At this year's PyeongChang Winter Olympics, team USA’s Mirai Nagasu is planning to make history as the first U.S. woman to land the triple axel at the Games. But the now two-time Olympian, who placed just off the podium at the 2010 Games in Vancouver, says she just wans to enjoy her Olympic moment this time around.
The skater was caught up in some serious figure skating drama back in 2014 when competitor Ashley Wagner was chosen to join Team USA in Sochi even though Nagasu earned a spot on the podium at the U.S. National Championships (a usual indicator of the Olympic team). The competitor says it was a tough year for her. She even considered quitting the sport for good. But four years later, we see a confident, strong, excited Nagasu with the most technically challenging program planned for these Games.
We caught up with the Olympian on the phone just one week before she headed to PyeongChang. Scroll through our conversation below to learn how Nagasu kept her head on straight after 2014 and came back stronger than ever.
What is your training schedule like right now?
I usually skate three hours a day, but I break it up into 45-minute segments four times throughout the day. Depending on the day, I’ll have off-ice [workouts] at the gym, too. And in figure skating, we tend to fall a lot in order to learn and get better, but my body does not take falling as well as I would like it to. Recovery is essential. So I work with a physical therapist and do things like needle and acupuncture and get work done like massages to make sure my body feels at its prime in order to train at this level. Being an athlete is a full time job.
You’ve been to the Olympics once before at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. What works for you to prepare mentally for Olympic competition?
I watch a lot of Disney movies in my down time. It's really important not to get caught up and stressed out, and the week before [the Olympics] is typically the time where I do tend to do that. I grew up with Snow White, Ariel, and Mulan—they're all really inspirational. And I work with a sports psychologist to talk about techniques that I can work on because you physically have to be in shape, which I feel I have down at this point, but also part of competing is the mental game. It's important to fit it all in.
What movies are you watching right now?
I just finished all of the Harry Potters and I've moved onto Pirates of the Caribbean.
Last Olympic season, the 2014 Games in Sochi, Ashley Wagner was chosen to compete even though you earned a spot on the U.S. National Championship podium, which stirred up a lot of controversy within the sport. How did you come back from that?
It has been a whirlwind of a journey. In 2014, I considered hanging up my skates because skating takes a lot of work and to not reach a goal is really devastating. But it took a lot of refurbishing myself in order to become a stronger, more consistent, and more confident skater and make the team again.
VIDEO: Why ‘Feisty’ Figure Skater Mirai Nagasu Is the Comeback Kid of the 2018 Olympics
It must be interesting to be an Olympian at a time when Olympic gymnasts have made headlines for their moving testimonies against former USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar. What is it like to be removed, but quasi-connected to that situation as an Olympian?
Tough question. You know, on the whole gymnastics situation with Larry Nassar, it is really courageous of all of those girls to come forward and reveal the truth. It's just not acceptable for someone to act that way. Having never been abused like that, it’s not something I can really relate to. But I can say that I know it's something that people struggle with all over the world, and I think it was a huge step for feminism for those girls to feel like they have a voice. For me to be able to trust my team doctors and to have them respect me has been really fundamental, so I'm also so grateful that I've never been in a situation like that before.
How will these Games differ from your past experience?
The 2010 Games in Vancouver were so close to where I was training in California that I went home in between the opening ceremonies and the competition so that I could get away from the excitement and the stress. This time I won't have that same luxury.
What’s your pump-up music?
I'm really into “Waka Waka” by Shakira. The lyrics are how I think I like to approach competing, you know, "you're in control now... picking your battle...pick yourself up."
Outside of competition, what are you most looking forward to in PyeongChang?
I'm also looking forward to just being in Korea—enjoying Korean BBQ, going to a Korean drugstore, and just exploring. I’m excited because I realize it's not everyday that someone gets to go to the Olympics once let alone twice.
When do you get time to explore?
Figure skating is one of the last events so staying in shape and training throughout the weeks in between will be really important. But last time, in Vancouver, I didn't get to watch any of the events live, and that's something I really regretted. So this time I'm really looking forward to training but also taking time for myself to experience other sports.
What are you excited to watch?
I'm really embarrassed to say this, but I'm not a sports fanatic so I don't know the fine details of hockey, but I’m really excited to watch that and also some of the skiing. Since moving to Colorado, when I have a day off I like to go and ski. I'm really terrible at it, but I love watching even if I have no clue what's going on. I just love watching people who are really good at what they love.
The Olympics seems like a good place for that. Do you fangirl over a particular athlete?
I'm definitely excited to meet Shaun White… hopefully. He's such a legend and one of the most quotable athletes of all time. And he's super laid back. If I were to have a moment with him, I'd ask him like how do you do it, how do you stay at the top for so long?
What is the Olympic village like?
It's kind of like a very exclusive club because the security is really tight. Some people just want to be away because, and my parents aren't like this, but some parents can be really overwhelming. So the village gives athletes a safe haven. If you don't want guests to come in, you can just tell them hey it's really difficult to get into the village so just go enjoy everything else, but right now I need my own time. It is huge. It's kind of like dorms on a college campus. There's a big dining hall. In Vancouver there was also a little game room that you could go to. It's really cool.
