Mirai Nagasu’s competitive legacy will be determined by a few tenths of a second she’ll spend spinning in the air, limbs pulled tightly around her, hoping the ice will be kind when she returns. As long as she spins three and a half times, she need land only once to make U.S. figure skating history as the first American woman to land a triple axel at the Olympics. Like the other two American women in the competition, she is not expected to earn a medal. Unlike the other two American women — and all but one American woman before her — she will attempt the triple axel on Olympic ice.
But those brief moments spent whirling against gravity, however they end up, could never define Nagasu, who has spent 10 years atop a sport always hunting younger talent.
Nagasu was born just outside Los Angeles to two Japanese immigrants in 1993. Her parents opened a tiny Japanese restaurant in Arcadia, California, one of those jobs for which “full-time” is hardly an adequate descriptor, and their only child learned not only from their long hours, but her own.
Attending public school during the day, Nagasu helped her parents clean up after long nights at the restaurant. She did the dishes. Her mother would make her costumes, sewing on sequins. Nagasu remembers complaining that her sequins, the ones they bought at Michaels or Target, weren’t as shiny as those on the professionally made dresses made by the other skaters. Now she sees that her parents gave her everything they had.
“To all the little girls out there, I would tell them to really appreciate what their parents do for them,” Nagasu said in a pre-Olympic conference call. “And also to truly believe in their dream. If they truly believe that they’re capable, things will happen for them — as long as they put in the work, of course.”
Nagasu won the national junior title at 13. In 2008, at age 14, she became the youngest U.S. champion since Tara Lipinski.
Two years later at the Vancouver Olympics, she gained attention with her skating (finishing fourth) and her entertaining but unfiltered personality. For example, when telling the Chicago Tribune how she was looking forward to the swag she received at the Olympics, she joked, “I guess I can be stereotypical and say that Asians are very cheap.” A friend scolded her for the comments, which to Nagasu’s bewilderment drew some notice.
“I think that talking to [reporters] made me mature really quickly because I’d read the articles and say, ‘Oh my god. This is not how I want to be portrayed,’ ” Nagasu said. “… I feel like I still have a great personality, I’ve just fine-tuned it a little bit.”
On the ice, the lessons were equally blunt. The four years after Vancouver included untimely slips and unexpected falls.
Her best performance of the next Olympic cycle came at nationals in 2014, where she finished third. To that point, U.S. Figure Skating had a well-established habit of selecting the top three finishers for the Olympic team. But in a break with that practice, it chose to include Ashley Wagner, the pre-event favorite who had faltered that week. That left no spot for Nagasu.
Inevitable questions swirled. Did race factor in the decision? Did the sponsorship money thrown behind Wagner contribute? What was a conversation topic for others was real life for Nagasu. At 20 years old, she likely would have another chance, but certainly wasn’t guaranteed one.
Even now, Nagasu has to steady herself when she speaks about being left off the Sochi team. Sometimes she fights back tears. Nagasu maintains she deserved that spot in 2014. But she also maintains the respect of those within the figure skating world, who see her work ethic and personality up close, every day.
Nagasu reevaluated her career after that 2014 cycle. Ultimately she decided to leave home to improve her training, moving to Colorado Springs. There, she found facilities that allowed her to train more often, and the altitude that made the training more grueling.
Her parents couldn’t afford to leave the restaurant to follow her. She jokes they replaced her with the animals her mother rescues at every opportunity, but those jokes are part of the armor she’s built to withstand the gusts of emotion. Her father watched her compete on his tablet at the restaurant. Her mother joined her when she could, which wasn’t often.
“It was hard for me to leave the nest, but my mom is super proud of me,” Nagasu said. “She said, ‘You became independent really quickly, and I’m so proud of you,’ but she misses me all the same.”
It was in Colorado Springs that Nagasu began working with a new coach, Tom Zakrajsek. He began teaching her a triple axel.
Tonya Harding attempted a triple axel in the Olympics more than 25 years ago now. She didn’t land it. Few women even attempt the jump in competition, let alone land it. Midori Ito and Mao Asada, both from Japan, have landed triple axels at the Olympics.
Once she started landing them consistently, the triple axel became Nagasu’s tagline, her claim to fame. She posted videos of herself nailing the jump in practice, building the hype — and with it, the pressure. She became the third U.S. woman to land one in international competition when she did so this fall. She didn’t land one perfectly at Nationals, though the jump carries such a high degree of difficulty that even a flawed triple axel earned her more points than a perfect double axel would have.
“It’s just one jump in the program,” said Nagasu, who plans to attempt one in each of her short and long programs in PyeongChang. “but at the same time, it’s really cool for me because I am one of the few who has the ability to land it.”
At this year’s nationals, Nagasu delivered two emotional performances that gave her second place. Her selection to the Olympic team was virtually a formality. She tossed aside a piece of pizza and called her normally stoic mother, who was “super excited.” Then her father, who normally texts her in Japanese, sent her a text. It read, “I’m proud of you.”
“For my dad to say he’s proud of me, in English, is a really big deal,” Nagasu said. “… for them to want to come to a competition, is a really big deal.”
Now, her parents are calling her regularly, gushing over the experiences they’ll get to have in Korea — more excited than she is, Nagasu said recently. Her father will step away from that restaurant — “his baby,” according to Nagasu — to make the trip.
No one expects Nagasu to medal in PyeongChang. Most experts see the Russian and Canadian women as the favorites, and the Americans as long shots. The triple axel, inevitably, will overshadow the rest of Nagasu’s skating.
Nagasu knows how consistent she is with the jump in practice. She knows that nerves usually make her overshoot it, which is what happened at nationals, and she can adjust for that. She knows that even an imperfect attempt will bring her more points than playing it safe. And she knows that if, after three and a half frantic rotations, she somehow can land gracefully, people will talk about her story for years to come.
“It’s worth the risk,” Nagasu said. “… and worth going down in history for.”