Mirai Nagasu: Breaking Barriers On and Off the Ice

By Angela Bao

June 6, 2019
Mirai Nagasu, the U.S. Olympic figure skater
Mirai Nagasu, the U.S. Olympic figure skater. (Photo credit): ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images

The Olympic bronze medalist talks about her history-making triple axel and her fight for greater Asian American representation.

In 2018, Mirai Nagasu made history by becoming the first American woman—and third woman ever—to land the notoriously difficult triple axel at the Olympics. Not only did she help the U.S. Olympic team win a bronze medal at Pyeongchang, she also competed in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and was the youngest woman to win a U.S. senior ladies title since Olympic champion Tara Lipinski in 1997.

However, Nagasu emphasizes that it wasn’t an easy path to her bronze medal win. She was passed up for a spot on the U.S. team at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, despite placing third at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Despite the unexpected setback, she wasn’t deterred from pursuing her Olympic medal dreams and decided, at age 24, to learn a new jump: the triple axel.

“After 2014, I was really determined to learn a new jump, which is really unheard of—especially in figure skating—at the age that I am. Generally, we learn a jump at a very young age, and we spend our 20s refining our technique and learning more about consistence and pressure,” Nagasu shares. “For me to learn the triple axel at 24 years old was a huge deal. It took a lot out of my body—I tore my labrum—but I would say it was worth it.”

Nagasu talks more with us about her Olympic experience, Asian American representation and her newfound love for sparkling water.

How did you get into figure skating, and when did you know that figure skating was something you wanted to pursue as a career?

Coming from a background of two immigrant parents, it was really important to my parents to help me find something that I was really passionate about and that I could excel at, at a young age. This was an era when Tiger Woods was really popular. He was a young prodigy, and my dad had a huge passion for golf. I have photos of me before I could even walk, on the golf course.

One day, it rained in California. Instead of going to golf practice, my mom decided to take me to the ice rink. I guess I started to ask to be taken to the rink every day instead of the golf course. When you’re 5 years old, your parents…they just kind of go along with it, and it just kind of became a little bit of a snowball effect. We had no clue what we were doing, but I had really good coaches who helped push me and helped motivate me.

I don’t remember learning how to walk, and I equate the same thing with skating. I started at such a young age that it has been a part of my whole life. I mean, I learned how to walk and then skating got incorporated—I don’t think it’s something that I’ll ever let go of.

Any Olympian will tell you that they’re very competitive. When I was growing up, I always used to get fourth place. When you’re younger, you get a medal for fourth place. Usually it’s classified by color: blue is generally first, second is red, third is usually green and fourth gets a yellow ribbon. My mom would always tell me that I was really lucky that I was still at a lower level, because when you get up to the big leagues, you don’t actually get anything for fourth place.

I used to pout a little bit and tell my mom that the judges had it all wrong. I believed in myself way more than I was capable of—I look back at my old videos, and I’m like, “Wow, I wasn’t that great of a skater,” but I always believed I was. I think that belief in myself, and that desire to be in the top, kept pushing me.

What was it like competing in the Olympics? How did you deal with the pressure?

It’s a lot of responsibility to be named to the Olympic team. There’s a weight and responsibility to be selected. At most, your country gets three spots, and the U.S. is such a big country—there are so many people who are qualified for the spot. I felt a huge responsibility, and I put pressure on myself to do well. To be a part of something bigger than yourself is something I think a lot of people strive for. I’m lucky to call myself a two-time Olympian.

Because I’m a solo skater, it gets really lonely. It’s kind of daunting to step out onto Olympic ice and think, “Oh boy, it feels a little bit like me against the world,” even though I know that there are so many people who are supporting me. I equate that to a scene from “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” when the pirates are going against the entire English naval forces. It’s just like one of those moments where you’re putting everything on the line. I feel that’s the motivation that I need going into competition—I watch that scene to pump myself up while I get ready for the Olympics.

Was it different skating on the U.S. Olympic team versus just for yourself?

It was really cool! They had team boxes for us where they tried to get teammates, if they weren’t busy, to sit and support us. Right at the end of my program, because the team boxes were really close to the wall, I was going by them and setting up for my last element, when my legs were dead (and) felt like cement. The lactic acid was overtaking my legs, and I was thinking, “Oh boy, I’m a little tired, here we go.”

