.
Emily Giambalvo is a student in the sports media program at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. She is part of TeamUSA.org’s coverage team for the PyeongChang Games.
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