Ice Network

Nagasu endures hard times with parents' support

Two-time Olympian recommitted herself to skating after 2014 heartbreak
  • Ice Network on Facebook
  • Ice Network on Twitter
After the biggest disappointment of her skating career, Mirai Nagasu rededicated herself to the sport she loves -- and the reward was a second Olympic berth. -Getty Images

It was one of those boilerplate questions that often draws a rehearsed answer from athletes:

"You have listed Michelle Kwan as your inspiration. What do you say to little girls who look to you as their inspiration?" the now two-time Olympian was asked on a media teleconference Tuesday.

This time, though, the response was anything but rote. That's because the subject on the other end of the line was Mirai Nagasu, who speaks from the heart rather than from a script and whose sometimes whimsical-sounding, often rambling responses are always grounded in cliché-free sincerity.

Nagasu, you see, has bounced back not only from the disappointment of being left off the 2014 Olympic team but, with the help of her parents' indomitable support and sacrifice, has overcome financial obstacles that come with being in an expensive sport. And her mother, Ikuko, is a cancer survivor.

Her words were poignant and touching, and, coincidentally, tied into the message U.S. Figure Skating is sending on its second annual National #GetUpDay.

"I actually just watched the video on Michelle Kwan from P&G, who is also my sponsor, and I thought it was really interesting and really, really relatable for me that she talks a lot about her mom, and how her mom played a huge role in her skating," Nagasu said. (Watch the P&G spot here.)

"Like Michelle, I got into figure skating at a very young age, and my parents also owned a restaurant. Being in the restaurant business and paying for skating is not always easy, and my mom also made a lot of my skating costumes. Like Michelle's mom, she sewed sequins on one by one, and I would complain they are not as shiny as Swarovski crystals because we got ours at places like Target & Michael's.

"At the end of the day, my mom played a really huge role in my skating. To see that Michelle Kwan's mom did the same, I think I would tell all little girls out there to really appreciate what their parents do for them and to also really believe in their dream and if they truly believe they are capable, things will happen for them ... as long as they put in the work, of course."

Her answer showed just how similar parts of her #GetUp story are to that of Kwan, who was both moved and impressed when she received a text containing Nagasu's words.

"It's wonderful to hear Mirai is saying this to young girls," Kwan said. "And she expresses her love for her parents by making the best of the opportunities their sacrifices gave her.

"A lot of times, things were rough financially for us. There were times when it was possible I wouldn't be able to continue.

"It's so refreshing to hear someone like Mirai, who is now at the top of her game but has been through so much, talk about her humble beginnings to be able to inspire young girls."

And Nagasu, at 24, has been through a lot.

She was the 16-year-old phenom who finished fourth in the 2010 Olympics but began to struggle competitively soon after. Some of her problems owed to her having to spend long hours on California's jammed freeways -- her family could not afford an apartment close to her coach's distant new training site -- and her dad, Kiyoto, needed her mother's help in the family's restaurant, Kiyosozu in Arcadia, California.

When she was younger and her family didn't have extra money for a babysitter, Nagasu would eat dinner and finish her homework at the restaurant, and then pass out on a cot in a closet. At 9:30 p.m., when Kiyosozu closed, her dad would pick up the sleepy little girl in his arms and take her home.

Nagasu came to the 2014 U.S. Championships without a coach and with a decidedly unimpressive competitive record over the previous 2 1/2 seasons. She somehow found the mental strength to win the bronze at that event but was passed over for the Olympic team because fourth-place finisher Ashley Wagner had better credentials in the other criteria used to make the decision.

While the 2014 Olympics were taking place in Sochi, Russia, Nagasu would sometimes go to the rink and just skate around "aimlessly," as she put it. Those sessions would turn out to have a purpose: They showed Nagasu how much she still loved skating.

"It was really heartbreaking to not be named to the team for Sochi, but some things are just not meant to be," she said. "I took a step back and decided some things are not worth accepting, and I wanted to be on another Olympic team. It took time to really evolve myself as a person and a skater.

"I was very upset for a very long time, but I changed myself and became a better skater. I don't think I would have worked as hard on the triple axel if I didn't have that time to really contemplate (what I wanted).

"It was a conscious decision to make a comeback, even though I hadn't taken a break. To have overcome that little bit of a slump is something that not a lot of skaters have the perseverance to get through. So, I am really proud of not just overcoming that part of my life but also doing it in the public -- it sends a strong message that it is possible."

A pivotal part in Nagasu's #GetUp story was relocating from her family's home to Colorado Springs to train with coach Tom Zakrajsek before the 2014-15 season. Benefactors, including the Michael Weiss Foundation, and paid appearances at shows have helped her make ends meet.

"There is adversity of many kinds that can end your career," Kwan said. "You have to have the will and determination and the help to keep going."

Nagasu's world in Colorado Springs quickly expanded to include college (she is now a junior at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs), a boyfriend and three dogs. Her life no longer revolved solely around skating, allowing her to pursue the sport with a different perspective.

She worked relentlessly on the triple axel, fearlessly adding the element to her short program and free skate this season. At the 2017 U.S. International Classic in Salt Lake City, she fully rotated the jump in both programs, becoming the first U.S. woman in 12 years to be credited with landing it. She made good on a vow to control her Olympic fate this time by finishing a solid second at the 2018 U.S. Championships.

"I took on the full responsibility of being a stronger competitor and person," she said in San Jose. "I wasn't going to let a decision that wasn't mine keep me from my dream."

Best of all, her parents get to share the dream-come-true with her in PyeongChang. They call her frequently to tell her about the things they are most looking forward to seeing and doing in South Korea, even if their stay will be just a week.

"Then it's back to reality," Nagasu wrote in an email. "The restaurant business is unforgiving. They have to physically be there to generate business."

Nagasu has competed at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships as a senior on 11 occasions; of those, her father has been in attendance exactly zero times. He made it to the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, the proximity of which to Los Angeles allowed him to minimize the time away from work.

"I am really, really happy they are getting this opportunity, especially my dad, because as the owner and sushi chef of that restaurant, he has never really had time to watch me skate," Nagasu said. "For him to close the restaurant, even for a week, to come watch me skate means the world to me."