Getting to the top, and then staying there, takes more than hard work. My Focus, presented by Milk Life, tells the stories of one area that 24 athletes are honing in on in their quest to stand atop the podium at the next Olympic or Paralympic Games.
2010 Olympian Mirai Nagasu would love to say that she was ecstatic when she became only the second American woman to land a triple axel in international competition at the U.S. Figure Skating International Classic back in September, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate.
“It’s at the beginning of my program and I have so much more to get through, so it was kind of just a thing where I was like, that’s one check mark then I have to go on right away,” Nagasu said.
Later, when her social media feeds started to fill with people congratulating her on accomplishing what only Tonya Harding had done before, the 24-year-old from Montebello, California began to appreciate the success that came from years of focusing on the jump in practice. Including Nagasu and Harding, only eight women in the world have ever successfully landed it in international competition. American Kimmie Meissner also landed the jump in domestic competition.
“I know future generations in this sport will make this jump a part of their regular routines, so it’s pretty cool to be the second U.S. woman internationally to land it and third domestically,” she said.
Despite its difficulty, Nagasu said the triple axel is a jump she really enjoys practicing, and she’s been doing so for about 10 years. This summer, she said, some of the aids available to skaters at the U.S. Olympic Training Center helped her to really get the feel for the jump.
“We have this spinner pole, it’s a motor in the ground that spins and we’re attached to a harness,” she said. “It mimics the force of the jumps without making you practice the jumps so you don’t have to take the hard falls. Working on that really helps your air position.”
Using that as well as spending time in a harness attached to a “fishing pole” held by her coach, Nagasu said, things started to click. She began landing the jump consistently over the summer and decided she had nothing to lose and much to gain by incorporating it into her programs.
“I consider myself catlike on the ice, which is a blessing and a curse because I’m able to stay on my feet on jumps that I really shouldn’t be able to land,” she said. “Unfortunately the system is not forgiving of cheated jumps, so you may as well take the fall, but because I’m good at staying on my feet I just love going for the triple axel. I knew if I really wanted to challenge myself, I was going to have to land it clean. With any jump, first you have to cheat it and as you get more comfortable with the timing it just naturally becomes cleaner. For it to come to fruition in an Olympic season has been a blessing. It’s worth taking the risk because the double axel is four points and the triple is eight, so even if it’s under-rotated or cheated it becomes the same point value as the double.”
As she aims for her second Olympics, Nagasu also has been focusing on nutrition and learning how to better fuel her body for long hours on the ice and finding off-ice workouts to complement her on-ice training. Although she’s hesitant to say it, Nagasu is thinner than she’s been the past few seasons, and strengthening both her left quad to balance the right/landing leg and her glute muscles has helped with jumping in general and the triple axel specifically.
This season, Nagasu kept her short program music from last year, skating to "Nocturne in C Sharp Minor" by Frederic Chopin, but changed her long program from “The Winner Takes it All,” performed by Sarah Dawn Finer, to music from the musical “Miss Saigon.” Because it’s an Olympic year, she said, she wanted something more classic that would play to her background in ballet.
She hadn’t seen “Miss Saigon” when choreographer Jeffrey Buttle recommended it, but Nagasu has always been a fan of Broadway and loved the song “Sun and Moon” from the musical. Earlier this season, she said, she took a trip to see the play in New York City and fell in love with the performance and the story of Kim, the lead character, who sacrifices herself for her son.
Heading into nationals this week, Nagasu said she feels good and knows that despite the nerves that come with any big competition, much less one with Olympic implications, she’s been working hard and is ready to go. Nagasu first went to the Olympic Winter Games in 2010 at 16 years old, finishing fourth, but did not make the team in 2014. Last season she finished fourth at the national championships and won bronze at the Four Continents Championships, and this season won silver at the U.S. International Classic, was ninth at Rostelecom Cup and fourth at NHK Trophy.
“I just want to believe in myself, and, I know it’s the cheesiest thing to say, but believe in that 5-year-old girl who started this dream,” she said. “I know I’m mentally strong. I went to the Olympics when I was 16 and ended up in fourth place, beating all these people who were beating me consistently. I know it’s within me. I just have to pull it out at the right moment.”