Triple axels don't frighten Mirai Nagasu: 'If I fall, I'll take the fall.'
GANGNEUNG, South Korea -- Since making history as the first American woman to land a triple axel in Olympic competition Feb. 11, Mirai Nagasu has fielded request for dates, gotten social media shout-outs from stars of her favorite TV shows, "Modern Family" and "The Big Bang Theory," posed for pictures with singer Rachel Platten., whose hit, "Fight Song," is her internal walk-up music before competitions, and all but campaigned for a stint on "Dancing with the Stars."
Sunday at the Gangneung Ice Arena, Nagasu came back down to Earth. She landed, quite literally, with a thud, falling hard on her hip when the opening triple axel of her short-program went awry during a midmorning practice. Nagasu popped up and skated on, showing no ill effects of a blow hard enough to make a sickening smack that reverberated through the near-empty 12,000-seat arena. By the end of the 40-minute session, she had landed the jump, which actually demands 3 ½ rotations -- given its forward takeoff and backward landing -- at least three times without incident, pausing periodically at the side of the rink to confer with her coach, Tom Zakrajsek.
Nagasu's history-making triple axel, which only Japanese champions Midori Ito (1992) and Mao Asada (2010, 2014) had successfully landed on an Olympic stage prior, proved pivotal to U.S. figure skating's bronze medal in the team event here last week. The team event was won by Canada, with the Olympic Athletes from Russia taking silver.
It represented only the first step of what Nagasu, 24, came to South Korea to achieve in her second Olympic Games, having finished fourth at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and been passed over for a spot on the 2014 Sochi squad. She came to earn the individual medal that eluded her eight years ago. As Nagasu indicated Sunday, this is no moment for playing it safe. The high-risk triple axel will remain a fixture of her programs -- both the short, when the women's competition gets underway Wednesday, and Friday's decisive free skate.
"Maybe I'll fall; maybe I'll land it," Nagasu told reporters during an afternoon news conference in Pyeongchang. "But right, now my mindset is I'm gonna nail it. And I believe."
Nagasu is a striking contrast from many Olympic athletes, who retreat into a self-imposed exile of silence and focus as their competition nears. She delights in storytelling. And with bubbly pride and touches of self-deprecation, she breezed through her personal biography Sunday as the only child of Japanese parents who own a sushi restaurant in Arcadia, California, detailing her struggles to pay for her figure-skating coaching, which included a part-time job as an Ice Girl for the NHL's Colorado Avalanche. She recounted trading shifts with co-workers so she could compete at major figure-skating events, and she gushed about the thrill of watching hockey up close while confessing a fear of the puck because, 'I have no hand-eye coordination!'"
Alternately charming and circuitous, her stories invariably circled back to a common theme: resilience. It lies at the core of her being, and it's the hallmark of the athletes she admires most.
"I'm not a fadeaway type of person; I don't have that type of personality," Nagasu said, asked why she didn't give up after missing the podium in 2010 and then missing the Olympics entirely in 2014. "To look at Shaun White, Lindsey Vonn just continue on, Olympic-cycle after Olympic-cycle -- that's why they're famous. And Michael Phelps, as well -- so many Olympics. That's so many years."
Nagasu noted that the typical sports fan may think that figure skaters' careers can't last, assuming that, like gymnasts, they peak at young ages then "kind of drift away." But that's not so, she noted, pointing to two-time Olympic gymnasts Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman, who earned six gold medals, two silvers and one bronze between them at the 2012 and 2016 Summer Games.
"Sports are evolving and always evolving, and people have that determination to keep going and coming back," Nagasu said. "I think I'm one of those athletes. I stand to show that people shouldn't give up. You've got to just keep going until you succeed."
And though she has already succeeded in landing the triple axel, she's determined to do it twice more before the Pyeongchang Games come to an end.
"I'm definitely going for it: No guts no glory," Nagasu said. "If I fall, I'll take the fall and get up and keep going."