Under the radar, Americans stage solid show

Martin Rogers
Mirai Nagasu of the United States performs in the short program

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Rachael Flatt and Mirai Nagasu knew they weren't part of the big storyline on this night of moistened eyes and technical excellence, and that suited them just fine.

As Canada's Joannie Rochette paid tribute to her mother – who died suddenly over the weekend – in the most moving and courageous way, there was a timely reminder that such talking points as whether United States women's figure skating has seen better days are, in the grand scheme of things, utterly trivial.

Flatt and Nagasu were pleased to duck under the radar, as Rochette captured hearts and runaway leaders Kim Yu-Na and Mao Asada conjured superlatives. The Americans sit in the fifth and sixth positions heading into Thursday's free skate, a valiant effort considering the gloomy prognosis for this team heading into Vancouver.

Even an untimely nosebleed could not sap the spirit and frivolity out of Nagasu's performance, and the 16-year-old from Arcadia, Calif., showed why she will be an international force to be reckoned with for years to come.

“Halfway there I felt stuff running down my nose and [was] thinking, 'Don’t think about it, just keep going,’ ” she said. “ … I’m happy that [in] my first Olympics I didn’t fall yet.”

She did a little better than just not falling. Sure, Nagasu and Flatt will need significant assistance to claim any kind of hardware and absolute miracle to secure gold, yet by forcing their way into the picture they have delivered a welcome boost to the American women's program.

Flatt, a high school senior, spent Tuesday morning studying for her English Literature final by flicking through the pages of Pride and Prejudice. She displayed the former. She has received the latter, and she doesn't like it.

“It has been a little bit frustrating the way people have spoken about the U.S. women and how we are supposedly not as strong as in the past,” Flatt said. “It got to the point where I just had to look at it and use it as motivation.”

Flatt's technical expertise has helped her to thrive under the modern judging system, and a top-five finish would be a worthy achievement in what likely will be her final international competition – if she decides to pursue schooling rather than skating. Figure skating legend Dorothy Hamill has encouraged Flatt to embrace her natural athleticism, and her program, while not the daintiest, was one of the strongest on display at the Pacific Coliseum.

Nagasu, meanwhile, always will be a little crowd-pleaser, skipping across the ice with an impish grin and bundles of energy, despite the cruel drips of claret spilling down on to her top lip.

“I can't believe that I come to the Olympics and I got a nosebleed the first time I skated,” she said. “I have been getting them up here because of the weather and then I started to notice it halfway through my routine.

“I just told myself to get on with it and carry on skating – and not let it bother me.”

The graceful steps and smooth gliding most one-every-four-year fans sees on their television sets belies the brutal realities of this sport, which is ultra-competitive and utterly unforgiving. And for all their ability and hard work, the primary reason Flatt and Nagasu find themselves rubbing shoulders with the stars of the sport is their mental toughness.

It would have been easy to fall apart here, with Nagasu's nasal malfunction and Flatt's placement in the same group as Rochette's electrifying performance. Neither even looked close to it.

If neither Flatt nor Nagasu can force their way onto the podium, it will be the first time since 1968 (apart from the boycotted Moscow Games of 1980) that no American woman has medaled.

Yet the fault does not lie with either of these impressive and personable young athletes, who represented themselves valiantly here.

If Nagasu continues her forward progress and Flatt decides to continue competing rather than throw herself headlong into academia, then the future of American figure skating won't be so gloomy after all.