On Sunday at Gangneung Ice Arena, Nagasu came back down to earth. She landed, quite literally, with a thud, falling hard on her hip when the opening triple axel of her short program went awry during a midmorning practice. Nagasu popped up and skated on, showing no ill effects of a blow hard enough to make a sickening smack that reverberated through the nearly empty 12,000-seat arena. By the end of the 40-minute session, she had landed the jump, which actually demands 3 1 /2 rotations — given its forward takeoff and backward landing — at least three times without incident, pausing periodically at the side of the rink to confer with her coach, Tom Zakrajsek.
Nagasu’s triple axel, which only Japanese champions Midori Ito (1992) and Mao Asada (2010, 2014) previously had landed on an Olympic stage, proved pivotal to U.S. figure skating’s bronze medal in the team event here last week. The team event was won by Canada, with the Olympic Athletes from Russia taking silver.
It represented only the first step of what Nagasu, 24, came to South Korea to achieve in her second Olympic Games, after finishing fourth at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and being passed over for a spot on the 2014 Sochi squad. She came to earn the individual medal that eluded her eight years ago. As Nagasu indicated Sunday, this is no moment for playing it safe. The high-risk triple axel will remain a fixture of her programs — both the short, when the women’s competition gets underway Wednesday, and Friday’s decisive free skate.
“Maybe I’ll fall; maybe I’ll land it,” Nagasu told reporters during an afternoon news conference in PyeongChang. “But right now my mind-set is I’m going to nail it. And I believe.”
Nagasu is a striking contrast from many Olympic athletes, who retreat into a self-imposed exile of silence and focus as their competition nears. She delights in storytelling. And with bubbly pride and touches of self-deprecation, she breezed through her biography Sunday as the only child of Japanese parents who own a sushi restaurant in Arcadia, Calif., detailing her struggles to pay for coaching, which included a part-time job as an Ice Girl for the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche . She recounted trading shifts with co-workers so she could compete at major figure skating events, and she gushed about the thrill of watching hockey up close while confessing a fear of the puck because ‘I have no hand-eye coordination!’”
Alternately charming and circuitous, her stories invariably circled back to a common theme: resilience. It lies at the core of her being, and it’s the hallmark of the athletes she admires most.
“I’m not a fadeaway type of person; I don’t have that type of personality,” Nagasu said when asked why she didn’t give up after missing the podium in 2010 and then missing the Olympics entirely in 2014. “To look at Shaun White, Lindsey Vonn just continue on, Olympic cycle after Olympic cycle — that’s why they’re famous. And Michael Phelps, as well — so many Olympics. That’s so many years.”
Nagasu noted that the typical sports fan may think that figure skaters’ careers can’t last, assuming that, like gymnasts, they peak at young ages, then “kind of drift away.” But that’s not so, she noted, pointing to two-time Olympic gymnasts Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman, who earned six gold medals, two silvers and one bronze between them at the 2012 and 2016 Summer Games.
“Sports are evolving and always evolving, and people have that determination to keep going and coming back,” Nagasu said. “I think I’m one of those athletes. I stand to show that people shouldn’t give up. You’ve got to just keep going until you succeed.”
And though she already has succeeded in landing the triple axel, she is determined to do it twice more before the PyeongChang Games come to an end.
“I’m definitely going for it: No guts no glory,” Nagasu said. “If I fall, I’ll take the fall and get up and keep going.”
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