Who are you bringing to the Olympics?
My parents will be going with me and also my boyfriend. My parents going to a competition is a huge deal because my dad owns a sushi restaurant with my mom and although I'm my parents’ baby, the restaurant sometimes takes precedence over me. My dad loves to go and pick fish at the fish market and de bone it and all. He works really hard to keep it going so he's always at the restaurant. And for him to take time out of his busy schedule to see me, it doesn't happen often, and I love that he'll be able to see my skating live.
And will it be Valentine's Day while you're there. Do you have anything special planned with your boyfriend?
Maybe I'll go to a Korean convenience store and buy him a little chocolate. [Laughs] Birthdays and also Christmas are bigger things we like to celebrate.
Whose birthday comes up next?
Mine in April.
How is he going top you bringing him to the Olympics?
[Laughs] Maybe I’ll use that against him.
What're you most excited about for at these Olympics?
You know, there's just something about going to the Olympics, being a part of a worldwide event and wearing team USA's colors and gear. I think I'll enjoy every single moment of it. Honestly, competing is stressful because you don't know how things will turn out, but there's just something about being a part of representing your country that's so surreal. It's an honor.
You’re chasing history at these Games, set to be the fist U.S. woman to land the triple axel at the Olympics. Are you nervous?
You know, the triple Axel is a huge deal but I put myself out there to perform in front of thousands of people, and I think that alone gives me good reason to be nervous. But, at the same time, I love performing in front of people so I'm excited. I want to step up my game and perform to the best of my ability.
You’re already the second U.S. woman to have ever landed the jump in international competition, behind of course the infamous Tonya Harding. Have you seen I, Tonya?
I have not seen it, no.
Is the figure skating world talking about the movie at all?
It's hard to say. I am a huge fan of Margo Robbie, so I would love to see the movie at some point, but it just hasn't worked with my schedule and I prefer to watch movies at home on DVD. But, you know, although no one can take away the fact that Tonya Harding was a great skater, it's also hard to look past the fact that physical violence in any form against a competitor is really unacceptable. But especially for me, since I was not skating in that time period, it's hard to be a real judge of the whole situation.
Can you tell me a little bit about your long program music?
I'm skating to Miss Saigon and I actually got the chance to see it live on Broadway in New York before the show closed. It was amazing. I love Miss Saigon sacrificed herself for her son to have a better life. And when I'm dying out on the ice during my four minute program because my legs are Jell-O, I think about Kim making the ultimate sacrifice and I'm like this is it, Mirai. This is the moment and I really go for it. I hope that I represent the musical as well as my country
What is the short program music?
It’s a really beautiful but haunting piece by Chopin. I like to rely on my classical ballet training to showcase beautiful lines and since there isn't a clear cut story, as there is in Miss Saigon, I made up a story to perform on the ice about a fallen angel.
That's common for figure skaters to come up with a story to portray the music, right?
Yeah it really is. Figure skating is a very artistic sport. We’re judged on fine lines, facial expressions, and choreography. So it really helps to have a storyline that we can follow and express what we're feeling when we hear the music.
Can you tell me what the process of designing your costumes is like?
I work with an amazing dress designer, Pat Pearsall, who’s great at bringing her ideas and my ideas and what I want in a dress to physical form. It’s important that figure skating dresses are flexible, lightweight, beautiful, and formfitting because it’s an aerodynamic sport. Of course I love sparkle—we like to Swarovski crystallize our dresses in order to catch people's attention—but this season my dresses are a little less crystallized than usual because I wanted to feel as light as possible for the triple axel. Every time I put that dress on, I go into character and I feel confident going out there because I know that Pat’s put me in something that makes me feel beautiful (even with less crystals).
What color is the Miss Saigon dress?
Red, girl, red.
What a power color.
Did you have a lot of influence in the way the dresses were designed or did Pat come up with the initial drawings?
I like to think that I contribute my part. There are some things that I'll tell her in order to help inspire like hey Pat, I think a mandarin color would be a great idea. And this year, I had to be like I know you love stoning and I love my bling bling but I really, really want to be aerodynamic for that Axel.
I know you went thorough a lot four years ago, but what have you learned about yourself on this Olympic journey?
Everybody is entitled to their own opinion and everyone has a voice but my voice and my own belief in myself as a skater and a competitor is what’s most important. When I was not selected to the Olympic team four years ago, I decided that I hated that feeling and I wanted to be on another Olympic team. It's important to take advice and take instruction and listen to the judges when they have feedback, but I didn't listen to people who told me I couldn't do this. I genuinely believed in myself. And I feel like making the Olympic team, especially with the number of talented girls we have in the U.S. right now, was a really difficult task. So I feel like that was the stressful part and now it's all about enjoying the journey, enjoying the Olympics, and representing the U.S. to the best of my ability.
Do you have any advice for young competitors?
If they're skaters, I would love for them to hold off for a couple of years so that I can stay in the game [Laughs]. But when people tell you you can't do something, it's really up to you whether you believe them or not. It's so cheesy, but just never give up.