Ice Network

'Comeback kid' Nagasu perseveres to reach dream

2010 Olympian conquers past demons to capture U.S. silver medal
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Mirai Nagasu was overcome with emotion after her incredible effort and determination helped her win the U.S. silver medal at the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. -Jay Adeff

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- There were about 40 seconds left in her free skate when Mirai Nagasu got close enough to where her coach, Tom Zakrajsek, was standing at the rink boards that she could hear what the coach was yelling.

"Mirai, enjoy this," Zakrajsek said.

She had a ball.

And then, when her scores were announced a few minutes later, she had a bawl.

Unlike four years ago, when she would be reduced to bitter tears at the 2014 U.S. championships, this time Nagasu could cry and smile at the same time.

"That is a new experience for me," Nagasu said.

That is something coming from a young woman who seemed to have gone through just about everything in the eight years since she was the ingénue who finished fourth at the 2010 Olympics and was passed over for an Olympic spot in 2014.

A national champion at 14, an Olympian at 16, and a forgotten 10th at nationals at 21, Nagasu has reveled in the public eye, struggled in the public eye and managed, at 24, to endure it all with a whimsical grace.

So it was no surprise that Nagasu allowed herself a quick double fist pump of exultation after she landed her final jump, a triple loop, with five seconds to go in Friday's free skate at these 2018 U.S. Championships.

When she learned early Saturday morning of her selection as one of three ladies on the 2018 U.S. Olympic team, Nagasu had jumped from an abyss of depression four years ago back to the heights of Olympus.

"I have always believed that I have been an amazing skater, regardless of what the results say," Nagasu said. "I think that determination and confidence have kept me in the game this long.

"I'm aware I'm the oldest here (on the podium) tonight, but I really feel like the comeback kid," she continued. "I cannot wait for this decision to come out because I cannot wait to be that five-year-old little girl who began this journey."

Friday's result was convincing: with 213.84 points, Nagasu finished second overall to a commanding two-program performance by Bradie Tennell (219.51), who became the most surprising national champion since, you guessed it, Nagasu 10 years ago. Karen Chen (198.59) was third, and Ashley Wagner an angry fourth, railing at the marks she received, especially the component scores.

"For me to put out the two performances that I did at this competition, as solid as I skated, and to get those scores, I am furious, and I think deservedly so," Wagner said. "I am a performer, and second (component) mark is just not there."

Wagner is in the same position she was four years ago, when the selection committee justifiably picked her over the third-place Nagasu for the Sochi Olympics based on Wagner's clear superiority in the array of criteria that were considered. This time, that does not seem likely to happen.

"You can always say I put myself in this position, but I think I had some help getting here, too," Wagner said.

Tennell's victory was convincing, as she rattled off jump after jump with just one minor flaw. The judges were so dazzled they also gave her the highest component scores in the free skate.

The 19-year-old Tennell had dropped utterly off the radar after back injuries made her an also-ran the past two seasons. She needed strong performances in low-level events and a U.S. Figure Skating training camp last summer to earn the Grand Prix event berth that propelled her toward this title, since she used that opportunity for a bronze medal at Skate America with two clean programs six weeks ago.

"My consistency really helped earn me that spot," she said.

Skate America was Tennell's senior Grand Prix debut. Without that chance, it is impossible to imagine her becoming U.S. champion now.

"I have no idea how it would have turned out (without that)," she said.

Nagasu put herself back into the 2018 Olympic picture with fourth-place finishes at the 2016 and 2017 U.S championships. Then she enhanced her resume by adding a triple axel to her technical package this season, even though she has yet to land one cleanly in eight competitive attempts but has received full base value credit on five, including one in each program this week.

Not since Kimmie Meissner in 2005 had a U.S. woman been credited for landing the jump.

"It goes to show you don't have to learn all these jumps at such a young age," Nagasu said. "I'm proud to be recognized for something no (other woman) in the U.S. can do right now. I love attention, and I love being recognized for the ability to land such a difficult jump."

She had a two-footed landing on the triple axel that opened her Friday free skate to the musical Miss Saigon, one of two jumping passes that got a negative grade of execution. (The other was a downgraded triple lutz). Such mistakes would have led to more for Nagasu in the past, but there were no such lapses this time, and the final triple loop earned a 1.50 GOE.

"I started out (her career) very strongly, and as I've grown in the public eye, I've had my rough seasons," she said. "I've learned that being in the public eye has made me more determined to show I do want to be at the top. Sometimes I just get in my own way. The last Olympic cycle, I felt so disappointed in myself. I had so much regret."

She also found out then how much skating fans loved her, and how they shared the pain of her failure to make the 2014 Olympics. Nagasu pressed onward, undeterred even by a 2015 season in which she looked lost and unhappy in every competition.

"I took on the full responsibility of being a stronger competitor and person," she said. "I wasn't going to let a decision that wasn't mine keep me from my dream."