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Nagasu finds desperately needed oasis in Colorado

Well-traveled skater arrives in Kansas City with fortunes on the upswing
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Moving to Colorado Springs has done wonders for Mirai Nagasu's skating, but more important than that -- it has allowed the Southern California native to lead a more well-rounded life. -Getty Images

The connection had only audio, but you still could see Mirai Nagasu smiling during a media teleconference last week.

Both the tone of her voice and the content of her answers transmitted an image of happiness.

It was an emotion that long had been muted publicly in Nagasu, making the sound of it the most pleasant of surprises, especially since her Grand Prix results this season would not seem a cause for joy.

"This is the first time in a couple years I'm actually really excited to go to nationals and show everyone what I am practicing and what I am capable of," Nagasu told the media on the call.

At age 23 -- yes, still only 23 and about to make a 10th straight appearance in the senior division at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships -- it felt as if the 13-year-old version of Mirai Nagasu was with us again.

That is the Nagasu who charmed everyone with not only her insouciance but also her skating after becoming the out-of-nowhere upset winner of the junior ladies title at the 2007 U.S. Championships.

Who could resist the story Nagasu told then about sleeping on a cot in a storage room at her parents' sushi restaurant until its closing time? Who wasn't later captivated by her unaffected, stream-of-consciousness ramblings at an official pre-competition press conference at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games?

As I wrote that day in Vancouver:

"Three forces of nature blew into the area late last week.

"Rain, snow and Mirai Nagasu."

Nagasu would finish fourth at those Olympics. At 16, the sun seemed ready to shine on her for years to come.

That forecast was wrong.

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Nagasu would have to weather one setback after another, one poor result after another, and then the disheartening aftermath of pulling it together, only to be left off the 2014 Olympic team. Nagasu finished third at the 2014 U.S. Championships, one place ahead of Ashley Wagner, but the selection criteria in place justified U.S. Figure Skating's decision to give Wagner the third Olympic spot.

"I don't think there was a moment when I can say I was over that," Nagasu said in a one-on-one interview after the conference call last week. "I think it's like breaking up with someone: You eventually just move on and realize there is no point in lamenting the past."

Yet Nagasu's once high spirits would become so dampened that in the post-2014 Olympic season, when she skated to music from Madame Butterfly, she darkly likened her story to that of the most tragic heroine in the operatic literature.

In the past, Nagasu often had been highly self-critical, but she insisted those assessments owed mainly to a sarcastic sense of humor that made it easy to misinterpret her words. In talking about Butterfly, she was dead serious in saying at 2014 Skate America, "I feel like the worst has happened to me, so what better person to skate to Madame Butterfly than me?"

"I think it's natural for any athlete to be hard on themselves," Nagasu said last week. "I can really relate to stories that have gone wrong."

Not long before that 2014-15 season, Nagasu began an effort to rewrite her story by leaving her parents' home in north suburban Los Angeles and moving to Colorado Springs to train with Tom Zakrajsek. It was a move she waited to make until her parents were comfortable with it.

"My mom wanted me to stay at home until 18, and the financial situation we had didn't give us the ability to move with my mom," Nagasu said. "I understand and respect the decision my parents made. They have made me who I am."

Both her parents work in the family restaurant. Her mother, Ikuko, now in her mid-50s, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2009. The cancer now is in total remission, Mirai said.

"We're so lucky she is still with us," Mirai added.

Being in Colorado Springs has not miraculously transformed Nagasu into the skater it seemed she was destined to become after she followed the junior victory in 2007 by winning the U.S. senior title the following year at age 14 -- making her the second-youngest female U.S. singles champion in history, after Tara Lipinski.

But it has put Nagasu in a better place -- literally.

When she lived in California, Nagasu often spent three or more hours in the car, on the Los Angeles' area's congested freeways, getting to and from practices. Her longest trips in Colorado Springs are about 20 minutes, giving her time for a life outside skating, which now includes college, a boyfriend and three dogs: Lincoln, 3, a Pugalier (mix of Pug and Cavalier King Charles Spaniel); Liberty, 1, an Australian Shepherd; and Lexi, six months, a Siberian Husky.

"It took me a while to get to this point, but I am happy that I made it," she said.

She is in her sophomore year at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, where her academic curiosity has been fully piqued. Last semester, she took calculus, accounting, statistics and business law, and was disappointed that her grades included two B's with her two A's. Next semester, she will tackle chemistry.

At the 2010 Olympics, she marveled that teammate Rachael Flatt, then a high school senior who went on to a Stanford degree in biology, was taking four AP classes. "I'm more of an artsy-crafty person," Nagasu said.

That was then.

"In my early 20s, I felt like I was looking for and needed more," Nagasu said of her varied academic interests.

School also has provided a healthy counterbalance to skating -- and vice versa. It has allowed Nagasu to cope better with a career that maps out like a sidelong view of a mountain range.

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Building off her performance at the 2010 Olympics, where she was the top U.S. female singles finisher, Nagusu won the short program at the ensuing world championships only to come undone in the free skate, finishing a lowly 11th to drop her off the podium.

There was a similar (if less total) unraveling at the 2011 U.S. Championships, where she won the short program but gave a lackluster performance in the free skate. Nagasu wound up third overall, with only the top two making the world team.

She placed seventh at each of the next two U.S. championships, bouncing from one coach to another in those years. She arrived at the 2014 U.S. Championships in Boston with no primary coach at all, having spent some of the preparation time with coaches in Japan. Somehow, despite all that instability, Nagasu was third in both phases of the competition, bringing the crowd to its feet as her free skate ended.

And then, still feeling the hurt of not making the Olympic team, she experienced a stunning drop to 10th at the 2015 U.S. Championships.

Her fourth-place showing last season got Nagasu back to worlds (where she finished 10th) for the first time since 2010, after Polina Edmunds withdrew with an injury. She confessed that earning the spot the way she did was not what she wanted but still wears her 2016 world team jacket with pride.

Ask her which U.S. championships brings back the best memories, and you get a typical Nagasu answer -- honest and bittersweet.

"Definitely Spokane, Washington (2007), as a junior," she said. "It was all so new and so exciting. I was just so excited to miss that much school and to skate that well."

That she still wants more a decade later is evident in Nagasu's attempt to master the triple axel at an age few skaters would risk trying a new jump, let alone the most difficult one done by women. Zakrajsek has posted videos of Nagasu landing them in practice, and she intends to practice them in Kansas City, but she will not decide until the 11th hour if she will put it in a program this week.

Whether she even needs it is another question, as her recent results have been encouraging. She skated a personal-best short program at the Autumn Classic International last fall, with a score (73.40) that ranks fifth in the world this season. Her best total score came last season in a silver medal-winning performance at the Four Continents Championships -- her first medal at an ISU championship since a bronze at that same event in 2011 and just the second of her senior career. She has not won a Grand Prix Series medal since 2013.

"I think I would be bored if I were winning all the time, even though it would be nice," Nagasu said with a laugh. "And I would love to be medaling all the time, but then I wouldn't be who I am today. I think I have learned to take losses like a champion, and I'm proud of that."