At 24, Mirai Nagasu has become a competitive ice skating legend among peers and fans alike in her second Winter Olympics appearance.
Born in Montebello, raised in Arcadia, trained at the Pasadena Ice Skating Center, and currently living in Colorado, Nagasu has gained this distinction not by winning medals, but by completing a triple axel in Olympic competition. She is the first American woman to perform this difficult move, and the third woman in Olympic competition to do so.
While her feat was difficult, her choice of training locations was not. The local rink, home of the Pasadena Figure Skating Club, has a long history of attracting world-class talent, among those athletes Olympic champion and Hollywood star Sonja Henie, who filmed some of her routines at the Pasadena rink in the 1930s and early ’40s. There was also Peggy Fleming, gold medalist 50 years ago in the Winter Games in Grenoble, France. Fleming was from San Jose but lived and trained in Pasadena beginning in 1960, leading up to her medal-winning performance.
That was when the rink was located on Arroyo Parkway, near the Del Mar Gold Line Station, before it moved in 1976 to a former ballroom behind the historic Pasadena Civic Auditorium. Today, the Ice Skating Center is housed in a separate building behind the Pasadena Convention Center.
Nagasu, said William Tran, president of the Pasadena Figure Skating Club, “has been extremely loyal and supportive of the club.” Although Nagasu now resides in Colorado, working as an “ice girl” for the Avalanche pro hockey team to pay the bills, Tran noted, “She wears our club jacket at the nationals. We see it on TV, even during this more recent Olympic games.”
Cool on Ice
Born to Japanese nationals Ikuko and Kiyoto, Mirai (meaning “future” in Japanese) was raised in Arcadia where her parents own a restaurant, Kiyosuzu. Briefly sitting down recently as he prepared to open for dinner, her father Kiyoto confessed in Japanese, “I originally came to Los Angeles for the Olympics” in 1984. An acquaintance had made the Japanese wrestling team. He found the weather and the more relaxed atmosphere more inviting than Tokyo where he had been working. Kiyoto himself had never been interested in competitive sports, although when Mirai was younger, he played golf with her.
But even in sunny California one cannot always play golf. Ikuko, who is originally from Matsumoto, Nagano, the Japanese prefecture that hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics, had played some winter sports when she was younger. She suggested enrolling Mirai in ice skating lessons at the Pasadena Ice Skating Center — something a 5-year-old could do even when it rains. But neither Ikuko nor Kiyoto could ever imagine this weekend pastime would someday lead to the Olympics.
Mirai was not yet born when Peggy Fleming won a gold medal at the 1968 Winter Olympics in France — the only gold medal the US Olympic team won during those games. The US skating program was decimated after the tragic crash of Sabena Flight 548 that killed the US figure skating team on their way to the World Figure Skating Championships, including the then 12-year-old Fleming’s coach, William Kip. Fleming, who won nationals from 1964-1968, retired after her Olympic performance, but other California women followed in her ice tracks.
Los Angeles-born Linda Sue Fratianne won four consecutive national championships but only took home the silver at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics. Palo Alto-born Rosalynn Sumners was the national champion from 1982 to 1984 and also took a silver medal at the 1984 Sarajevo Games. Oakland-born Tiffany Chin was the 1985 national champion, but she didn’t make it to the Olympics. On the rise in the late 1980s was Hayward-born Kristi Yamaguchi, who after becoming the national champion in 1989 and 1990 won Olympic gold in 1992. It was in 1992 that the Winter and Summer Games, which were held on the same year since 1926, were placed in separate four-year cycles, two years apart, beginning in 1994.
That was also the year Tran said he began watching figure skating, and it was an exciting time for the sport. After Yamaguchi retired, Tran explained, “There was that Tonya-Nancy thing” and then there was Michelle Kwan. “Michelle Kwan was my favorite for a decade,” he said.