Right at that moment, (Olympic pair skater) Alexa Scimeca Knierim, she was excited for me (and) she said, “You did it, girl!” It just made me laugh a little bit because she had no clue I still had one more jump. It was kind of the mindset change that I needed because I nailed that last jump. She said later, “Oh yeah, did you hear me say, ‘you did it, girl’?” And I said, “Yeah, I did.” And she said, “Yeah, well, I didn’t know you still had another element.” And I said, “It’s ok—I think it’s what I needed because it made me laugh in the middle of my program.”

Mirai Nagasu at the Tournament of the Roses’ #ThisGen2019 youth empowerment forum, sponsored by East West Bank
Mirai Nagasu at the Tournament of the Roses’ #ThisGen2019 youth empowerment forum, sponsored by East West Bank. (Photo credit): Tournament of the Roses
“I’m a fighter, and I hope to fight for representation. I want to see people feel like they can strive for their goals.”

-Mirai Nagasu

For me to be responsible for a part of the team was really something I heavily wanted. I would look at team sports like basketball and volleyball, and I wanted to be a part of a camaraderie like that. To be given that opportunity to be given an Olympic medal with my teammates was literally a dream come true.

What are some of the biggest challenges you have had to face and how did you tackle them?

After the Olympics, I really, really struggled with my purpose in life. To go into the operating room with the ability to walk (Nagasu had hip surgery to repair a torn labrum and hip socket fracture, incurred while learning the triple axel), to do all of my elements that I love, and then to wake up and not be able to walk, to look that my leg is twice the size it was two hours previously—that was a little hard to stomach. I had to go through a lot of soul searching.

I was asking my friend, “How do you know this is the career you want to be on?” My friend was going through a transition and said, “Actually, I’m making a lot of money, but I hate it. I think I’m going to look for another job.” Seeing her grow as a person, seeing that she wasn’t happy and was going to do something about it—that helped me when I was recovering from my surgery.

Have you found anything outside of skating that you’re interested in? What do you think is next for you?

The first thing that came to my mind was sparkling water. Yeah, I’m into LaCroix—it tastes so good. I don’t really like soda, but I love sparkling water.

I’m really into my own wellness now. I’ve really jumped onto the whole juicing fad. I like to juice my own celeries. I love celery juice—not for the taste but for its health benefits.

I’m also an intern at KABC. Learning about other people really fascinates me. I think that’s really want I want to go into. I would love to be backstage at sports events and to really ask the athletes what helped them have their successful performance, or what was it that might have distracted them. Those are things I’m really curious about. Obviously, I am really curious about it in figure skating. But I interned for several departments at the news station, and I’ve been introduced to many sports outside of my own. I watched Tiger Woods win the Masters again, and I just wanted to ask him how he has that undying faith and how he still has that ability to be pushing through all that negativity.

You’re also a role model to many people and aspiring Olympians. What do you hope to achieve with your voice and platform?

As a figure skater, I’ve been so fortunate to have role models who were Asian American that I’ve been able to look up to. Kristi Yamaguchi paved the way for me, so did Michelle Kwan. These are household names that we remember. Outside of figure skating, Asian American representation is not high enough. Growing up in Arcadia, going to school at Highland Oaks, Foothills and Arcadia High School, where there were Asian Americans, I never realized its importance until I stepped outside of California and outside of figure skating.

I’m Japanese American. I was always too Americanized for Japan, but I’ve always been too Asian for the U.S. I’ve always been most comfortable around my Asian American friends. Because I grew up with it, I never really truly understood its value until I stepped out of it. Now when I talk to people who are Japanese American or Asian American, there is something so relatable to me about them, and I never understood its value until it was taken away from me.

My parents’ generation was all about taking the hit. You could say whatever you want, and they would apologize and actually thank you. I am not of that generation. I’m a fighter, and I hope to fight for representation. I want to see people feel like they can strive for their goals. I think that people need to break barriers, and I don’t want to be told no. I don’t know that I consider myself a barrier breaker, but my desire to go for the triple axel—I admire that I set such a high goal for myself. I hope that I continue to see others strive for the same.

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