Testing her Japanese language skills and spending more time on her phone fielding and making calls than she can remember, Olympic figure skater Mirai Nagasu feels like it’s the least she can do for the community that she says rallied around her throughout her skating career.
“Every athlete has a unique story, but I think Olympians are who we are because there is such a strong foundation of people that lift us up,” Nagasu, 27, told TeamUSA.org. “I know that’s true in my life (and) we all want to help right now. To try and impact in my own community, it feels like I’m giving back. I was always focused on myself in training. To be able to focus on the community, now that I have the time, why wouldn’t I?”
Those calls – many in Japanese – are all because of Nagasu’s partnership with food industry nonprofit Power of 10, which is working with seven restaurants nationwide to help COVID-19 frontline workers receive free meals.
Nagasu’s parents’ restaurant, Sushi Kiyosuzu in Arcadia, California, is one of those restaurants working with Power of 10, which to date has raised over $200,000 in donation and grant money, serving some 15,000 meals in Southern California and the Washington, D.C., area.
“We’ve been able to help my parents serve the community by making these meals for health care workers there and I think it really means a lot,” Nagasu said. “We want to involve other restaurants in the area, that’s the next goal.”
Power of 10 was started just over a month ago by D.C.-area restaurant owner Erik Bruner-Yang, who said he wanted to help restaurant owners hire back as much of their staffs as possible to make high-quality meals at $10 a piece.
The Nagasus pose for a photo at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 in February 2018.
“We wanted to show that community-based trickle-up economics could always move faster than state and federal money,” Bruner-Yang said in an interview. “We’ve done that. We’ve launched in LA with Mirai and her parents, committing to a month (of money for meals) there.”
Nagasu’s story is just one of countless across the Olympic and Paralympic community which has seen athletes stepping up in a time of need during the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the weekend, the global figure skating family came together to raise nearly $40,000 for the United Nations Foundation’s response fund, in a livestream show called “Open Ice Live,” and included the likes of Michelle Kwan, Adam Rippon, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, as well as over 60 other global skaters and members of the skating community.
On April 17, another skating livestream show, called “Blades for the Brave,” raised money for the nonprofit Americares’ COVID-19 response, too.
“I think it’s nice to see how the entire skating community has come together. So many skaters are putting in their time,” said Nagasu, who competed at both the 2010 and 2018 Olympic Winter Games, earning bronze in the team event at the latter. “The Olympic team is supported by the people of this country. I’m full of appreciation for the support I’ve received. It’s nice to be able to use my platform in a different way.”
Nagasu’s platform is something Bruner-Yang said he certainly appreciates, noting an influx of donations with her involvement in the past two weeks. But the restaurateur said he most appreciates her family’s immigrant story and the hard work it has instilled in her, much like his own path.
“My mom loves figure skating…. We’ve had a lot of nights watching Olympic figure skating growing up,” Bruner-Yang said. “There aren’t a lot of prominent Asian-American athletes out there. Mirai’s story is amazing. All of the times she’s had to start over, then to have the success she has had, and how she’s carried it all with grace. It’s classic Asian-American storytelling.”
Nagasu has seen the value in what Bruner-Yang is trying to do, too: “We’re all in a financial pinch (right now), but if you donate one meal for $10 or 100 meals, every little bit counts. I’m trying to get as much awareness for this as possible.”
Said Bruner-Yang: “Power of 10 is about keeping dollars in your community. We’re supporting the restaurant owners, who are supporting their staff, who are providing meals for those that need them and then spending in their own community. Those dollars grow exponentially.”
While Nagasu acknowledged she is working in tandem to help her parents’ business, her goal – and attitude – were of a giving nature. She spoke of the jobs they were helping save and – she hopes – would be able to do so for other SoCal-area restaurants.
Nagasu said her parents, Ikuko and Kiyoto, were at first weary of joining forces with Power of 10, having had to let most of their staff go and cutting down to accepting only take-out orders. But thanks to convincing from their daughter, they agreed to make upwards of 500 meals a week in addition to their carryout efforts, able to hire a portion of their staff back to produce the meals.
A young Mirai Nagasu (L) poses for a photo with her father, Kiyoto, at Sushi Kiyoto in Arcadia, Calif.
“To be able to provide (meals) for the Asian Youth Center, the Foothill Unity Center and the Methodist Hospital – all of these areas that I literally grew up in – I feel like my community really rose up and supported me during the Olympics, so to be able to give back in a way like this and help my parents as well, it’s great.”
Mirai took on the role of chief operations manager, placing aforementioned calls (many in her halting Japanese) with suppliers to explain their need for goods and services again.
“It’s been a big change for my parents. I’m really proud of them. We’ve been working hand-in-hand,” said Nagasu, who now lives in Boston and is in her senior year of college – taking courses now online. “This is a way for my parents and I to communicate and connect even more. To have something bigger, that’s been really special. I feel selfish in a way, but I love helping them.”
Nagasu continued: “It’s a difficult time to maneuver through. People need jobs… everyone has bills. It’s a difficult situation for my parents; how do you strike a balance? My mom has everyone wearing masks and gloves. They’re not up to full (staff) capacity, but it’s better that way in terms of social distancing.”
Bruner-Yang would like to grow as much as possible, but for now the main goal is to be able to provide consistent money for each of the restaurants they’ve partnered with since launching on March 26.
“Right now, I’m responsible for at least seven businesses in this program. We have them covered (financially),” Bruner-Yang said. “There are restaurants like this – immigrant owned, not on GrubHub, not on Caviar – just great neighborhood food joints that are never going to be in Food & Wine… who’s helping them? If we can help one restaurant at a time, I think that’s amazing.”
And to have an Olympic bronze medalist helping in the cause? That’s pretty amazing, too.