When it comes to making an Olympic team, the first cut is not the deepest -- the last one is. While 555 athletes made the 2014 U.S. team for Sochi, hundreds of talented men and women stayed home. The difference might have been a fraction of a second, a judge's point of view or a "coaches' discretion" clause in the qualifying criteria.
Had fate shifted slightly four years ago, Mirai Nagasu might have earned an Olympic medal or two if the U.S. selection committee had taken the top three at nationals, as expected, rather than skaters who finished first, second and fourth (allowing Ashley Wagner to leapfrog Nagasu). Similarly, Alex Rigsby might have been one of the three U.S. goalies to claim a silver medal in hockey, and Annie O'Shea might have found the podium in skeleton.
All three athletes are hoping to compete at the 2018 Games. Nagasu's moment of truth will begin Wednesday in San Jose, California, at the U.S. figure skating championships, where the Olympic team will be named after the event concludes. O'Shea will have to wait for the U.S. skeleton team announcement on Jan. 15. Rigsby has already secured a berth on the U.S. Olympic hockey team, whose roster was announced on Jan. 1.
In separate interviews, the three athletes explained how they swept up their shattered dreams in 2014 and started aiming for gold in February. All went through shock, made major changes and came up with new ways to approach Pyeongchang. None of it was easy, but their stories offer instructive coping strategies for anyone facing similar setbacks.
Absorbing the shock
When Nagasu was passed over for Sochi, she said, "I wanted to wash my hands of figure skating. I was so unhappy and so unsatisfied that that one decision could make me feel so, so sad and depressed." She had placed fourth at the 2010 Vancouver Games, and no one else on the 2014 women's Olympic figure skating team had Olympic experience. "Yes, U.S. Figure Skating wants who may be best suited for the team, but do I completely agree with the decision to jump me?" she said four years later. "I don't know. But it wasn't my decision. Sometimes I get speeding tickets, and I don't think I deserve it, but you just have to pay the ticket. Skating is the same way."
Rigsby, the goalie, was devastated when she didn't hear her name on the Olympic roster -- not only because she thought she had put up a good performance but also because she had grown up playing with and against a lot of the women who made the team, such as forward Hilary Knight and captain Meghan Duggan. "All these lifelong friends," Rigsby said, "so it was tough for both sides -- to see them make it and me get cut."
Making necessary changes
To cope, Nagasu, who was 20 at the time, decided to change her life completely. In April 2014, she moved from California to Colorado, changed coaches and enrolled in classes at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs. "I needed to leave the nest and make decisions on my own," she said. "Honestly, it was the best thing I could have done. In Colorado, we have the ice all day, and I can take breaks. It's much better for my mental health."
Working with coach Tom Zakrajsek felt better, too. "Humans make mistakes, and Tom will understand that. Frank was very meticulous, and he always wanted me to be 'on.' I couldn't always deliver that," she said of her current and former coaches.
In addition, becoming independent made Nagasu realize that if "I want this for myself, I have to motivate myself. It's not my parents pushing me anymore."
O'Shea, the skeleton athlete, also made changes, but she directed most of them inward. During a trip home, her friend's father recognized her deep dismay and recommended she hire a life coach. O'Shea was skeptical. "I was like, 'OK, maybe. It's probably not for me.'"
Yet she decided to buy a new sled, even though it seemed extravagant. "Eventually, I decided to spend the money and invest everything in myself. If it works, awesome. If it doesn't, then I know I tried everything. That sled worked. My new mindset worked. And I did get a life coach."
O'Shea's life coach, she said, taught her to "stop over-trying. Stop trying to be perfect. Walk away every day really happy with what I accomplished." But it was tough. Despite being a self-described "control freak," O'Shea had to be OK with failing. Instead of trying to force the feeling of effortlessness down the track, she let things happen. The result? "I felt like a different person on the sled," she said. "I was not careless. I was carefree." And it led to two medals in the 2015-2016 season -- including her first gold in a World Cup race -- and a fifth place at the world championships. "The year was just effortless," she said.
Rigsby also kept trying to improve. She returned to the University of Wisconsin for her senior year and helped the Badgers reach the NCAA semifinals. "The next year, I decided that I wasn't ready to give up my dream," she said.
One of the U.S. goalies in Sochi, Jessie Vetter, became Rigsby's training buddy and mentor, and that helped as well. "I was so fortunate to be able to learn from her," Rigsby said. In Pyeongchang, the U.S. will have three new Olympic goalies, and Rigsby (who turns 26 on Jan. 3) will be the oldest.
Creating a new approach for 2018
Once again, as the Olympic clock counts down the days to the opening ceremony, athletes will either make the cut or stay home. O'Shea has a different mindset this time. "Last year, I kind of went backwards and expected to do well because I had done well. I forgot everything I'd worked on. When last year ended, I said, 'I'm going to spend all my time with family this summer and be really happy in life.' Now I really like who I am. I really like where I'm headed. I'm just gonna let it happen and see what happens."
Meanwhile, Nagasu is fired up to prove to the U.S. selection committee that she can't be ignored in 2018. "I'm making myself a résumé that they can't say no to," she said. In September, Nagasu landed a triple axel, making her one of just three American women to land the jump in competition. (The others were Tonya Harding and Kimmie Meissner). In November, Nagasu placed fourth at the NHK Trophy in Osaka, Japan. Meanwhile, her closest American competitors have struggled. Gracie Gold, the fourth-place finisher in Sochi, has been sitting out this season to address depression, anxiety and an eating disorder. Ashley Wagner, who placed seventh in Sochi, recently struggled with an ankle infection that caused her to stop mid-routine in the free skate at Skate America. Polina Edmunds (ninth in Sochi) finished 10th in her only Grand Prix assignment this season.
Regardless of what her competition does, Nagasu will be ready to fight when she performs her short program on Wednesday and long program on Friday. Because if there's one thing she learned from the massive disappointment of 2014, she says it's that "Failure is inevitable -- and it's the people that keep trying who become successful."