4 Years After Heartbreak, Mirai Nagasu Is at Her Best and an Olympian Again

Tom Weir@@tomweirsportsFeatured ColumnistJanuary 6, 2018

Mirai Nagasu broke into tears of joy when her scores were announced.
Mirai Nagasu broke into tears of joy when her scores were announced.Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

SAN JOSE, Calif. — If ever an athlete were entitled to immerse herself in bitterness and carry a glacial-sized chip on her shoulder, it was figure skater Mirai Nagasu.

Four years ago, Nagasu had her Olympic quest crushed not by a competitive failure but rather a boardroom decision. At the U.S. national championships, the last hurdle for those hoping to reach the Sochi Winter Olympics, Nagasu's third-place finish seemingly cemented a spot on the American team.

But the U.S. Figure Skating's selection committee didn't see it that way. "Body of work" was the operative phrase, and the committee reckoned that Nagasu's performances that year didn't measure up. It didn't matter that Nagasu was a seasoned veteran who had thrived at the 2010 Olympics, placing fourth overall.

Instead, the final berth for the 2014 team went to Ashley Wagner, who had finished fourth at nationals. So Wagner headed to Russia, and Nagasu's Olympic experience was limited to what she saw on television.

Accordingly, no one could have blamed Nagasu if she had spewed some long-simmering venom at this year's nationals Friday night, when she locked up a trip to next month's Pyeongchang Olympics with a stirring free skate that earned a silver medal.

Nagasu still had to wait for the selection committee to issue its official decision—at 5 a.m. Saturday, no less—but there wasn't an iota of doubt that redemption was coming her way.

Instead of striking an I-told-you-so posture, Nagasu went down a different path. She took the selection committee off the hook and said yes, the decision in 2014 was the right one.

"Last Olympic cycle, I felt so disappointed in myself and I had so much regret," Nagasu said. "I did finish in third place, but I was a little bit careless over the season, and I didn't put out the body of work that I needed."

This time around, she was determined to deliver a performance that couldn't be overlooked.

"I put a lot of that responsibility on myself, and I didn't want to feel that same way this year," the 24-year-old Californian said. "I took on the full responsibility of becoming a stronger competitor and person, and I wasn't going to let a decision that wasn't mine keep me from my dreams."

Rather than dwell on her four years in Olympic purgatory, she boiled her situation down to an analogy any young person can embrace.

"I think it's like getting into a university," Nagasu said. "If you don't get in the first time, what are you going to do? Not apply again? No, you keep applying until you make it happen."

At the age of 24, Nagasu brings a maturity to her performances.
At the age of 24, Nagasu brings a maturity to her performances.Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

That acceptance of her fate made Nagasu's coach nearly as proud as the free skate that earned his pupil a standing ovation at the SAP Center in San Jose, California.

"I was getting a little choked up when she was talking, because we maybe spent all of five minutes talking about the decision from Sochi where she was left off the team in the four-plus years I've been coaching her," said Tom Zakrajsek, who coaches Nagasu at the Broadmoor Skating Club in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

That was because, "I wasn't interested in living the past with her; it was always about moving forward."

And now, when Nagasu did finally air her feelings, it was with a maturity that understandably isn't seen often in a sport that tends to be dominated by teenagers.

"That's a great story for me, because most people have a hardship in their life and they blame and they point fingers and they say I was screwed over, blah, blah blah," Zakrajsek said. "Mirai could have said that, right? And she could have been bitter. I've never heard her say that. And to hear that maturity in her; even in this moment she's just owning it."

The 2014 rejection had become Nagasu's skating identity, supplanting the fact she had won a national championship in 2008 at the age of 14 and was narrowly denied a medal at the 2010 Olympics.

Nagasu was joined on the awards podium by champion Bradie Tennell, bronze medalist Karen Chen and Olympic alternate Ashley Wagner.
Nagasu was joined on the awards podium by champion Bradie Tennell, bronze medalist Karen Chen and Olympic alternate Ashley Wagner.Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Now, however, she's becoming known as only the third American woman to complete her gender's most difficult jump, the triple axel. (Tonya Harding and Kimmie Meissner are the others.) Nagasu landed it in both her short program and her free skate, though both were less than perfect.

Still, the 3 ½-revolution triple axel is a potent weapon with big scoring potential that could push her into medal contention at Pyeongchang.

"She still hesitates a little bit. It's still a new jump for her," Zakrajsek said. "I'm really confident she's going to do it. She's going to do it like easy-peasy because she wants to. She won't stop."

Which is one more way Nagasu is setting an example for other figure skaters.

"She's a woman now, she's no longer a girl, and she learned a triple axel a year-and-a-half ago," Zakrajsek said. "She didn't learn it when she was 16 or 17. She learned it as a woman, when her mind and her body were strong enough.

"So those are great messages for young figure skaters not just in our country but all over the world … There are some very famous American skaters, they hit puberty, their bodies changed, and they didn't do the sport anymore."

The rigors that shorten the careers of female figure skaters were abundantly apparent at the nationals, where none of the 2014 U.S. Olympians qualified for a repeat trip.

Gracie Gold didn't compete because she's sorting out issues with depression and an eating disorder. Polina Edmunds, who fought injuries all season, withdrew from the free skate. And Wagner, who missed training time with an ankle infection, finished fourth.

The road wasn't smooth for the two other U.S. women named to the Olympic team, either.

Champion Bradie Tennell was largely unknown until the last two months, because she has battled injuries the last two years. Bronze medalist Karen Chen was hit by an illness Thursday that sent her to a doctor and an acupuncturist.

"I have always believed that I am an amazing skater regardless of what the results say, and I think that determination and confidence has kept me in the game so long," Nagasu said. "I'm aware that I'm the oldest here tonight, but I really feel like the comeback kid."

And she performed like one, too.


Tom Weir covered eight Winter Olympics as a columnist for USA Today.