Figure skaters are defined by their ups and downs. If they hit their jumps, they soar in the standings, often onto the podium. If they flop, it hurts, it stings, and they head home empty.
Mirai Nagasu has known all of those ups and downs – plus a whole lot more.
Now 24, Nagasu is going to the Olympics eight years after finishing fourth at the 2010 Vancouver Games; no U.S. woman has done better since or is likely to in Pyeongchang. Her climb has been an extraordinary one even by the drama-filled standards of the sport.
In 2014, Nagasu broke out of a slump and finished third at nationals behind Gracie Gold and Polina Edmunds, then was unceremoniously dumped by a U.S. Figure Skating committee commissioned to select the team for Sochi. Ashley Wagner, with a stronger all-around resume, was chosen instead.
Nagasu was crushed.
“I wanted to be done with skating,” she said. “Did I agree with the decision? I believe I belonged on the team. But it wasn’t my decision.”
As she looks back now, she recognizes why Wagner went and she stayed home.
“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.”
Her body of work wasn’t much better the past few years. Nagasu slipped as low as 10th at nationals in 2015, and her best performances came at Four Continents, a solid event but not a major.
She joined Tom Zakrajsek’s impressive stable of skaters in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and re-examined everything, on and off the ice. And she set a goal.
“I put a lot of that responsibility on myself, and I didn’t want to feel that same way this year,” Nagasu 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.
“I decided I was going to build a resume that they couldn’t say no to.”
Yet Nagasu entered the U.S. championships – yes, the quasi-Olympic trials because a committee would have final say once more – as something of a long shot to wind up in Pyeongchang. Wagner was back, with by far the strongest international reputation and results. Karen Chen had burst onto the scene and won the 2017 title. Edmunds was in the field. Bradie Tennell, also an outsider, had risen in the evaluations after a strong Skate America.
Then Nagasu lit up the ice in San Jose, California. No, she didn’t land her triple Axel – no other U.S. woman even tries it – and she finished second to Tennell, who hit pretty much every jump, spin and footwork display.
But Nagasu was the story.
“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,” 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.”
Nagasu owned it by remaining in the present.
“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,” Zakrajsek added. “I wasn’t interested in living the past with her; it was always about moving forward.”
Now, a decade after winning her only U.S. title at age 14, Nagasu again is an Olympian. The fear of failure, the attack of nerves that plagued her – she admits she feels the pressure every time she competes – have been turned into a positive energy.
And those tears of frustration, even anger, turned into tears of joy last week.
“I think as a skater I started out really strongly,” Nagasu said as she looked back on the prosperous and the lean years, “and as I have grown in the public eye I have had my rough seasons that most people don’t get as much attention for.
“I think being in the public eye has made me more determined than other people to show that I do belong at the top, and I believe I am one of the hardest working people at the rink. I feel like I have always been that way, but sometimes I just get in my own way.”
Not this time.
“I think it is like getting into university,” she concluded. “If you don’t get in, what are you going to do? You keep applying until you make it happen.”