One thing is sure: Mirai Nagasu has a terrific role model in herself. Let’s not forget she ended her first Olympics, eight years ago, on the 4th place – and that’s such an amazing feat for an Olympic debutante. She’ll tell you quickly, with a smile: “It just sometimes blows my mind that I was able to do that at 16!” And then: “But also I didn’t know how hard it was. I feel like now I’m more proud of myself than when I was 16”.
And she has all reasons to be proud Mirai: she masters the most difficult triple of all, the Axel, and she’s the second U.S. woman, after Tonya Harding, to land the jump in international competition. And with this ace up her sleeve, and huge amount of confidence, she’s entering the 2018 U.S. Nationals in San Jose hoping for a second trip to the Olympics.
…and no better preparation for the ladies’ short program today [18:30 local time] than reading this relaxed, detailed interview with Mirai, done at 2017 Rostelecom Cup in Moscow, in October. It was her second event of the season, things didn’t start well – but Mirai’s competitive spirit was already there, for everyone to see it.
by Nadia Vasilyeva/Moscow
Nadia Vasilyeva: First of all, congratulations on your beautiful free skate here. How do you feel about your overall performance at Rostelecom Cup? [Mirai finished the event on the 9th place]
Mirai Nagasu: Definitely a little disappointed – it’s been a long time since I fell twice in one program. But I think a failure like that is always a learning experience. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about myself, and how to apply myself going into my next competition. It’s hard to skate like that, but I can only get better from here.
You decided to keep you short program from last season, to Chopin’s “Nocturne no. 20”. Why is that?
I just really connect to the music, and I think I’m capable of skating an 80-point program, although I least got 56 points [Mirai smiles – she is referring, of course, to the 56.15 points received for her SP in Moscow]. And last year at one of my competitions I got 73 points, when I skated it clean. So I know I’m capable of it.
And, obviously, it’s gotta be good music if three of the competitors here used it [laughs]. It’s very popular now. I just love how beautiful and haunting it is. I wanted to continue improving from last season, and I knew I could skate it better, so I kept it. And I’m really happy I did.
And what about your choice of music for the free program [“Miss Saigon” by Claude-Michel Schönberg]?
Actually, Jeff Buttle, my choreographer, recommended it to me. I had already skated to “Madame Butterfly”, which is the same type of storyline. As I’ve grown older I learned to appreciate tragedies, and just love that there is such a story behind the music, even though I don’t have lyrics. I think it really suits my personality, and I can really hear the music. I love skating to it every day, and I think that’s really important.
Can you tell a bit about how it is to work with Jeffrey Buttle? I imagine it’s gotta be great.
I love working with Jeff!
Growing up, I loved his skating. I think, as a skater, because he still performs, he really understands. He’s not the type of choreographer who’s like – Just work on it, you’ll figure it out. He’ll skate it himself, and he knows when something doesn’t work. And he’s so talented. And I wish I could be as strong of a skater as him.
I love working with him because every time I look at him I feel like I learn a lot from him, and he’s such a great role model. I wanted to keep my short from last year and, most of the time, skaters want to get rid of their programs, because you listen to it every day. So to initiate this kind of response shows how good of a choreographer he is.
You are still working on your triple Axel, and you succeeded at it two times recently. You are the second U.S. woman to land it internationally – and that’s huge, congratulations!
[smiling] Thank you!
But the triple Axel is an element that’s not very common in women’s skating yet – why did you decide to put it in your programs?
I have been in the sport for a very long time now, and most skaters start really young and learn their jumps at a very young age, as I did. I think I had all my triples by the time I was 11. Well, 12, when I could do them all clean.
But for me learning the triple Axel was really important: over a decade later, I decided to learn a new jump, and that was really hard, but I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.
And it’s just not enough for me to be able to do it at home, I want to be able to do it in competition and to use it to my advantage. And the men are doing so many quads now, I think that soon the ladies… I mean, I’ve seen videos of young girls who can do quads now, so it won’t be long till the women catch up to the men. There will always be someone who will push the limit. And I’m happy for myself that I’m the second U.S. woman internationally to have a triple Axel called clean in competition.
So you think soon all women will have to have a triple Axel in order to be competitive? And we can expect the same kind of revolution as the one that happened recently in men’s skating, when the level of jumps was raised so high?
Yeah, absolutely. I’m not the only girl to land a triple Axel right now. There are so many in Japan, and in Russia, and I’m sure everybody is starting to work on them.
And we have [the] technology now, where we can study our jumps. And we have pole harnesses where you can skate. And it’s not like the old school harness, where you got like one line. Now the coach can follow you and make sure you don’t get hurt when you fall.
