Mirai Nagasu and Team USA's Asian American Athletes Making Their Presence Felt

Joon Lee@iamjoonleeStaff WriterFebruary 22, 2018

GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 21:  Mirai Nagasu of the United States competes during the Ladies Single Skating Short Program on day twelve of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Gangneung Ice Arena on February 21, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Kiyoto and Ikuko Nagasu didn't find out their daughter made history until after the dinner rush.

No, they weren't engulfed in a meal, too busy to watch their daughter become the first American woman to land a triple axel at the Olympics. Rather, they had their hands full running their sushi restaurant in Arcadia, California. They had to work and make a living, Nagasu explained to reporters. When she was a child, the restaurant doubled as her bedroom—she slept on a bed in the storage closet—and she got paid in quarters to help out.

Nagasu's Japanese immigrant parents closed down the restaurant this week, though, to fly to South Korea to watch their only child compete in the Olympics. It's one of the many Asian American immigrant stories being told at the 2018 Olympic Games, where Team USA features 14 Asian American competitors. Seven of them are on the figure skating team: Nagasu, Nathan Chen, Karen Chen, Vincent Zhou, Alex Shibutani, Maia Shibutani and Madison Chock.

For a minority group that often doesn't have visibility in American pop culture (just 5.3 percent of speaking characters in 2014's 100 top-grossing movies were Asian, according to a study by the University of Southern California), the success of everyone from Chloe Kim to Nagasu has represented a rare opportunity to share their stories—stories that aren't often told in traditional American media.

Zhou, for instance, is is the youngest U.S. Olympian this year at 17, and his quadruple lutz in the men's short program was the first in history. He's also the son of Chinese immigrants who "arrived here from China in 1992 with nothing but the clothes on their backs” and passed down their intense will to him, as he told Yahoo Sports' Eric Adelson.

As Zhou said, "I'm not a typical American kid, because I'm a Chinese American kid."

Nagasu understands the importance of her making history and the number of Asian Americans who are representing the United States at these Games.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

"When I was growing up, to watch the movie industry where a lot of Caucasians were playing Asian characters and to go from that to having a lot of Asians on TV shows and to see us represented and to see us become athletes on Team USA, this is what America is about," Nagasu said. "I'm excited to see the evolution. It's a lot to handle here at the Olympics, but I'm having a good time and I'll take this experience and cherish it forever. I'm so happy to be taking home a medal for the Asian American community."

As often happens in that community, success creates loyal fandom and support from all corners. Everyone from Kristi Yamaguchi to actress Arden Cho to Eugene Yang of BuzzFeed has tweeted support to Nagasu and others over the course of these games. "Get it, Mirai," tweeted the Asian American blog Angry Asian Man. Nagasu has taken it all in.

"It's been an amazing journey to get recognized and to get tweeted at," Nagasu said. "I've waited a long time for this. I can't wait to get back home and see what opportunities lie ahead for me."

This isn't Nagasu's first round at the Olympics. Eight years ago, at 16 years old, she made her debut in Vancouver and finished in fourth place, looking toward Sochi as her next opportunity to make a podium. She famously was passed up for the United States team that year despite finishing third at nationals. She's 24 years old now, older than all but one of her competitors, and after finishing in ninth place during the women's short program, she isn't expected to medal.

Her triple axel, social media presence and friendship with breakout star Adam Rippon have garnered plenty of attention, though, and she's expressed her desire to appear on Dancing with the Stars.

But a lot of the discussion around Nagasu post-triple axel did not concern the skater's ability or anything she'd said. Amid the celebration of Nagasu's accomplishment, Bari Weiss, a New York Times op-ed writer and editor, tweeted out, "Immigrants: They get the job done" alongside a video of the American figure skater. While Nagasu's parents are immigrants, she was born in California. When people questioned Weiss' use of the word immigrant, she said she was referencing Hamilton and "thought poetic license was kosher."

PYEONGCHANG-GUN, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 12: (L-R) Bronze medalists Nathan Chen, Adam Rippon, Mirai Nagasu and Bradie Tennell of Team United States celebrate during the medal ceremony after the Figure Skating Team Event at Medal Plaza on February 12, 2018
Adam Pretty/Getty Images

When asked Thursday about the discussion surrounding her, Nagasu responded diplomatically.

"I think that tweet that got a lot of attention was just a quote from Hamilton, so I took it for what it was, a joke. I haven't seen Hamilton, but I'm going to. I knew that it was a quote from that, so I didn't take any offense," Nagasu said. "I'm raised by immigrants and I'm proud of being a Japanese American and it's just a part of me. I'm proud to represent the Asian American community."

Many observers—including Chrissy Teigen, whose mother is from Thailand—expressed concern about Weiss' comments. Teigen cited perpetual foreigner syndrome, where Asian Americans in particular, regardless of how long they've lived in the United States, are not viewed as American and have their identities constantly questioned.

Nagasu, understandably, seemed more focused on her long program. In practice Thursday, she attempted two triple axels, falling on the first before landing the second. As she heads into her final Olympic competition Friday, she's hoping to stay prepared and not overexert herself.

"This has been a long journey and I want to preserve myself. I want to stay ready for the competition," Nagasu said. "I did my one triple axel today and I'm good with that. I don't read too much into it. I take it one thing at a time and that was good for me.”

Nagasu understands the implications of her success, like that of Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan before her. Having more Asian American role models expands the possibilities of success and could breed the next generation of Nagasus, Chens and Shibutanis.

"Asian Americans, although there are more now, have always been represented with Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan," Nagasu said. "There have been Olympic medals by Asian Americans, so it's not something new. There are definitely more on the rise and up and coming. More and more kids will come and represent the Asian American community."

But the reality is, this is something new. Team USA is setting records, rewriting history and inspiring the next generation of Olympic athletes.

Nagasu is one of many Asian Americans at the forefront of the movement.