SAN JOSE, Calif.— The judges were still calculating the scores of the previous competitor when Mirai Nagasu took to the ice for her short program at the 2018 National Championships. She zoomed around the rink, not doing much of anything, just staying warm and waiting for her turn, yet the crowd cheered for her. It was clear from this brief warm-up, as it was from the official warm-up that took place at the start of the session, that the audience in the SAP Center was squarely behind her. They knew what was at stake as well as she did.
During an Olympic year like this one, the national championships function as a quasi-Olympic Trials, with the results typically dictating the Olympic team that’s subsequently announced. But not always. Nagasu knows this from experience.
Four years ago Nagasu placed third at the national championships. That was 2014, an Olympic year, and the former U.S. national champion and 2010 Olympian seemed to have another trip to the Olympics wrapped up.
It didn’t work out that way. The selectors passed over her in favor of Ashley Wagner, the 2013 national champion who had skated poorly at 2014 nationals and placed off the podium in fourth. The United States Figure Skating Association is not bound by the results of nationals in naming teams and can use other criteria, such as past results, in determining team composition; the number of Olympic berths is determined by results from the previous world championships, and that part was non-negotiable. The USFSA considered Wagner’s track record leading up to the Olympics, deemed her a better bet to place in the top group than Nagasu, and made their call.
“You look at Ashley Wagner’s record and performance, she’s got the top credentials of any of our female athletes,” U.S. Figuring Skating President Patricia St. Peter said at the time of the decision. Wagner redeemed herself and the people that chose her in Sochi, placing seventh in the individual competition and contributing to the team bronze.
Those results make the decision look like a reasonable one in retrospect, at least from a team perspective, but that didn’t make it any easier for Nagasu to take. Four years later, as she attempts to make her second Olympic team in three tries, Nagasu feels no compulsion to be diplomatic about it. “It was really hard for me to accept,” she told me a month before she was set to skate at the national championships.
After all, Nagasu hadn’t done anything wrong in 2014. Her “mistake” wasn’t even a mistake—she simply over-performed after a few years of underperforming, and came on strong a little too late in the Olympic cycle. In a subjectively judged sport like skating, skating cleanly is as important as having the reputation for skating cleanly. When you make mistakes in successive competitions, it can become harder to extract the points from the judges. A skater has to create an expectation of success in order to be successful. Nagasu hadn’t done quite enough hitting in the years leading up to Sochi to create that expectation, at least compared to Wagner and 2014 national champion Gracie Gold.
Which, if you’re counting, leaves one more spot. Nagasu, who was then 20, lacked the potential of 15-year-old Polina Edmunds, who placed a surprise second in 2014, right ahead of Nagasu. Edmunds had just entered the senior ranks that year and had very little limited international experience, and the selection committee certainly could have justified a decision to leave Edmunds home instead of Nagasu. Edmunds, just by virtue of her age, didn’t have much of a body of work to consider.
But the decision to send Edmunds was not despite her youth but because of it. Eight years into a 10-year medal drought at the world and Olympic level, USFSA was probably looking for a competitor who might become the future of US. women’s figure skating. In 2014, Edmunds seemed like she could be that. Some years earlier, Nagasu did, too.
In 2008, at age 14, Nagasu won her first—and only—senior women’s national title, becoming the second youngest competitor to do so. She also won back-to-back world junior titles in 2008 and 2009. When she was just 16, Nagasu came within striking distance of an Olympic bronze medal at the 2010 Games in Vancouver; she skated brilliantly and placed fourth, just behind hometown favorite Joannie Rochette of Canada. Rochette, the 2009 world silver medalist, skated very well, but she was also a sentimental favorite; as was widely reported during the ladies competition, Rochette’s mother died right before the start of the short program at the Olympics.
A little over a month after the Olympics in Vancouver, the world championships were held in Turin. Rochette was absent, and Nagasu seemed poised to move up in the rankings. She shot into first place after the short program, placing ahead of Yuna Kim and Mao Asada, the Olympic gold and silver medalists, respectively. That paradoxical Can’t Convince The Judges You Deserve A Medal Until You’ve Already Won A Medal challenge appeared to be melting away, and the judges seemed willing to give Nagasu a world medal, perhaps even the world title, provided she hit well in the long program.
She didn’t. In the long program, she botched several jump landings and crashed badly to the ice on a double axel. Her momentum was gone, and she went from fourth at the Olympics to seventh at the world championships just a month later. Years of injuries, equipment malfunctions, and mistakes followed, with some Grand Prix medals mixed in here and there. She wasn’t named to another world championship team during that quadrennium, and when Nagasu finally delivered a hit performance, in 2014, it wasn’t enough to get her onto the Olympic team. Nagasu wasn’t the future of U.S. figure skating anymore. The challenge, in the years after the disappointment of 2014, was finding a place in the present.
“I loved being at the rink every day and training,” Nagasu told me. “I wasn’t quite ready to give that up quite yet.” Figure skating skews young—the sport has been dominated for the last quadrennium by a bevy of talented Russian teens—but Nagasu was still just 20 at the time of her 2014 disappointment. That isn’t old, even in this sport.
When she was a young skater, Nagasu didn’t see herself still competing at 24. “When I was in middle school, I remember thinking, like Tara Lipinski was 14, I only got a few more years to go before I’m really old,” she recalled, laughing. Lipinski was the youngest ever ladies world champion at 14 in 1997, and then the youngest ever ladies Olympic gold medalist in 1998. And then she was done. A young skater like Nagasu wouldn’t have been crazy to think that her career might be over by her mid-teen years.
