A star reborn: Mirai Nagasu reclaims her Olympic story


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Mirai Nagasu hears the throaty ovation from the Boston crowd, an amalgam of admiration and pity, as she comes to stillness at center ice. She tries to steady her breath and keep her shoulders from quaking as the sound crests, delaying the start of her program. The spotlight reveals her crumpled face and puffy eyes.

She's about to perform in the gala at the U.S. figure skating nationals, hours after being passed over for the 2014 Olympic team despite finishing third. The show is a lighthearted victory lap for the chosen ones, but not for her. This is the beginning of the rest of her competitive life.

The way forward is complicated. She is 20 years old in a sport that eats its young. A quadrennial -- it might as well be an eternity -- will spool out before she'll have another shot at the Olympics. She is without a coach or any momentum.

Right now, all she knows is that she won't let the show go on without her, even though everyone would have understood if she'd declined. This exhibition program is something she can control. She'll do spins and spirals and triple jumps, landing lightly even though she has never felt heavier.

Fellow skater Adam Rippon had choreographed the number about a month before, setting it to a delicate piano solo from the soundtrack of On Golden Pond, a film about mortality and reckonings. An outsider might interpret it as an elegy for her career. She has been a U.S. champion and an Olympian, finishing fourth at the 2010 Vancouver Games in a spectacular competition. It's been a fine run by any measure.

Tears well in her eyes through the entire three-minute program. People in the stands cry with her. They rise when she finishes. Their applause is gratifying and awful and unforgettable. Nagasu curtsies to all four sides of the rink, but she isn't bowing out. She does not intend to remain frozen in this moment like a sad figurine atop a music box.

Four years later at nationals in San Jose, California, with the Olympic selection committee about to start deliberations, Nagasu would tell reporters she has devoted every minute since that poignant, harrowing performance to making herself a "stronger competitor and person."

"I wasn't going to let a decision that wasn't mine keep me from my dreams," she'd say. "It's like not getting [into] university. 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."

"MIRAI" MEANS "FUTURE" in Japanese. It embodied the hopes of her parents, Kiyoto and Ikuko, who worked long hours running a sushi restaurant in the Los Angeles suburb of Arcadia and initially thought their only child might have a talent for golf. But Mirai fell in love with figure skating at age 5. Her name seemed self-determining even as she helped wash dishes at the restaurant and napped on a cot in the storage room.

Nagasu first defied convention at age 14 in 2008, when she won the U.S. senior championship a year after winning the junior title. No woman had done that back-to-back in 70 years, testament to how many rising talents are detoured -- or completely derailed -- by puberty and burnout.

Her lollipop face and sweetly vulnerable manner belied a ferocious perfectionism. "I've never seen anyone work so hard," says Charlene Wong, her primary coach from 2007 to '09. Nagasu would fib that her feet were not aching so she could keep training. "She would overdo everything," Wong says. "She was a little bit difficult when I taught her. When you're that good, you're like a wild pony."

Yet Nagasu's stubborn resolve coexisted with visible fragility. She brushed away tears as she began her long program at the 2009 nationals, knowing she wouldn't repeat as champion. On the eve of the 2009-10 Olympic season, reporters discovered how disconcertingly honest she could be.

"There are moments when I think I'm not very smart and not very pretty, and skating is the only thing that stands out about me," she said. "It's like the love of my life. When you love someone, sometimes you want to break up."

She migrated across LA to work with veteran coach Frank Carroll, who tried to manage her nerves with tough love, instituting a no-cry zone and telling her he'd summon rink security if she went off script during her run-throughs. Their first season together was a success, but both were open about her struggles with self-esteem, which Nagasu labeled her "dark side" and "evil Mirai."

As the final skater at the Vancouver Games, Nagasu drew the unenviable task of performing in the emotional vacuum left by Canada's Joannie Rochette, whose mother had died suddenly days before. Dressed in red and black as Carmen, Nagasu skated cleanly and placed fourth overall, confirming her potential. Her path to the next Winter Games looked clear.

But her trajectory began to zigzag again a month later at the world championships, where Nagasu led after the short program before crumbling in the free skate to finish seventh. She craved success and attention but struggled with the expectations they carried. She'd voiced her angst openly to Carroll at a Grand Prix event earlier that season, sobbing, "I don't want to be first!"

They parted ways in 2012. The two-hour commute was too much for her, and her mood swings were too much for him. She bounced between coaches for the next two seasons, training briefly in Japan before the momentous snub at the 2014 nationals.

Devastated and rudderless, Nagasu decided she wanted a change of venue. She was about to turn 21 and had never lived away from home. She thought Colorado Springs-based coach Tom Zakrajsek might offer the right balance of challenge and support. They discussed terms over lunch at Panera. "Look, Mirai, I'm really interested in working with you, but I don't want you to hang on," Zakrajsek said. "I think you can be way better than you've ever been."

She agreed. They were going to accelerate forward, just as a certain jump would require.

