GANGNEUNG, South Korea – U.S. Figure Skating’s snub of Mirai Nagasu for a spot on the 2014 Sochi Olympic team, despite a third-place finish at that year’s national championships that should have clinched it, would have crushed many competitors. There was no formal explanation and little logic, in the view of many of the sport’s enthusiasts.
Rather than quit, Nagasu, then 20, doubled down on her commitment to the sport. She moved away from her beloved parents in California, relocated to the U.S. Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and, with a new coach, poured herself into mastering the tricky triple axel – a jump that only two American women had successfully landed in competition.
Monday at the Pyeongchang Winter Games, Nagasu got her redemption in triumphant fashion, making U.S. figure skating history by becoming the first American woman to land a triple axel in the Olympics.
“It’s historical and something no one can take away from me,” Nagasu said. “I wanted to make America proud.”
Nagasu, 24, landed the jump at the Gangneung Ice Arena under enormous pressure, the first of five women to perform her free skate on the final day of competition toward the Olympics team medal. With the U.S. squad sitting in third, hopelessly out of gold medal contention yet under threat of losing its provisional bronze to Italy, Nagasu took the ice and held nothing back in the 4 1/2-minute program she had scripted to music from “Miss Saigon.”
The triple axel came first, and she delivered, completing all of the tricky rotations and landing solidly on one foot. Her coach pumped his fists and leapt in excitement. From there, it was as if an anvil was lifted from Nagasu’s shulders, and she didn’t miss a jump or put a skate wrong. As her program wound down, she was beaming, completing her final triple loop and finishing with a layback spin of sheer beauty and release.
Nagasu shook her fists twice as her teammates gave her a standing ovation, aware of her sacrifice and courage. Judges scored her a 137.53, more than seven points higher than her season’s best.
The high-risk triple axel, which actually demands 3 1/2 rotations in the air because skaters take off from a forward position and land facing backward, was the first jump in her program.
Tonya Harding was the first American woman to land a triple axel in competition but failed in her attempt at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics. A decade later, 2006 world champion Kimmie Meissner became the second American woman to land the jump but, like Harding, didn’t do so at the Olympics. Nagasu joined their ranks last fall, landing one in international competition.
Nagasu’s story is one of uncommon talent, sacrifice and resolve. She won the U.S. junior title at 13 and the following year, at 14, she became the youngest U.S. champion since Tara Lipinski. Named to the 2010 Olympic team, she finished fourth in Vancouver, the best by a female American skater, and charmed fans with her open heart and quick wit.
Despite what feels like perpetual evolution in figure skating, few women attempt the triple axel. Only two have completed it on an Olympic stage: Japan’s Midori Ito and Mao Asada.
As Nagasu said at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships last month, “It’s worth going down in history for.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.