Ice Network

Nagasu firmly in Olympic medal conversation

Armed with triple axel, 24-year-old possess skill set to make podium run
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Following her strong showing in the team event, Mirai Nagasu has placed herself in medal talks at the 2018 Winter Games. -Getty Images

GANGNEUNG, South Korea - Before the Olympics began, the idea that Mirai Nagasu would be in any discussion about potential women's singles medalists was fanciful, even a bit preposterous.

That all changed last Monday.

"I've had her in the conversation for a week," said Robin Cousins of Great Britain, the 1980 Olympic gold medalist and BBC commentator.

A history-making triple axel jump in the team event free skate put Nagasu's name on the Olympic sports world's lips -- and on those of entertainment world celebrities like the Big Bang Theory's Mayim Bialik and Modern Family's Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who have congratulated her about it on Twitter.

"What Mirai has done is absolutely amazing," said teammate Karen Chen, speaking of the triple axel. "I think she will inspire many younger skaters that the impossible is possible."

But it was the 3 minutes, 45 seconds of near-flawless performance following her triple axel that convinced the sport's observers she was not a one-trick pony but a skater with renewed mastery of overall skills to match the resolute will that has generated one of the most endearing comebacks in figure skating history.

"When I saw her at the team event with a triple axel as big as many men's, I said, 'That girl came for one thing, to prove she is part of history,''' said Tomas Verner, 2008 European champion and Czech TV commentator.

Nagasu, 24, the first U.S. woman to land a triple at the Olympics, helped the U.S. team win the medal, a bronze, she has longed for since finishing fourth in the 2010 Olympics at age 16 and failing to make the U.S. team in 2014. The bright future predicted for her eight years ago turned dark for several seasons, and her reemergence has captivated those witnessing it live or on television.

"My heart is with her on this journey," said Kurt Browning, four-time world champion and CBC commentator. "An individual medal? Why not? Sometimes you just think there is karma around people. There are stories that build power and strength. Maybe hers is one of them."

To all of this, Nagasu responds with variations of, "anything is possible." She relied on that mantra several times during a Sunday press conference for the three U.S. women singles skaters, enlivening it with stream-of-Mirai verbal jaunts in every direction imaginable in her answers to media whose focus clearly was on her far more than on teammates Chen and Bradie Tennell, the U.S. champion.

The pre-Olympic medal narrative for a women's competition beginning with Wednesday's short program had Russians Evgenia Medvedeva, the two-time reigning world champion, and Alina Zagitova, who beat Medvedeva for the European title last month, 1-2 in some order.

Among those then considered contenders for bronze were Italy's Carolina Kostner, Canada's Kaetlyn Osmond and Gabrielle Daleman, Japan's Satoko Miyahara and Kaori Sakamoto and a third Russian, Maria Sotskova.

Nagasu finished a distant second to Zagitova in the five-woman team event free skate, but she beat Kostner, Daleman and Sakamoto.

"You never know what could happen," Nagasu said. "Nobody thought I would come in fourth in Vancouver. Nobody thought Adelina (Sotnikova) was going to win in Sochi. We've seen Evgenia, who has been undefeatable, fall a couple times and make mistakes. Everybody is vulnerable."

Nagasu likely can afford no more than one mistake in the entire competition, which ends with Friday's free skate, if she is to leap from presumed also-ran to the podium. Those inclined to think that is implausible, to dismiss her team free skate performance as a one-off, can do so with some justification given her infrequent excellence since 2010 -- but they also do it at their own peril.

Yes, the triple axel here was the first clean one she had landed in nine attempts this season. Yes, she will take the risk of doing it in both the short program and the free skate.

"Maybe I'll fall. Maybe I'll land it," she said. "My mindset is I'm going to land it, and I'm going to believe. No guts, no glory."

Nagasu is unabashedly soaking in all the attention that has come her way since joining Japanese skaters Midori Ito and Mao Asada as the only women to land triple axels at the Olympics. She likes being called "Triple Axel Queen."

"I'm an introverted extrovert," she said. "I can say whatever I want here. I don't have to feel I need to live up to anyone or anything."

In the past few days, everyone has learned that after relocating from the Los Angeles area to Colorado Springs four years ago, she spent the 2015-16 season as an ice girl for the NHL's Colorado Avalanche.

"I wanted to find a family outside my skating family, and I needed a job," Nagasu said. "It was a perfect fit for me."

And then teammate Adam Rippon spilled on how he and Nagasu had commiserated over their mutual failure to make the 2014 Olympic team by eating In-N-Out burgers on the roof of her house.

"He's a character and I'm also quite the character, too, and it's a great chance for us to share our story," Nagasu said. "I'm all right with the full disclosure.

"It's a little bit embarrassing that we're athletes, and we're just crying on a rooftop," she added. But we needed that moment and we needed to look out into the horizon and say there's so much more to life than just skating and the Olympics. Let's just dig into these burgers because they can provide minute satisfaction."

That she refuses to be satisfied by what happened in the free skate speaks to the drive that has turned her seemingly quixotic eight-year quest into a story that could become an Olympic epic.

"I stand to show that people shouldn't give up," Nagasu said. "You've got to just keep going until you succeed."