“Now I’m like, ‘Oh my god, like I used to genuinely believe that when I turned 18, I would be too old to skate,” Nagasu laughs. At 24, Nagasu is not the oldest skater currently competing on the international circuit. Wagner is 26 and 2014 Olympic bronze medalist Carolina Kostner is 30. But the question was never whether Nagasu was too old to keep skating. It was whether she’d want to.
“Here I am four years later trying to make another team,” Nagasu said.
Beyond the passage of time, though, things feel very much the same in the world of U.S. figure skating. Wagner ended the medal drought at the world championships in 2016, but the U.S. women’s position in the figure skating world hasn’t really improved much; none of the current contenders for the Olympic team are projected to win an individual medal in Pyeongchang.
This time around there’s another young skater who could play the “Polina Edmunds” role: Bradie Tennell, 19, won a Grand Prix medal at Skate America this year, placing third in a competition after Wagner had to withdraw in the middle of her free skate, citing a skin infection. Tennell’s overall score for both the short and long program at Skate America was the highest earned by an American skater this season. And Tennell’s potential has thus far been borne out—she skated cleanly and was in first place after the short program last night, breaking the scoring record held by the U.S. women in the process. Her 73.79 in the short beat the previous record set by Karen Chen at last year’s championships.
Speaking of Chen: the defending U.S. national champion who placed fourth at worlds, has not looked strong this year. Her 2017-2018 season has been riddled by weak performances and low rankings during her Grand Prix events. It would be foolish to say she has no chance to make the team—after all, last year’s world championships is an important consideration when it comes to selection —but Chen has not been spoken about the way you’d expect one to speak about the defending national champion and the fourth place finisher at worlds. Still, despite an off landing on her triple-triple jump combination in the short program last night, Chen finds herself sitting in third place. A first Olympic berth is very much a possibility for her.
And finally Gracie Gold, arguably the most talented U.S. skater of the last quadrennium, will not be skating for a spot on the team this time around. Gold withdrew from the Grand Prix season and national championships to seek treatment for depression and eating disorder.
“I feel like it’s anybody’s game,” Nagasu said.
All that uncertainty makes it seem as if anything could happen at this year’s championships and final Olympic qualifying competition. That includes a second Olympic berth for Nagasu.
The first woman to perform a triple axel was Midori Ito of Japan, who did it all the way back in 1989 to win the world title that year. Two years later, Tonya Harding famously performed it en route to the U.S. national title and a silver medal the world championships before becoming infamous for other things. Since those two women brought the jump to international competition, only a handful of other female skaters—most notably Japan’s Mao Asada, who was the first woman to perform three triple axels in a single Olympics in 2010 and took home silver in Vancouver—have performed it and used it to win. Nagasu is now among this group. She successfully completed the triple axel in competition this year, and the jump seems to be a key part of her plan to make it back to the Olympics.
“I jump it every session,” Nagasu said, “and it feels really good.” She observed that putting this risky and difficult jump into the program adds a lot more pressure to what is a pressure-filled situation. But the jump and the discussion it generates has helped Nagasu tell a new story—not about what happened to her at 2014 nationals, but about an athlete pushing the boundaries of her sport.
Last night the crowd at the SAP Center knew all about Nagasu’s planned triple axel. As she began her program and started skating crossovers around the rink, building speed for the jump, a collective hush seem to fall over the audience—they knew what was coming next. Nagasu stepped forward and up and into the triple axel jump, wrapping in three and a half twists before landing on a backward edge. She did not land it as cleanly as she been doing it in practice but it was fully rotated and she didn’t fall. The rest of the program was secure and her score was good enough for second place, just under a point behind Tennell.
During our half hour phone conversation last month, Nagasu was most enthusiastic when talking about her triple axel. Well, about that and also about “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Earlier in the season, Nagasu mentioned that she watched the show shortly before taking the ice to channel her “inner queen”, which earned a retweet from RuPaul herself.
Or, strike that: Nagasu enjoys talking about her triple axel, RuPaul, and her dogs. The last won’t surprise anyone who follows her on Instagram. “I tell my boyfriend that...we should get a ranch so we can just adopt all the dogs that need homes and they can just run around all day,” she said. Nagasu has three dogs, and I jokingly suggested the dog ranch could be her next act for after she is done with skating. “Maybe,” she responded. If she was joking, it was only halfway.
But all that’s for later. Nagasu is not quite sure when she’ll be done with skating, or what it will feel like to realize she is through with the sport. “I ask myself every day [if] it’s time for me to hang up my skates,” she says. “I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I’m one of the oldest kids at the rink training.’ I asked a lot of people. Like I say, ‘How do you know, how do you know you’re done? How do you know that you won’t have any regrets? What is life after skating?’”
It’s the sort of twist that a skating-crazy kid wouldn’t see coming. Nagasu, who had once believed that skating was done when you hit your late teens, has lasted much longer. Now she can’t quite imagine an end to her career, even though she’s several years past the time her younger self believed that skating would be over for her.
“I think when my body is, like, when I can’t get through a long program, I know it’ll be time,” Nagasu told me. Whether she makes the Olympic team or not, that day may still be a long ways off. Nagasu explained that “27 is prime time for your body,” and spoke about continuing to skate competitively even after her years of competing for Olympic teams are over. “I sometimes think about adult skating,” she said. “And how, you know, people like Midori Ito, she competed at the adult world championships. I feel like I’ll probably be someone like that. I’ll find something else I’m good [at], like a different career path, and then come back for my adult debut.”
Perhaps Nagasu has a few more years skating at the elite level; perhaps she has a few more years of enduring grueling long programs than even she expects. The end is out there somewhere, waiting; that’s the way the sport works. But after years of ups and downs, Nagasu seems determined to write it herself.