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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Kiyoto Nagasu throws back his head and roars with laughter as he kneads a chunk of spicy tuna between his thumb and index finger.
"Mirai looks like me?" he said when a customer at Kiyosuzu sushi restaurant comments on the facial resemblance between the owner and his daughter. "Phew, that's good."
The joke wasn't particularly funny, and it was lost on some of the hungry patrons huddled around the cozy fish bar in Arcadia, Calif., on a rainy night two weeks before the Winter Olympics. They cut him some slack, though. After all, this was a man who had kept them entertained with a steady stream of witticisms for the past hour, all while preparing copious amounts of octopus, eel, sea bass, and other delights.
Spend an evening in Kiyosuzu and it's not hard to see how 16-year-old Mirai Nagasu has evolved into the delightfully quirky personality that could make her a cult star when the women's figure skating program begins at the Vancouver Winter Olympics on Tuesday night. Much of it surely comes from her dad.
It is within the confines of this vibrant eatery, where the sound of pots banging in the kitchen blends with the banter flying across the tables and bar, that Nagasu spent weary evenings after training as she pursued a decade-long path to these Games. She still eats and chats with diners and staff and, until recently, would creep into a storage cupboard in the back and sleep on a makeshift bed, as she didn't want to be home alone while her parents toiled away for another interminable shift.
"I didn't like it on my own," Mirai said. "I have never thought about it being different. I just wanted to be close to my parents and I was scared of being at home on my own. I read too many fantasy books, so I know there are some creepy things out there."
In the weeks leading up to Vancouver, it seemed as if Mirai might not be close to her loved ones for the biggest moment of her fledgling career. The economic downturn tightened pockets in Arcadia, and the drastic cost of Olympic accommodations looked as if it would keep Kiyoto and his wife, Ikuko, at home in front of a television set.
A makeshift appeal for financial support on a single sheet of printed paper was pinned on the restaurant's notice board. Not many were aware of it. Even fewer were moved to dip into their wallets.
However, the Nagasus will be able to watch their daughter after an electronics company stepped up with a sponsorship deal to help fund a family trip to Canada.
"The economy made things difficult for my parents financially, and they have given up a lot to help me try to become an Olympian," Mirai Nagasu said. "It made me sad to think that they might not be able to come to Vancouver because they would have to keep the restaurant open.
"The fact that I am becoming the first Olympian in my family is a reward for my parents for all their sacrifices. I don't like to cry, but if I had looked up at the stands and they were not there, it could have made me feel like it."
Mirai showed figure skating potential in her early years, when Kiyoto gave up on his dream of turning her into a golfer and put her in a pair of secondhand skates. Over the past two years, when the dream of the Olympics came into sharper focus, the Nagasus hired an extra helper at the restaurant despite the tough times, to allow Ikuko time off to drive Mirai to practice sessions in Los Angeles.
The payoff came in January at the U.S. Nationals in Spokane, Wash., where Nagasu placed second behind Rachael Flatt and punched her ticket to Vancouver. In the wonderfully refreshing post-event news conference, Nagasu responded to criticism of the current depth of American women's talent by predicting she and Flatt would "shoot down the opposition. Bang. Bang. Bang."
Here in Vancouver, Nagasu is not one of the favorites, and the uninitiated will wonder why. She gave a performance of spectacular charm and crowd-pleasing daintiness in Spokane but placed well behind Flatt, who was able to land her jumps much more cleanly.
But nothing should come as a surprise with Nagasu, whom her coach Frank Carroll insists can "shock the world." Her personality deserves to be in prime time; time will tell if her technical performance does, too.
Mirai arrived in Vancouver just a few days ago, preferring to spend her final preparations in California. Since then, she has made her merry and innocent way around the Olympic Village, talking to whomever crosses her path and all the while recommending a certain restaurant to anyone thinking of visiting Southern California.
One figure skating legend who has already taken the advice is Kristi Yamaguchi, the 1992 Olympic champion, who teamed up with Kiyoto Nagasu to concoct the Mirai Olympic Roll.
"Mirai is my best advertiser," her father said. "But sometimes she says whatever she thinks. She needs some media training."
That is the last thing she needs. The total lack of filter allowing thoughts to tumble from Mirai's lips with the innocence of youth is entirely endearing in this modern era of athlete corporate speak.
She said the best thing about the Games would be the free swag for athletes. And last year at an event in which she was one of only six female figure skaters, she hoped Sasha Cohen didn't come back to qualify for the Olympics, as it would add to the competition. (In the end, Cohen returned but was unable to make the team.)
Nagasu has been through some tough times. Her relationship with then-coach Charlene Wong was tumultuous and teary, and that emotional experience was followed by a period of typical teen angst. Another fight lies ahead, with her mother needing treatment for a thyroid cancer after the Games, although early detection has led to a positive prognosis.
Nagasu has handled everything her own way, and she explains things so earnestly that even the most unusual statement seems perfectly logic.
"I have my own fantasy world in my head," she said. "When things were difficult, I would put myself in that and go through my whole day that way. It was someone else doing all those things. Someone else making the jumps, someone else being spoken to. I lived inside books, inside a different world. In my head. Not a different world [but] somewhere else."
On Tuesday night, it will be back to reality for Nagasu in the women's short program, where the international focus will be on South Korea's Yu-Na Kim, the sport's biggest star, as well as a small posse of impressive Japanese skaters. The glory days of the American women have supposedly passed, yet never has a more interesting character than Mirai Nagasu graced the ice. No one would capture the imagination more with a successful performance.
Back in Arcadia, the regulars at Kiyosuzu will have to do without their fix of sea bass and miso cod for a few days. Kiyoto and Ikuko Nagasu have closed the restaurant's doors and headed north to watch their daughter.
"They are good people, and they deserve to see this," Carroll said. "[Mirai] could be a shining star. You just never know when it is all going to click. But the tools are there."
- Mirai Nagasu