#WCIW: Mirai Nagasu
Child of Immigrants. Driven Athlete. Olympic Champion.
Figure skating may seem effortless, whimsical, and majestic when you see the participants on television — often clad in glittering garments comprised of the most delicate, form-fitting fabrics-— but the skaters inside those fanciful costumes are some of the toughest, most disciplined athletes in the world.
Professional figure skaters begin training in childhood and often practice eight+ hours a day to hone their craft. No amount of practice, however, can replace the need for a certain amount of natural talent required to really shine in the sport. One individual who has proven her talent is American figure skater and Olympian, Mirai Nagasu.
Nagasu recently made headlines and history when she became the first American figure skater to land a triple axel in an Olympic competition at the Winter Olympics in South Korea this past February. The ice, however, has not always been smooth for Nagasu.
Born in Arcadia, California on April 16th, 1994 to two Japanese immigrants, Mirai spent her youth napping and reading in a broom cupboard at the sushi restaurant where her parents worked. Her favorite character was Harry Potter, who overcame many obstacles (including sleeping in a broom cupboard) to become successful. From a young age, she was a dreamer and knew that she had to accomplish great things. She became fascinated with figure skating and began skating herself at age five. In 2008 at just 14 she became the youngest person to win the American Women’s Championship since Tara Lipinski. She also became the first skater in 70 years to win U.S. Junior and Senior titles in consecutive seasons.
Nagasu was inconsistent, however. She had several difficult seasons and battled her changing body. She later said in an interview, “I went through puberty in front of the world.” She finished 4th in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics but was determined to win gold in Sochi. During the intermittent four years, however, split with her long-time coach, Frank Carroll (famous for leading Michelle Kwan to Olympic victory).
The split was difficult for Nagasu, who continued to be inconsistent in her victories until her performance at the Olympic qualifying event in Boston in 2014. She competed and won against two-time U.S. champion Ashley Wagner and seemed to be a shoo-in for the Sochi Olympic Team. The day of the announcement, however, the U.S. Figure Skating Federation chose to go with Wagner instead, despite her defeat. Nagasu was devastated.
She spent the next few weeks in constant tears, so overwhelmed that she considered ending her skating career. She quickly realized, however, that she would never accept quitting on the basis of decisions completely out of her hands. If she was going to quit skating after a lifetime of work, she wanted it to be a decision that was hers and hers alone.
So she used the disappointment as fuel to propel her into the best shape she’d ever been in. She packed up and moved out of her parents’ house and traveled to Colorado to train with Tom Zakrajsek who coached Rachael Flatt.
“Honestly I think it was the best thing I could have done. It made me realize, when I made that decision, ‘Mirai, you’re willing to take that extra step and to move away from family to pursue your own dreams.’ And to become independent of my family has been super good for me because I know that I want it for myself and it’s not just my parents pushing me anymore. This is something that I want and I have to motivate myself.”
While training with her new coach, Nagasu worked as an “ice girl” at the local hockey rink, cleaning the ice in a mini skirt and crop top to make ends meet. Her training, however, only increased. Zakrajsek knew that in order to make the looked-over athlete outshine her competition, she needed a new move that would set her apart.
So, at 21, Nagasu began to work toward a triple axel--a feat that was almost unheard of at her age. Eventually she nailed it. She landed the jump perfectly in her long and short programs at the 2017 Women’s U.S. Championships and landed a spot on the 2018 Olympic team. In doing so, she became the first U.S. female figure skater to return to the Games after being passed over the previous Olympics.
When she landed her triple axel at the 2018 games, she became the third female figure skater ever to accomplish the jump in the Olympics. She also helped to secure the bronze overall for the U.S. Figure Skating team. She also became a symbol for athletes around the globe of the remarkable payoff of never giving up.
For her grit, drive, and perseverance, Mirai Nagasu is this week’s #WCIW.