GANGNEUNG, South Korea >> The wonderful thing about the inspiring — shall we call it Olympian? — story of Mirai Nagasu is that it’s not over.
Not even close.
Nagasu has gone from teenage wunderkind and U.S. champion to fourth-place finisher at the Vancouver Olympics to passed over and nearly forgotten. And now, a Pyeongchang Games bronze medalist with, she vows, more to come.
“It has a really special meaning to it because it feels like I’ve come full circle,” the 24-year-old Nagasu said after not only helping the Americans to a team bronze, but becoming the first U.S. woman to land a triple axel in the Olympics.
“It was really heartbreaking not to be named to the team in Sochi,” she added of being bumped for the more internationally accomplished Ashley Wagner by a federation panel four years ago. “But it was something not meant to be. I think that experience changed me as a skater. I took a step back and realized some things are not worth obsessing. I wanted to be on another Olympic team, but it took time to evolve myself as a person and a skater.”
That evolution, which included a slump in which Nagasu finished 10th at nationals in 2015, has been overseen by renowned coach Tom Zakrajsek, who believes the best is yet to come. Quite possibly next week in the individual women’s event.
“Mirai is ready to lay everything down and send some awesome shots in the singles events and we’ll see how the chips fall,” said Zakrajsek, who began working with her four months after she was left off the 2014 Olympic squad. “Ice is slippery, you know, and anything can happen. There’s a whole history of Americans not being expected to be on the podium, like Paul Wylie, Sarah Hughes. We are working for the podium and she will put it all out there.”
Which means, of course, trying the triple axel in both the short program and the free skate. It’s not quite a secret weapon, but it’s something no other top-level woman has in her arsenal.
And, perhaps most importantly, the axel Nagasu hit in the team competition was pure, the best of her life. Something to build on.
“It’s just one jump in the program,” she said, “but at the same time, it’s really cool for me because I am one of the few that has the ability to land it. It is a newer jump for me, so I do work on it a little more than other jumps. But I probably work on it the same amount as the salchow because even in the Vancouver Olympics that was not a jump in my program, so I’ve really grown.”
Another sign of how Nagasu has grown is what she did after nailing the triple axel that only Japan’s Midori Ito and Mao Asada, noted jumpers, had managed. Many in the crowd or watching elsewhere wondered if Nagasu would be so thrilled by hitting it that she would lose concentration in the rest of the program.
Instead, she was spot-on from beginning to end.
“She didn’t just land it, she spiked it,” Zakrajsek said. “And that gave her confidence, and everything she did will give her confidence going forward. In people’s minds, maybe they look at her differently for the singles event.”
Although she is the second-ranked U.S. skater behind relative newcomer Bradie Tennell, Nagasu seems the most likely challenge to reach the podium. Tennell and 2017 U.S. champ Karen Chen could be more of a threat in 2024 in Beijing. For Nagasu, the time is now.
“It’s definitely a very different experience, I’m much older,” she noted over being at a second Olympics. “I think eight years ago, I feel like I was too young to really enjoy every moment of it. And four years ago I was crying with Adam Rippon because we both didn’t make the team.
“I was very upset for a really long time, but you know, I changed myself and really, really became a better skater. … It was like a conscious decision to make a comeback even though I hadn’t taken a break or anything, and to have overcome that little bit of a slump is not something a lot of skaters have the perseverance to get through.
“So I’m really proud of not just overcoming that part of my life, but also doing it in the public. It sends a strong message that it is possible.”