Ice Network

Creating the program: Nagasu hits competition ice

Zakrajsek puts elements in place; skater debuts new free at Skate Detroit
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Mirai Nagasu wasn't happy with the way she skated her new free at Skate Detroit, but her coach, Tom Zakrajsek, put a positive spin on her performance. -Flavio Valle

If you've ever watched figure skaters practicing, you may have seen them run a program with the music, playing the choreography to the hilt, but just "walking through" jumps and doing simple spins in place of the high-scoring elements they'll need in competition. That's what a program looks like, at first: full of choreography and complicated step sequences but with empty spaces left for jumps and spins.

Once Mirai Nagasu returned to Colorado Springs in July, equipped with two brand-new programs, she needed to get all the elements in place quickly: Only two weeks remained before she was to compete at Skate Detroit.

Normally, depending on his or her coach's strategy, a skater would take anywhere from two to four months to get elements firmly set in a free skate. Nagasu's coach, Tom Zakrajsek, is very organized about the whole process. For the first month, he has his students train their program doing only single jumps. (The skater works on triples separately, outside of the program).

"Then they get two weeks of what I call 'trying out' their triples, in different combinations," Zakrajsek said. "For example, they may do the first triple jump and then the next is a single, and then they do their next triple. They get to mix up their different jump boxes for two weeks, until they're really comfortable with their patterns."

If Zakrajsek feels the order of the jumps needs to be changed, he will spend the next two weeks working on that. He may also adjust the approach patterns into the elements.

Some skaters need to put a lot of time into getting their spins right. Not Nagasu.

"For a skater like Mirai, the spins are so easy, she gets a Level 4 all the time," Zakrajsek said.

Nevertheless, Nagasu will sometimes leave a spin out, early in the process.

"Spins go in right from the beginning, but sometimes if I'm doing all of my jumps and I need a moment, I'll eliminate a spin to take a breather," she said. "It's interesting how much energy spins take, because of the pressure. I get really dizzy after laybacks, which is why they're typically at the end. Spinning with your face toward the ceiling makes you dizzy, but you kind of work around it."

At this point, two months after choreography, Zakrajsek has his skaters do full run-throughs.

"We usually keep track, for a whole month, of the percentage (success rate) of each element -- I call that the baseline," Zakrajsek said. "Then we try to get all the jump elements to 70 percent or greater. So, it's a three-month process, and then the last month is polishing, spin levels, step sequences."

After getting a late start to the season, Nagasu didn't have as much time as she would have liked: She just had to skate her new programs in Detroit as best she could.

"I've never competed this soon after getting programs," she said. "I think I need better balance in where the jumps go. Overall, I accomplished getting my programs out there. I did it more for the judges to see my program; that's why we all do these summer competitions."

In Detroit, Nagasu landed her opening triple flip-double toe as well as two double axels, but her other triples weren't successful. The judges told her they liked the transitions in the program, choreographed by David Wilson to "The Winner Takes It All," and they awarded her step sequence a Level 4.

"Right now, I'm still working on just getting through the program," Nagasu said. "It's a lot to handle still. Long programs weren't made to be easy! I love the footwork; I love how musical it is. There's a part where I get down on my knee -- it takes a lot of energy to do it at this point in the program, but it's like a metaphor, that getting up is hard. I love that part. And I do a really difficult move, where I lean back before the axel."

After Skate Detroit, Nagasu headed to Japan to skate in Mao Asada's THE ICE, which runs from July 30 to Aug. 11. As soon as she gets home, she'll get to work in earnest to prepare for Champs Camp and her Grand Prix events.

In order to better train it, she plans to break the free skate into two sections: one half with three jumps and one with four.

"It's a lot harder to practice the details when I'm tired," Nagasu said. "I'll run the whole program in the first three weeks, completely, for stamina training."

Once she starts doing full run-throughs, Nagasu thinks of the program in three sections: beginning, middle and end. This helps her with pacing.

"In competition, I tend to forget to breathe because of the adrenaline, so I really emphasize my breathing technique," Nagasu said. "If I don't do it, I struggle in the second half of my program, because I didn't breathe in the first half. The break in the middle is kind of a mental break to focus on breathing."

Concentrating on breathing also helps with nerves, something with which Nagasu admits she struggles.

"When I'm scared, I stop breathing," she said. "In any situation, when the nerves are on high alert, it's something that naturally stops happening. I'm always a little scared to put myself out there, but I'm excited as well."

After she skated in Detroit, Nagasu texted Zakrajsek and told him how upset she was with herself.

"I said 'Tom, I was such a mess, I was horrible,'" she said. "And he said, 'Actually, I thought you skated really beautifully. It's still early, you just got your programs, just try to get into the ice more.' He knows when to be hard on me and when I need that positive feedback. I hope by Champs Camp I'll be running my program with everything in it. It won't be perfect, but at least I'll be attempting everything."