A historic triple axel and a giggle: How Mirai Nagasu helped the U.S. win Olympic bronze in team skate

GANGNEUNG, South Korea – Mirai Nagasu had become the first American woman to land a triple axel in the Olympics, part of a clean routine that would eventually pace the United States to a bronze medal in the team skate event.

She wasn’t done. With nearly another minute left in her routine, she whipped past a small seating area at one end of the Gangneung Ice Arena where her teammates were watching and cheering. Pairs skater Alexa Scimeca Knierim leaned forward and shouted at her.

“You did it girl.”

Rather than be distracted, Nagasu broke into a small smile and continued.

“I was like, ‘I still have one more jump,’ ” Nagasu said. “It was a nice little giggle at the end. The long program is a test of our muscle ability and stamina, so for her to make me laugh made me relax a little bit.”

Nagasu finished fine, pumping her fist and shouting in joy that she landed the difficult jump. She joins Midori Ito and Mao Asada as the only women to ever complete the jump in Olympic competition. Both Ito and Asada skated for Japan. Nagasu is from Arcadia, California, outside of Los Angeles, but is of Japanese heritage. After her performance, she gave an interview in Japanese to a large group of Japanese media.

Mirai Nagasu helped the United States take its second straight bronze medal in the team skate event. (AP)
Mirai Nagasu helped the United States take its second straight bronze medal in the team skate event. (AP)

“I am very fortunate that I’m American so I’m the first U.S. lady,” Nagasu said. “This is a journey that started with me wanting to become better and improve and change myself. It doesn’t happen immediately. It was rough … I would have dreams that I could do this jump, then I would try it on ice and I would fall.

“But I knew in my heart this day would come.”

Coupled with Adam Rippon’s solid fourth in the men’s free skate and an excellent second-place performance by the brother-sister ice dance team of Maia and Alex Shibutani, it was enough for the Americans to secure bronze in the event for the second consecutive Olympics.

Canada won gold. The Olympic Athletes from Russia took silver.

The U.S. is not the skating juggernaut it has been in the past. It hasn’t won a medal in ladies skating since Sasha Cohen in 2006, men’s since Evan Lysacek in 2010 and pairs since Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard in 1988. Meryl Davis and Charlie White took gold in ice dance at the 2014 Sochi Games.

What the Americans do have is depth and heart, which came through repeatedly as skaters stepped up under significant pressure and delivered here over the past few days. The team also included Nathan Chen, Bradie Tennell and Chris Knierim.

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Nagasu, for one, said the team competition gives her tremendous confidence and momentum going into the individual event next week.

“This is awesome,” Nagasu said. “I remember watching Gracie Gold in Sochi being the last person to skate and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know how she did it.’ It is a lot of pressure to know my teammates are relying on me and to have to pull out a good performance. It is a lot of expectation, so to deliver on it like I did …

“This is really exciting, and I can’t wait to go give everybody a hug because I am so proud of myself and so proud of my teammates.”

Rippon was tremendous also, electrifying the crowd here with a spirited performance. He knew he needed to deliver everything he could for the team.

“I was going into my last spin and I looked at one of the judges and I pushed forward and I said, ‘You know what, you were never known for your jumps, so you better spin the hell out of this last spin.’ ”

He did, and the Americans were well on their way to the bronze.

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