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Nagasu targets clean triple axel for Olympic season

U.S. pewter medalist plans to show jump at Denver Invitational this month
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Mirai Nagasu intends to have the triple axel at her disposal when she attempts to make the Olympic team next season. -Getty Images

After winning bronze at the 2017 Four Continents Championships in Gangneung, South Korea, last month and traveling the 6,000-plus miles back to Colorado Springs, Mirai Nagasu was deserving of a break.

But she didn't take one.

"My first day back, I did all my jumps, even though I was half asleep," she said. "I started working on my triple axel again."

"Mirai is one of the hardest-working athletes I've ever trained," said Tom Zakrajsek, who has coached the skater since 2014. "She's not just hanging around because she's a name skater. She continually wants to get better, and if she keeps doing what she's doing, she will keep getting better."

Four Continents capped a bittersweet season for Nagasu, who turns 24 next month. The 2008 U.S. champion won three international medals -- gold at the Autumn Classic and bronzes at the Lombardia Trophy and Four Continents -- and earned the highest short program and free skate scores for a U.S. lady thus far this season. She sits seventh in the ISU World Standings, about 100 points below the top American woman, Ashley Wagner.

"Not too shabby," Zakrajsek said.

But a disappointing free skate at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January dropped her from second place after the short to fourth place overall, costing her a spot on the world team.

"Maybe the month of February is a better month for me than January," said Nagasu, who won a silver medal at Four Continents last season. "At nationals, I was well trained and I knew I was capable of a performance like the one I did at Four Continents, but I let a little bit of pressure and expectations get the best of me. At Four Continents, I knew it was going to be the last competition of the season. There was no pressure."

Her season isn't quite over. She is first alternate to the world team and will compete at the Denver Invitational next week.

"She will be doing a triple axel in her long program and a triple lutz (instead of a loop) in her short," Zakrajsek said. "The idea is to try out these skills in a low-key competition."

Nagasu kept fans guessing by including triple axels in a few practices at the U.S. championships and several in Gangneung, and Zakrajsek fed the flames by posting some of her cleaner efforts on Instagram.

The coach makes no apologies for advertising his skater's prowess on social media.

"The triple axel is a bugaboo," Zakrajsek said. "Certainly, I contributed to the hype. That was intentional because I wanted Mirai to [become] comfortable with a lot of hype."

He added that the jump was better at Four Continents than in previous practices.

"Both U.S. and international officials noted how many clean triple axels she landed," he said. "Many of my colleagues -- from Canada, China and other places -- use her as an example for their skaters. They say, 'Hey, she isn't a teenager, and she's learning triple axel.' That's a great message. Women don't have to think, 'Oh, I'm aging out, it's just the young Russians and young Japanese taking over.'"

Part of Nagasu's strategy for making her second Olympic team (she placed fourth at the 2010 Vancouver Games) is putting the triple axel -- and its 8.5-point base value -- into her programs next season. She is considering keeping both her short, choreographed by Jeff Buttle to a Chopin nocturne, and free, done by David Wilson to Sarah Dawn Finer's cover of ABBA's "The Winner Takes It All," in part to simplify the addition of the jump.

"Usually I get tired of working on [programs] by the end of the season, but I feel like I can perform them even better," she said. "So we're definitely considering keeping my programs, especially since I want to land the triple axel. To add such a hard jump, I want to put it into a program I'm already comfortable with."

Zakrajsek endorses the idea.

"Her long program at Four Continents gave a glimpse of what the program could be," he said. "There are so many ways, performance wise, she can grow. It's Olympic music, recognizable and iconic. And I cannot tell you how many officials have told me Mirai has one of the two or three best short programs in the world.

"Jeff Buttle and David Wilson gave her great material and really took her under their wings," Zakrajsek continued. "(Associate coach) Drew Meekins continues to enhance her performance quality, which is the other part of it. There's a great team working with Mirai."

Nagasu, who won bronze at the 2014 U.S. Championships but was not selected for the Sochi Olympic team, longs to compete at the 2018 PyeongChang Games. Depending on the finishes of Wagner, Karen Chen and Mariah Bell at the 2017 World Championships, the U.S. will have either two or three ladies spots. Selection criteria include results at recent ISU championship events as well as in the 2017 Grand Prix Series.

This season, Nagasu was ninth at Skate Canada and fifth at NHK Trophy, results she intends to improve next season.

"I want to make sure I prepare myself at each competition to do my best, so that when nationals comes around I have a strong resume for that Olympic spot," Nagasu said. "It's interesting to me how last season I was so happy to be fourth at nationals and this season I was so disappointed to get fourth again. I knew I was capable of so much more."

Nagasu firmly believes her decade of senior international experience -- with all of its ups and downs -- will be a plus next season.

"I know what it's like to compete at a U.S. championships when there are only two (Olympic) spots, and I know what it's like to fight for that spot," Nagasu said. "Of course, it will be a completely different experience, because when I was 16 I was just so good at focusing in that moment. I want to have that same kind of nothing-to-lose feeling I had when I was 16, so I can go to the Olympics again and perform on that big stage."