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The 2018 U.S. Olympic team, 243 athletes strong, is full of stories of perseverance, but for figure skating fans, Mirai Nagasu’s is a favorite. The 24-year-old finished fourth at the 2010 Games in Vancouver. Then, after finishing third at the 2014 U.S. Nationals, she was overlooked for the Sochi team in favor of fourth-place Ashley Wagner. She could have walked away, but the tears turned into motivation. In September 2017, Nagasu became only the third American woman (after Tonya Harding and Kimmie Meissner) to land a triple axel in competition — and on Sunday night she landed the jump again, during the team event in PyeongChang, making her the first American woman to do so at the Olympics.
Nagasu finished with a 137.53 overall score and, as she told NBC after leaving the ice, was “super happy” to “feel her teammates’ support.” Yes, even after making history, she’s all about Team USA. Why? “Representing Team USA means a lot to me,” Nagasu tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “I’m representing my country and my people, so I really want to do my country proud. All I can do is to keep training and working to the best of my ability.”
So how did Nagasu prepare for the 2018 Winter Olympics? Some of the ways may surprise you…
1. She trains her mind as well as her body. There’s no way to truly simulate the nerves and adrenaline rush every skater will experience (let alone one with the chance of having her name in the history books as the first American woman to land a triple axel on Olympic ice). But you’ve got to try. After putting on her skates — always the right one first, because skaters are superstitious — she’ll do a six-minute warm-up, which each group of six skaters takes together at competitions. Then her coach, Tom Zakrajsek, picks a random skate order so she can practice the different wait times and warming up again. When she steps back on the ice, “I put myself in an Olympic venue and really visualize the thousands of people there,” she says. “But it’s definitely not the same as when the moment happens.”
As skating fans may have noticed, Nagasu likes to give herself a short pep talk before the music begins. “When it’s time to deliver like that, I definitely talk to myself a lot,” she says. “I think with all athletes, we are all nervous, and we have our moments of doubt, and so I have to talk back to myself and say, ‘No, you’ve been training for this. You can do this.’ [The words] vary from competition to competition, but every competition that I am in, I have to really go out there and be a fighter, because I have to fight for everything.”
Nagasu also follows Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson on social media for inspiration. “He just came from nothing to everything, and those types of stories inspire me every day. And it’s amazing how much work he puts into his acting now, and he’s in so many different movies, but he still likes to look the way he does. That takes every day training and working out, and so for him to go out there and be so strong and still work on the set as well — that is very, very inspiring,” she says. “I think the underlying message is that you just have to put yourself all in and all out there.”
2. She takes time out to laugh. Knowing that years of training and sacrifice boil down to a short program of two minutes and 50 seconds and a four-minute free skate isn’t easy. Watching episodes of Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine on Hulu is a release. “During these times of pressure and stress, I find that comedy really helps get me through it, and that is a funny show, so I’d definitely recommend it,” she says.
To get her head back in the game, she’s been known to watch RuPaul’s Drag Race to “channel my inner queen.” “All-Stars Season 3 just came out, so it’s perfect timing. I’ll be figuring out a way to stream it in South Korea,” she says. She also expects to be listening to Eminem’s new album, Revival, and Shakira’s “Waka Waka (This Time for Africa),” the official 2010 FIFA World Cup song. “It’s an oldie, but it’s such a good one for competing,” she says.
3. She leans on her support system. No, her three dogs can’t make it to the Olympics. “When my dogs aren’t around, I get really lonely, so I’ll be packing a stuffed animal, Lotso from Toy Story 3. That’s what I’ll be taking with me at 24 years old,” Nagasu says with a laugh. But, thanks to a YouCaring fundraiser started by the Pasadena Figure Skating Club that raised nearly $14,000, her parents, who own Restaurant Kiyosuzu in Arcadia, Calif. (“It’s really small, but really really good,” she says), will be there. “It means everything,” she says. “Especially at an event like the Olympics, prices go really high up, so they will be paying $750 a night for a hotel room. So I’m really grateful to everyone who donated and made this dream that’s not only mine but also my parents’, [who can] come and share this dream with me.”
4. She remembers that the Olympics is about more than the medals. In an interview with NBC shortly after being announced to the 2018 team, Nagasu, who was 16 when she competed in Vancouver, said she wanted to serve as a kind of mentor to the two other U.S. athletes in the ladies’ competition, first-time Olympians Bradie Tennell, 20, and Karen Chen, 18. “In general, I would tell them to meet other athletes and to take the time and opportunity to enjoy sports outside of figure skating,” Nagasu says. “It’s all about the experience and enjoying every minute of it. It is amazing that the world comes together for sports, and the unity, and the humanity.”
5. She reminds herself that there’s life after the Olympics. Having withdrawn from classes at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs this semester (she’s majoring in international business), she’s set to join the 2018 Stars on Ice tour this April and May. She’s also got her eye on another form of competition… “I’m definitely going to be plugging myself here,” she says with a chuckle, “but some athletes get to make their debut on Dancing With the Stars, and so I’m hoping my personality will win me a spot on that show.” Who is her dream partner? “Definitely Mark Ballas,” she says, “because he definitely helped Kristi [Yamaguchi] win the Mirror Ball.”
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