GANGNEUNG, South Korea — The first time Mirai Nagasu landed the triple axel in Gangneung Ice Arena hardly anyone noticed. It was a year ago, at Four Continents Championships, during a practice session before the competition.
Realizing that the Olympics would be held in the same arena a year later, Nagasu and her coach Tom Zakrajsek staged a dress rehearsal of sorts. They planned for Nagasu to practice the jump in the arena, so she could get used to how it would feel to land a triple axel on Olympic ice. Although she didn’t attempt the jump while she competed then, she practiced it during her training session.
Those run-throughs paid off. Nagasu repeated the feat, and this time it counted, during the ladies long program portion of the team event on Monday morning. Just seconds after her music from the soundtrack of Miss Saigon began, Nagasu launched herself into the air, rotated three and a half times, and flew out of those turns with a smooth outside edge landing. And she skated into the history books — she is the first U.S. woman to land the triple axel in Olympic competition. She received full credit for the jump, which is worth 8.50 points.
“It is definitely history, or her-story, whatever way you want to say it,” she says of her feat. It certainly helped to keep the U.S. in medal contention; her second place finish in the ladies portion earned nine points behind the Olympic Athletes of Russia’s (OAR) Alina Zagitova. (In the team event, first place finishers earn 10 points, second place nine points, etc. for each ladies, men, pairs and ice dance event and the teams with the three highest totals make the podium.)
Once all the points were added from the short and long programs for each event, Canada won the team skating gold with 73 points, followed by the OAR with 66 points for silver and the U.S. with 62 for the bronze, out of a possible total of 80 points.
The Russians were hoping to defend their team gold from the 2014 Sochi Games, but after an error-filled skate by Mikhail Kolyada to open the three-day competition, the Canadians pulled ahead. Strong performances by their ladies skaters Kaetlyn Osmond and Gabrielle Daleman, as well as their pairs team of Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, kept Canada on top, even with an impressive skate by 15-year old Zagitova from the OAR, who out-scored Nagasu by packing all of her jumps into the last half of her program, which earned her bonus points. A powerful Moulin Rouge skate by the Canadian dance team, former Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, sealed the win.
In the men’s portion of the event, the U.S.’s Adam Rippon skated a clean program set to music by Coldplay, but chose not to try any quadruple jumps, which brought his technical score below those of Patrick Chan from Canada and Mikhail Kolyada of OAR, who each tried quadruple jumps even if they were flawed. Trying the jumps gave them more points than Rippon’s error-free triples overall.
But Nagasu’s history-making jump was the highlight of the evening. It was also sweet redemption for the California native, who was left off the Olympic team in 2014, although she finished third at the Olympic trials — the U.S. Figure Skating Association decided to send fourth place finisher Ashley Wagner instead, based on Wagner’s better international results at the time.
The two previous women to land triple axels at the Olympics have come from Japan, and while Nagasu is Japanese-American, she said “I’m fortunate I’m an American so I am the first U.S. lady to land a triple axel here. To nail it today is really exciting; today is a day of accomplishment for me.”
The triple axel is a jump men do routinely, but few women even attempt. Midori Ito of Japan was the first woman to ever land the jump in competition and only seven other female skaters have successfully landed it during competition.
Nagasu’s coach Tom Zakrajsek wasn’t entirely surprised that she pulled it off. “She lands them anywhere between 85% to 95% of the time on a daily basis,” he said. And she is relentless about practicing the jump. She whips off about 30 triple axels a day, 10 at each of her three daily training sessions. “Mirai craves repetition,” he says.
Still, all that repetition can be punishing on the body. So to compensate, Nagasu changed her training regimen and her diet to build up the stamina and energy needed to pull off the jump over and over again in practice. “She is extremely fit; she is what I would call ripped,” says Zakrajsek. “You can’t let your body go in any way and do this jump a lot.”
And those changes didn’t come without sacrifice. Nagasu, a California native, was determined to do anything necessary, including moving to another state, to master the jump. “I would have dreams I could do this jump,” she says. “But I would try it on the ice and I would fall a lot.”
Two years ago, in April 2014, she approached Zakrajsek, who coaches in Colorado Springs, and asked him to teach her how to do the triple axel. Mentally, she was still processing her disappointment over being bypassed for the Olympic team, and eager to find some way to set her skating apart. She wanted a fresh start, and decided to move so she could train with Zakrajsek. “I wanted to become a better skater,” she says. “This journey started with me wanting to become better, improve myself and change myself. It didn’t happen immediately. But I knew in my heart this day would come.”
Just the way she dreamed it.