Honestly, it feels like you are treading through a snowstorm, body leaning into the howling wind, when it comes to figuring out the outcome of the women’s event at the U.S. championships in San Jose, Calif., this week.
You know there will be vehicles on the road, but you just can’t see them and you can’t predict what they will do. It’s come to this at the women’s event in San Jose. You check the snaps on your Russian hat with the flappy ear lugs (perhaps envious of their embarrassment of riches) and you press on.
And this is what we figure: Mirai Nagasu. She’s due. She’s more than due. She’s weathered all sorts of things: youth, injuries, doubt, focus, a laundry list of coaches, life. She’s 24 and she’s coming armed to the US championships with a triple Axel, for heaven’s sake.
But it’s not just that. It’s the steps she’s taken over the past couple of years since she’s been with coach Tom Zakrajsek, who recognized her untapped talent, and who told her when she tugged at his sleeve, that he didn’t just want to coach somebody in the twilight of her career. She had to be aiming at world and Olympic medals.
There have been flashes of brilliance: a win at the U.S. championships – senior level, mind – when she was only 14 and still competing internationally as a junior. She didn’t get to go to the world championships that year because of the top four finishers, only Ashley Wagner was old enough to go. She went to junior world championships instead.
She earned her way to the Vancouver Olympics in 2010 after finishing second at U.S. nationals, after having won the short program. She won the U.S. silver medal, but she was the one who excelled at those Games, finishing fourth at only 16. Tired, she went on to worlds and won the short program, before falling apart in the free to finish seventh overall.
Then the heartbreaker. She was left off the Olympic team going to Sochi, even though she had finished third at U.S. nationals and there were three spots. Ashley Wagner, fourth, was sent because she had a better international record.
So here she is again at the U.S. championships during an Olympic year, 10 years after her only U.S. championship win. But she’s a different person. There were hints of it when she won the Autumn Classic in Montreal in the early fall of 2016. She was magnificent.
This season, Nagasu drew into the two most difficult fields in Grand Prix events in Russia and Japan, meeting Evgenia Medvedeva both times. She came into these events, having landed rotated triple Axels in each of her short and long programs, although landed with flaws at the U.S. International Classic. In her free, she had lost only .4 of a point, and still chalked up 8.10, but she slightly underrotated four other jumps and suffered a fall.
The underrotations continued, including on the triple Axel, although she did rotate one in the short program at NHK. In her free skate, she finished fourth and underrotated only the triple Axel.
But that was last November. She’s been under the radar, training in Colorado Springs. Well, not really under the radar. There is this incredible Instagram video of her landing a triple Axel – triple toe loop – double toe loop – double loop combination. It’s a lot easier to do in practice than in competition, but, still, all I can say is: EXCLAMATION POINT.
And the task: just getting that tripleAxel out in the program, along with everything else. As Elvis Stojko says, there will be mistakes, but it’s stuff you have to weather to find success.
What is she up against in San Jose? Ashley Wagner, the 2016 world silver medalist; Karen Chen, the reigning U.S. champion that finished fourth at the world championships last season; and Bradie Tennell, who shocked everybody by outskating her U.S. counterparts at Skate America, her very first senior Grand Prix event.
Tennell is different because she’s on an upward trajectory, after having overcome stress fractures in her back several years ago. She didn’t put a foot wrong in Lake Placid, finishing with a score of 204.10, which is surprisingly the highest score achieved by a U.S. woman on the Grand Prix series this year.
Only two other U.S. women have higher personal bests than Tennell: Wagner tops that list with 215.39, while Gracie Gold – out of action right now – has 211.29.
Karen Chen is at 199.29, Sasha Cohen has 197.60, Nagasu sits at 194.95, Mariah Bell at 191.59 and let’s reach way back to find Kimmie Meissner, the 2006 world champion at 189.87.
Among those ahead of Tunnell, a 19-year-old who earned her way to Skate America through a minor summer competition in Philadelphia are a group overcoming problems. Wagner withdrew part way through the free skate at Skate America, citing an infection in her right ankle that surfaced the week before, and since then, she’s switched her free program back to LaLa Land, which she had trained, but didn’t use for the Grand Prix season.
Then Karen Chen, admitting to nerves at her two Grand Prix events, has switched programs several times and before Skate America, had again gone back to an earlier routine. She says with a couple more weeks of work, she feels comfortable with it.
And Wagner? Her training mate and friend Adam Rippon says she looks really fit. “My honest opinion is that Ashley does best when she feels like the odds are against her,” he said. “And I think at some level, subconsciously, she put herself in this sort of position where people are [asking] how is she doing?’ And she put herself in this position so that she can be the underdog. I told her that it’s unnecessary that she does this. We’ll, she’s the underdog and she’s putting the work in. And looks really great.”
Tennell’s greatest drawback may be her lack of experience, and here she is at U.S. nationals, in a spotlight, as the country looks for its Olympic heroes.
And then there’s Nagasu, who plans to go for the triple Axel in both programs, as she has been doing all year. She’s had her head down working. She just wants to put out two good programs and let the chips fall where they may.
She really wants to take part in the Olympic team event. She thinks you’d have to finish within the top two to have that chance.
So after all these years, she and Wagner are going toe to toe again. Both started out young. “We’ve been fortunate to be at the top of the field,” Nagasu said. She’s read that at age 27, an athlete reaches peak condition. She figures she still has a few years to go, and she feels she has more to learn still. “I have the determination,” she said.
She doesn’t mind that folks are putting so much emphasis on her triple Axel, a jump that has been done by less than 10 women in the world. “I can assure you, I love attention,” she said. “And I love that I’m being recognized for having the ability to be able to accomplish such a different jump and to be recognized internationally as one of two U.S. women to land it in competition.”
She says it took her three years to learn a double Axel, and it took her a long time to get the triple as well. But she’s proud to be recognized for something that no one is doing right now.
She’s going into the U.S. championships, using visualization, imagining herself in every scenario. “I’m not going to be afraid to make a mistake,” she said. “I’m not going to be afraid of failure. I think, knowing that, I would be more upset with myself if I didn’t go for everything.” She feels that’s her mental shift going to the U.S. championships.
And then she had a practice yesterday. It was sublime. She motored. She seemed on a different planet. It was a practice like those Ilia Kulik had turned in at the Nagano Olympics in 1998, after he had missed Europeans with a back problem. You don’t like to come up to the Olympics with a problem, but during the week of practices, he sparkled. To me, that means Nagasu could be on a similar upward trajectory, too.
Time will tell. Three U.S. women get Olympic berths. The U.S. championships will be an event that has no easy favourite. No foregone conclusion. And that makes it interesting.