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Nagasu comfortable on junior stage

Mirai Nagasu points to the 2007 U.S. Championships as her biggest life-defining moment.
Mirai Nagasu points to the 2007 U.S. Championships as her biggest life-defining moment. (Paul Harvath)

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By Lynn Rutherford
(08/20/2007) - When the 2007 Junior Grand Prix (JGP) Series kicks off in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Aug. 30, the eyes of the skating world will be on Mirai Nagasu, the World junior silver medalist many have anointed as a "star on the rise." Can the California teen fulfill expectations?

Mirai Nagasu has a theme song.

"I love skating to that song from Queen, 'Don't Stop Me Now,'" the exuberant 14 year old said. "My dad and I were watching YouTube, and we saw a montage of Mao Asada set to it. I just thought it was so appropriate -- you know, the 'I'm gonna go, go, go' part -- because every time I get on the ice, I want to get better."

The reference to the Japanese champion is telling. Like Asada in 2006, Nagasu will be too young under International Skating Union rules to compete at the 2008 World Figure Skating Championships. And in 2005, the now 16-year-old Asada won a title Nagasu just might achieve this season: World Junior champion.

Nagasu, who stunned the skating world when she defeated favorite Caroline Zhang to win the U.S. junior ladies title in Spokane last January, would like nothing better than to follow in Asada's footsteps. Still, there's no rush.

"This is a learning time for Mirai," the skater's head coach, Charlene Wong, said. "She's prepared to kick off the season, but don't be surprised if you see a big improvement between now and January."

That's when Nagasu plans to debut as a senior at the 2008 U.S. Championships in Saint Paul, Minn. There, she will square off against former World champion Kimmie Meissner and U.S. silver medalist Emily Hughes, as well as Zhang, who edged her for the World Junior title in March. Until then, Nagasu will compete on the JGP circuit, starting with the opening event in Lake Placid on Aug. 30-Sept. 2.

The decision to keep Nagasu in junior events was based on several factors. The 2007 U.S. Championships were her first time on the big stage. The 2007 World Junior Championships were her first international competition. She needs seasoning, and even under the more objective international judging system installed after the scandal in the pairs competition at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, it helps if judges from Azerbaijan and Estonia know who you are.

There have also been a few physical changes since Spokane. Nagasu has grown several inches and added a few pounds to her once tiny frame.

"At (2007) U.S. nationals, I think I was about 4-7," Nagasu said. "Now, I'm 4-11. I don't really feel it when I'm skating, but I do feel taller when I'm walking around with my friends."

Wong, a former international competitor who represented Canada at the 1988 Calgary Olympics, knows all too well how those inches and pounds can affect a young female athlete.

"I'm so glad she's doing juniors," Wong said. "There is so much going on with her. She's starting high school, her body is changing, emotions are flying. All of a sudden the skating world has opened its arms and expects her to deliver the goods.

"She's getting her teenage body; she's starting to look like a senior lady on the ice. It's possible people expect her to win everything this fall, but this is a marathon, not a sprint."

Nagasu will not unveil any big, new elements in Lake Placid. Unlike Asada and several of the top U.S. ladies, she doesn't have a triple-triple combination in her arsenal. She will debut two new programs choreographed by Lori Nichol, the creator of many of Michelle Kwan's most memorable routines. Her short program is set to the Gershwin classic "I've Got Rhythm," while her free skate is to music from the ballet "Coppélia," the tale of a man who becomes obsessed with a life-size dancing doll.

"Setting new personal bests is most important to me," Nagasu said. "I really want to improve my program components score."

The PCS -- what used to be called "the second mark" -- comprises five categories, including performance and choreography, which are a tad more subjective than jumps and spins.

Whether she wins or loses, the Arcadia, Calif., teen seems unaffected by the media attention prompted by her triumph in Spokane.

"I think she feels as if it is a big soap opera, and she's excited to be a part of it," Wong mused. "She doesn't get caught in the ups and downs of all the attention."

"It's really a lot of fun," Nagasu agreed. "I like going to competitions and talking to people. But mostly I like hanging out with friends and just having fun in life."

Still, skating is paramount. Mirai, the only child of parents Kiyoto and Ikuko Nagasu, who operate a sushi restaurant, is ferried to her rink by her mom each day before 5 a.m. She skates a minimum of two one-hour sessions every morning.

"The schedule isn't hard for me," she said. "I go to sleep really early (at 8 p.m.), so I get in my hours. I feel sorry for my mom. She doesn't get enough sleep, but she's always there for me."

With her heavy travel schedule this season, some of Nagasu's other activities may take a backseat.

"I went to a school (Foothill Middle School) I really liked," she said. "But now that I've graduated, we're trying to figure out what I'll do next."

"Regular high school may not work," Wong said. "She may enroll in a special program, or her family may work something out with her school so she can be part of it but not necessarily in it."

The main goal is to make the U.S. Olympic Team in 2010, when Nagasu will be 16 and age-eligible to compete. Until then, it's one competition at a time.

"The Olympics seem so far away," Nagasu said. "I really want to build up gradually. I want to rack up my international experience as a junior."

"Some skaters go right for the gold, some take longer to develop," Wong added. "Right now Mirai just wants to do her personal best. But ultimately, she will stop at nothing to make her dreams come true."