GANGNEUNG, South Korea — All of Mirai Nagasu’s life had been building to this moment, toward attempting the triple axel in her final Olympic skate — the one that could vault her deep into the top 10 and keep her there for good.
Then, within seconds of starting her long program, she stepped through the triple axel and explained later that she hit a rut. She never recovered. After several stumbles, she smiled. When it was over, after all those years of much-discussed determination, she just laughed.
“My focus has been a little bit too much about the medals,” Nagasu said. “. . . When I didn’t land my triple axel in the short [program], my mom told me, ‘Who cares if you get last place? This is the Olympics. Making it is the hard part.’ ”
But this is the Olympics, and given the history of American success in this event, people do care that these three skaters could not duplicate it. Bradie Tennell’s ninth-place finish was the highest spot for an American. Nagasu finished 10th, Karen Chen 11th. Before this year, every American team since World War II had yielded at least a sixth-place finish.
The Olympics pose a complicated question of ownership. In professional sports, where the fans pay for tickets and tickets help pay the players, a certain level of commitment is expected. Those who remain “just happy to be here” soon become “recently unemployed.” But in figure skating, athletes pay to play, dedicate their lives to achieving their own goals, then suddenly find themselves beholden to public opinion. Who gets to decide how they approach the end? Do they owe anything to anyone but themselves?
When Nagasu helped the United States earn a bronze medal in the team event, she decided that was enough. She brought that medal with her to the rink for her free skate Friday. She pulled it out for reporters after her skate, a strange twist in an interview most in attendance expected to be somber.
“It’s been a long three weeks, and we got here, got to walk in the Opening Ceremonies, and then I saved the team event with Adam [Rippon] and the Shibutanis. We were about to lose our medal,” Nagasu said, holding up her medal. “So today, I put my medal in my pocket — here she is — and I said, ‘Mirai, you’ve done your job already. This is all just icing.’ ”
Nagasu, 24, described going to bed at 8 p.m. night after night, then waking up at 4 a.m. morning after morning as her teammates in other events finished their competitions and let loose. She said she hadn’t taken a hot shower in weeks because “there are a lot of people on Team USA, and somehow I keep trying to take a shower when all the hot water is gone.” She said she missed her dogs. She talked about how, after medaling in the team event, she and her teammates “had so many other commitments.”
“I’ve been crying every day since the team event because I was so happy, but then we had to keep training and training and training, and we’re just exhausted,” Nagasu said. “. . . Maybe it won’t be enough for another person, or maybe someone else could have done a better job. Although I got zero points in my attempt for the triple axel, in my mind I went for it.”
But she didn’t go for it — neither the axel nor her absolute grittiest best. That decision, and her justification for it, felt incongruous to everything that came before. They didn’t mesh with all the work, all the self-inflicted hype about the triple axel, all the talk of redemption after being left off the team for Sochi in 2014. They didn’t fit with an athlete, known for her fight, likely competing in her final Olympic Games. But in that athlete’s mind, the fight was won — and the next goal set.
“I would like to be on ‘Dancing with the Stars’ because I want to be a star,” Nagasu said. “I made history here by landing the first triple axel for a U.S. lady, third at the Olympics, and that’s a big deal.”
Nagasu didn’t say for sure that this was her last Olympic push. On Friday, she certainly didn’t seem like someone who wanted to make another. The decision to train for four more years will have financial implications for her family, logistical implications for the entirety of her mid-20s and physical implications for a body she already has put through enough triple axels to give her achy joints for years to come.
If Friday was the end, it was unceremonious and unimpressive — words rarely used to describe Nagasu over the past decade. But if this is the end, it is the one she chose, the one she said she owes herself.
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