One might forget that when Nancy Kerrigan was unable to compete at the US championships after the assault in which her knee was injured, Kwan finished second to Tonya Harding. Yet Kerrigan got the second spot on the US Olympic team while the 13-year-old Kwan was an alternate. Kwan, who was born in Torrance, was national champion from 1998 to 2005 and competed at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Although favored to win the gold, the 21-year-old settled for a bronze, behind team member Sarah Hughes, who took the gold, and Russia’s Irina Slutskaya who won silver. Kwan’s retirement allowed Los Angeles-born Sasha Cohen, who had placed second to Kwan at the nationals three times, to finally win in 2006, the same year she competed in Turin (Kwan was forced to withdraw) and took silver.
But in 2008, it was Nagasu who won while competing in her first senior championship, making people take notice of her talent.
“As a fan, it was just amazing to see a newcomer win the senior nationals at that young age,” said Tran. Nagasu was the second youngest woman to win the US senior ladies championship after Tara Lipinski did it in 1997.
When Tran finally started taking ice skating lessons as an adult in 2011, he saw Nagasu quite a bit. “It’s pretty cool to be on the same ice as someone you watched compete at the Vancouver Olympics,” where Nagasu placed fourth, he said.
Third to Triple
Nagasu isn’t the first US woman to perform a triple axel in non-Olympic competition. That honor belongs to the disgraced Harding at the US Championships in 1991. Harding had planned to perform a triple axel, but performed a single instead at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. The axel is a jump named after Norwegian figure skater Axel Paulsen who first performed the move in 1882. Canadian Vern Taylor was the first man to land a triple axel in competition at the 1978 World Figure Skating Championships. Japan’s Midori Ito completed a triple in 1988, becoming the first woman to do one in competition, and at the 1992 Olympics, where she took a silver while Yamaguchi captured the gold.
Japan’s Mao Asada also won Olympic silver at the Vancouver Olympics for a program that included a triple axel, making Nagasu the third woman to successfully complete a triple axel at the Olympics. And all three female triple axel Olympians are Japanese. Nagasu had dual citizenship until she renounced it (a legal requirement in Japan).
PyeongChang might have been Nagasu’s third Olympics if not for a controversial call by the US Figure Skating Governing Board. She finished third at the 2014 US Nationals, behind Gracie Gold and Polina Edmunds, but the skating board gave Nagasu’s Sochi Olympic spot to the fourth place finisher, Ashley Wagner, because of Wagner’s international experience. Gold finished fourth and Wagner came in seventh.
Last year, Wagner finished second (behind Fremont-born Karen Chen) and Nagasu was fourth, but this year at the nationals, Nagasu was second (to Bradie Tennell), Chen was third and Wagner fourth.
The Washington Post was criticized for highlighting Wagner’s fail over the three winners and even described Wagner as “All American” while none of the three who stood on the podium were born outside of the US. That’s troubling in a time of increased xenophobia. Ironically, Nagasu could become one of the most celebrated residents of Arcadia, a city that boasts the Santa Anta Park racetrack, which once served as an assembly center for Japanese Americans during the forced relocations at the start of World War II.
Nagasu isn’t the only Japanese American on the US Olympic team. Brother and sister ice dancers Alex and Maia Shibutani of Boston also helped the US team clinch the bronze team medal, becoming the first Asian-Americans to medal in ice dancing at the Olympics. Ice dancing is now Tran’s favorite Olympic sport but, of course, he’ll be watching Nagasu.
“We want her to do her best, but she’s up against very stiff competition, particularly from the Russian competition team,” noted Tran.
On Monday, Nagasu’s parents flew to PyeongChang to be at their daughter’s side. Ikuko hopes that their presence won’t add unnecessary pressure. Kiyoto’s only wish is that Mirai won’t injure herself.
On Friday, Nagasu will skate her free program. Whether the seven-time US national medalist adds an Olympic medal to her accomplishments, this skater has already made history and, according to Tran, she’s spread Olympic fever.
Tran noted that usually, after the December holidays, crowds die down at the rink, but it’s been extremely busy. The club organized a viewing party at a Denny’s in Arcadia for the short program but will be watching the free skate individually.
“As long as she’s satisfied with her skating, we’ll all be very happy and proud,” Tran said.