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Road to Omaha: Nagasu happy to be under radar

U.S. Olympian enters 2013 U.S. Championships with upbeat attitude

Mirai Nagasu has already shown improvement this season, claiming bronze at NHK Trophy.
Mirai Nagasu has already shown improvement this season, claiming bronze at NHK Trophy. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/18/2013) - In Omaha, Neb., next week at the 2013 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, defending U.S. champion Ashley Wagner will square off against a new skater: a fit, motivated Mirai Nagasu.

"I feel I've been doing very well, working through my bad days and enjoying my good days," Nagasu said in a telephone interview last week. "I'm practicing my programs every day, going through everything, and even when something goes wrong, I know I can pull through and get it done."

What a difference a year makes.

The 19-year-old's upbeat attitude is a far cry from her lead-up to the 2012 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Training then was a patchwork affair, with Nagasu spending several days per week with Frank Carroll while also working with Rafael Arutunian in Lake Arrowhead, Galina Barinova in Artesia, and on her own in Pasadena.

Nothing showed her frustration more than a pre-event media teleconference held while she and her mother, Ikuko, made the two-hour drive from Carroll's training center near Palm Springs, Calif., back home to Los Angeles.

"[I'm] heading into my second hour in the car and honestly, it sucks," was the big takeaway.

She placed a disappointing seventh at the 2012 U.S. Championships.

These days, training at Pickwick Ice in Burbank, Calif., a short drive from home, with Wendy Olson and Amy Evidente, Nagasu is more grounded and far happier.

"As much as I loved working with Frank, it was a toll on my body to drive the two hours," she said. "Now, I borrow my dad's car so I can drive myself to the rink, which is extremely nice, because as much as I love my mom, sometimes we need to give each other space."

There have been fewer media calls this season, and that's OK, too. The 2008 U.S. champion is a bit removed from her days as a darling of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, when her unguarded quips and telegenic smile made her a reporters' favorite and her solid programs put her fourth.

"It's good to have attention on you sometimes, but sometimes it can get a little overwhelming," Nagasu said. "There is no hype about me right now. I feel like there isn't really any pressure. I just need to get in there and get my jumps done and do my best."

Olson also thinks arriving somewhat under the radar in Omaha will work to her skater's favor.

"For her, there is not quite as much pressure as in the past," Olson said. "She's in a good place -- more independent and taking charge of her skating. She feels more comfortable heading into nationals."

Nagasu showed this fall that she can be competitive with the best of the U.S. ladies. Her solid free skate at NHK Trophy gave her higher technical scores than the event's winner, Mao Asada. She lost ground on two under-rotated triple jumps as well as program components scores, areas she and her coaches targeted in the run-up to Omaha.

"We have brought in Jamie Isley to touch up her short program (Benny Goodman's "Downhill Special") and Cindy Stuart to work with her on her long ("Symphony No. 3 in C minor" by Camille Saint-Saëns)," Olson said.

Both programs were choreographed this summer by Susan Austin.

"The goal is to add more transitions and more body movement in the [step sequence] in the short, to gain another level," Olson continued. "Jamie's style is great with jazz, and Cindy can really [infuse] some artistry into the long. We do run-throughs with the jumps, and then afterward, focus on stroking."

There have not been any big changes in the elements for either program, Nagasu said; she will stick with a triple toe-triple toe combination in her short, as well as a double Axel-triple toe in her free. It's more about refining and adding interest to what's already in place.

"[Isley and Stuart] have been helping me understand the concept of my programs better, to let my true strengths come out and just enjoy skating to the music," Nagasu said. "I feel like when someone really enjoys their music and can feel it, then everything else falls into place, so I want to just get out there and get into my groove."

Olson and Evidente have also attacked Nagasu's jumps, with Evidente's off-ice training regimen adding zip to the skater's form.

"Mirai is in great shape now, much better than last year," Olson said. "The main thing is she is fit, and it is easier for her to rotate the jumps. She has to keep her jumps clean while also showing excellent skating skills."

The skater, who at times appeared to butt heads with some of her former coaches, seems to have embraced Olson and Evidente's tactics.

"Wendy is the technician of the group, whereas Amy works with me on my off-ice [training]," she said. "When something goes wrong, I sit down with both of them and talk to both of them. There are three of us, so the majority decides what happens, instead of one person."

And what if it's two against one, with Nagasu on the losing side?

"Yeah, that happens, and I get over it," she said. "Usually, I come around because I understand where they are coming from and I understand what's best for me, and sometimes, what I want isn't exactly what's best for me."

What Nagasu wants now, as she heads to Omaha, is another chance to make things right -- to show her personality, speed and power and shrug off the pressure that's limited her in her past few U.S. championships.

"The [two U.S. world] spots are open to anybody who really wants them," she said. "I feel like all of us have been working hard, and we've had a pretty good showing for the U.S. ladies on the Grand Prix circuit.

"For me, I'm much happier with myself now. I just want to get out there and get my job done and not worry about the media, not worry about what the judges think. I just want to be able to relate to the audience and skate for myself and skate well."