Ice Network

From A to Z: Does the reward outweigh the risk?

Coach provides argument for why protégé Nagasu should try triple axel
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Although she received negative Grades of Execution on both attempts, Mirai Nagasu was credited with landing two triple axels at the 2017 U.S. International Classic. -Melissa Majchrzak

Tom Zakrajsek, the coach of former U.S. champions Mirai Nagasu and Max Aaron as well as reigning U.S. silver medalist Vincent Zhou, is keeping a season-long blog for icenetwork.

As the 2017-18 figure skating season officially kicked off last week with events in Bergamo, Italy, and Salt Lake City, much of the skating world was still abuzz over Mirai Nagasu landing a triple axel during Kristi Yamaguchi's "Golden Moments" benefit show in San Jose, Calfornia, the week before.

Could she do it again? Could she land it in an international competition?

She hasn't yet, but if you were following Twitter, you might think she already has because her attempts at the U.S. International Classic prove that a woman attempting a triple axel is a big deal. If you don't believe me, check out the Twitter account of RuPaul!

There is something special about a woman taking the risk of doing a triple axel, as it is such a rare occurrence in the sport. I could feel the energy backstage before Mirai took the ice, and it's hard not to acknowledge that or be affected by it.

That's because it takes guts.

Almost definitely, Mirai's risk strategy of planning triple axels in both programs is creating interest in the lead-up to PyeongChang and reigniting that special kind of "Will she or won't she?" curiosity. It was evident when Midori Ito, Tonya Harding, Mao Asada and Elizaveta Tuktamisheva performed the same jump.

Risk is an important aspect of sport. A quick review of the men's results from last season confirms it (as does a recent story about how the International Skating Union may adjust the scale of values and potentially change the overall format of future figure skating events).

To put it in perspective, the triple axel, if landed, is worth 8.5 points -- or roughly one-sixth of the average women's technical element score (TES) for the free skate (54 points) and a little less than a quarter of the average women's TES for the short program (35 points). Even with a fall, the triple axel is still worth more than a landed double axel with a +3 Grade of Execution. Clearly, if a woman can do a triple axel, the ISU has made it worth the risk.

From a coach's point of view, I always tell my athletes three things about any element they choose to risk:

  1. You have to train it in order to be comfortable with it.
  2. You have to be willing to lose in order to win.
  3. With big risk come big payoffs.

Certainly Mirai echoed these sentiments in her pre- and post-event interviews with Philip Hersh, saying, "I have nothing to lose. I want to prove I am willing to do whatever it takes to make the Olympic team. I'm building a résumé. I learned from last time you can't rely just on doing well at nationals."

Hersh subsequently crowned Mirai "Miss Triple Axel," a role he noted no U.S. woman has played since 2005.

Make no mistake: Figure skating is not gymnastics, but figure skating is also not dance or theatre. Combining aspects of all of them makes figure skating first and foremost a unique sport in the Olympic Games.

As Hersh rightly noted, the triple axel alone, even if clean, does not compensate for other mistakes, and it alone will not be enough for Mirai to earn a spot on the 2018 Olympic team. But, as he wrote, it has started a buzz that adds to her image.

Mirai added, "I feel like I'm getting myself ahead of the game and ahead of my competitors, and that's really important to me going into the Olympic season."

There have been eight women who have done the triple axel but none as consistently as the men do it. Because Mirai is so athletic, my inspiration while I was working with her on this jump was for her to do it with the same technique as a man and to do it as well or better than a man.

I admire how Mirai posted a downgraded attempt from practice a few weeks ago on her Instagram account. She really wanted to show young skaters that when learning a jump like a triple axel, you will experience hardships.

One of her first goals when we began working together in April 2014 was to learn a triple axel. The video above reminded me of the three-year process of learning the jump to which Mirai has committed herself. She has worked on it every day since that day. She works on it when she is tired. When she doesn't "feel" it. When she doesn't feel "like" it. When it's easy. When it's not. She has desire and is committed.

That is why, I believe, she will eventually land one cleanly in competition.

And that is one reason why I am so proud of her every time she goes for it.

(Side note: I can also share with you that Mirai and I have had several conversations about learning a quad -- especially on days when her triple axel is feeling easy and floating and the timing is effortless. It would be a quad toe, if she so chooses.)

Team USA skater Starr Andrews recently tried and landed a downgraded triple axel in her free skate program at Junior Grand Prix Austria. As the barriers begin breaking, it is only a matter of time before consistent triple axels are achieved in the ladies event. In the meantime, skating fans all over the world will be waiting in anticipation for the day, sometime in the near future, when Mirai lands her triple axel in competition.

When Hersh asked Mirai what he should say about her performances in Salt Lake City, she noted she received full credit for both triple axel attempts.

"Just write about that," she told him.

And on that day when she lands it, I am sure all the reporters will!