NAGASU HAS FANTASIZED about perfecting the elusive triple axel, the most difficult jump in women's figure skating, since she was 12. Tackling it in her 20s, an age when many pro women are either refining their technique or winding down altogether, contradicts basic precepts of the sport.

Nagasu wants to show she is still evolving. Axels are the only jumps skaters launch facing forward. The triple axel -- worth nearly twice the base value of the easiest triple jump -- will help her contend at the Olympic level. "She has this ride-or-die attitude about her skating," says her boyfriend, Darian Weiss.

Nagasu initially uses a harness to absorb the feeling of more rapid rotations. She does six to 10 axels in every practice for a year and a half, learning the speed, height, lean and tuck. It bothers her when her 17-year-old training partner, Vincent Zhou -- with the advantages of youth and strength -- conquers the jump before she does.

She consults a sports psychologist to master the toughest discipline of all: being present. "You can train to be ready for the nerves, and we simulate it all the time, but it's never the same when it actually matters," she says. "We work a lot on exercises I can use when I'm not feeling comfortable, when that adrenaline hits me. It's easy to look into the future and worry about the past."

Her artistry has never been in question, but for most of her career, edge calls on jumps -- errors practically invisible to the untrained eye that result in downgrades from judges -- have eaten into her scores. Zakrajsek deconstructs her technique and then helps her rebuild it.

"It's a great working relationship," she says. "I was looking for that person who I could really trust with my skating." She abides by his no-nonsense approach and he accepts her unfiltered honesty. At one practice, sensing that Zakrajsek is distracted, she strokes over to the boards and announces: "I don't like this lesson right now. I can tell you're not giving me 100 percent." Startled, the coach realizes she is right.

"I have always believed that I've been an amazing skater regardless of what the results say. I think that determination and confidence has kept me in the game this long." Mirai Nagasu

In spring 2017, Nagasu tweets a sneak preview of a triple axel with the caption: "Hey world, this is what I've been up to. Love, Mirai." Five months later, she becomes the eighth woman in history to land it in international competition. She has opened each of her programs with it since, using the crowd's palpable anticipation as fuel. "I can assure you that I love attention and I love being recognized for my ability to do such a difficult jump," she says.

Her progress parallels her personal evolution. She takes college classes and is in a serious relationship. She and Weiss, a former ice dancer, have been together for three years now, "with three beautiful dogs as our kids," she says.

By late December, Zakrajsek is cautiously optimistic about Nagasu's chances to cement an Olympic spot at nationals. She is skating with precision and abandon in practice, but she hasn't been able to replicate that when the judges are watching.

"Mirai feels every ... single ... thing ... possible," Zakrajsek says. "That means she also feels every single thing that's different when she goes out to compete. How do you go about acknowledging that and still do what you want to do?"

Christmas night, the coach sees The Last Jedi, and one scene tugs at him: Luke Skywalker sets out to destroy the iconic Jedi tree and ancient texts as a way to bury the past. When he hesitates, Yoda launches a lightning bolt to set them afire. "The greatest teacher, failure is," the Jedi Master tells his former student.

Zakrajsek calls it "a Mirai moment," and it's what he wants for her at nationals: "a moment where not only do you get your redemption, but you're ready for it."

When Nagasu hears his take, she laughs. "[Tom] would burn the tree," she says. "I would definitely be mad about it too." But she recognizes the dramatic arc of her own learning curve in the script. "Failure is inevitable," she says. "It is how you rebound from it and become a better person that defines who you are."

THERE ARE NO tears of dread before her free skate at nationals in January -- just nerves and cheeky candor. As skater and coach walk laps around the arena, Zakrajsek idly mentions the number of steps he's logged that day. "It's not about you," Nagasu says.

She half-rebuffs him when he delivers a final "You can do it" pep talk: "I told him, 'You better be there with me in spirit because it's not easy to go out there alone.'"

In the program, Nagasu does a fully rotated triple axel, but she steps out of the landing. It doesn't matter. She hits all her other jumps in an elegant performance to Miss Saigon. Zakrajsek is bounding up and down by the boards before the end. The selection committee cannot deny her this time. She buries her face in her hands when she sees her personal-best score, 213.84.

"I have always believed that I've been an amazing skater regardless of what the results say," Nagasu tells reporters afterward, flanked by two teens, Bradie Tennell and Karen Chen. "I think that determination and confidence has kept me in the game this long. I'm aware I'm the oldest here tonight, but I really feel like the comeback kid."

The Olympic selections are announced at 5:15 a.m. Nagasu is in. She does interview after interview, on 30 minutes of sleep, confirming her workaholic tendencies. "I wanted this goal so badly that sometimes it's hard to differentiate between when it's time to stop and when it's time to push myself and keep going," she says.

The gala the next night is blissfully lacking the pathos of four years before. Nagasu, her hair swinging loose in a long ponytail, skates her victory lap to the throbbing bass of Queen's "Body Language." It's a modern, sassy program tailored for a woman comfortable in her own skin. The cheering afterward carries no undertow of sympathy. It is celebratory. It is earned.