If you look back even 10 years ago, not everyone was doing triple-triples, and now we have to do so many things. We have to do footwork into all our jumps basically. Skating has come a long way, and it’s so hard. And it’s an art form, not just a sport. We have to entertain the judges as well. People are always pushing the envelope. Like Nathan [Chen]. Until Nathan came along, people weren’t really doing quad Lutzes, but once one person did it – more people will do it. So it’s not long.
But it also means that the balance between artistic and technical sides of skating is getting more and more difficult to attain. You are known to combine artistry and jumps in a very beautiful way. How does one find that balance?
Thank you! Hmm [pauses to think]. I think that’s the beauty of skating, that it’s so entertaining, and it’s not just about who is the fastest. There are so many elements, so many things to work on at home. We have to do skating skills, and jumps, and spins… And it’s not just about who can run the fastest or how many times you can get the ball into the hoop. Figure skating is really unique in that sense. It takes a lot of energy and effort, but I love it. I love skating, love being on the ice. Sometimes competition doesn’t go the way I want it to – I don’t even remember the last time I fell twice in one program! [smiles] – but I think this is why we keep competing, it’s that intensity that makes figure skating the sport.
It looks like now you don’t even consider the option of not including the triple Axel into your programs. You don’t wanna choose the easier way?
If I could do all my jumps and be the best – I probably wouldn’t do the triple Axel [smiles]. But I need those points. And even with the triple Axel I had some downgrades today. At home when I practice I never downgrade my jumps, but in competition I think I get nervous, I get a little uptight, so it’s something I need to work on. Even with underrotation on the triple Axel it’s still a few extra points over a double Axel, so I will take those points where I can.
You sometimes even included it into your exhibitions programs. Is it your way to make it more consistent, to get more relaxed with it?
Every time I put myself on the ice I get nervous. And getting reps is really important to me when I feel under pressure. So even in exhibition I might not be as nervous as when I compete, but having the confidence that I can land it under the spotlights, and when I can see anything, is really important to me. So I just try to do it as much as I can.
So it’s like a practice while skating your exhibition?
Yeah [laughs]. Sometimes I do it just to test myself. Because exhibition is after competition, and I’m really tired, and if I know that I can land it then – I can land it in any situation. It’s always about testing your limits.
Since this is the Olympic season, did it change anything in the way you prepare?
Yeah, I work a lot harder in practice. I know that this is probably my last Olympics that I can qualify for, ’cause I’m one of the older skaters. I mean, Carolina Kostner is in her thirties now, but, unfortunately [for me], in the U.S. we have way more skaters [smiling]. So there are so many up and coming skaters, and it’s always a battle. It’s hard to even stay at the top. Although it’s impressive and Carolina’s an amazing skater, but she doesn’t have to worry about her Nationals. And I understand my own situation, and I want to put everything I have into this season.
And I wanna go the Olympics, and I put that pressure on myself. I’ve been training so hard and going to the gym so much, so I’m way more fit than I was last season. I feel like I’m doing everything that I can. I want to be able to look back and know that I did everything I could.
Does you previous Olympic experience – when you were so young, but it was so successful – help in your preparation?
Thinking back on the Vancouver Olympics and how I ended up skating last in the last warm-up, I was like – I ended the Olympics for figure skating. That’s a lot of pressure. Even then I had a lot of pressure on myself, and I’m so happy with how I skated. I wouldn’t change a thing.
It just sometimes blows my mind that I was able to do that, at 16! But also I didn’t know how hard it was. I was just like – Oh, another day. I feel like now I’m more proud of myself than when I was 16. I am impressed with myself, if that makes sense [laughs].
Yes, it does! And a good role model to look up to – yourself! Maybe you felt less pressure when you were younger?
Yeah, I think so. I think now that I’ve skated for so long it means so much more to me.
And also the level of skating has become so much harder. I didn’t do triple-triple at that Olympics. I only did double Axel-triple Toe. And didn’t go for triple Axel. I feel like it’s a lot more pressure now, but still, at 16, to skate last and skate clean – I couldn’t ask anything else of myself.
So your number one goal this season is Olympics? And all other competitions kind of build around that?
Yes. Every competition I go to, I can only expect myself to learn from it and get better. And last season I would have been super excited to get 122 in the long program. Obviously, not 56 in the short [smiles]. But now I’m like – I wanna be better. 120 is not good enough for me, even though last year it would have been. So it’s interesting to me how my expectations have risen.
How do you feel about upcoming U.S. Nationals?
January is not that far away, but it’s enough time for people to improve, and it’s anybody’s game. Last season I didn’t throw it down, I really regret it. So this season I really don’t wanna have any regrets, I really wanna go out there and do the best that I can, and show my federation that I have what it takes to be on the Olympic team.