By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Sports Editor
It was a release of stress, emotion and disappointment that had been bottled up for at least four years.
Mirai Nagasu clenched her teeth, squeezed her eyes closed, covered her face with both hands and exorcised all her demons, as her final scores were announced at the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose on Friday.
The 24-year-old from Arcadia shattered her personal best score with a forceful, technically rigorous program in the free skate, and finished in second place, a result that earned her a spot on the team that will represent the U.S. in next month’s Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang, South Korea.
Nagasu finished some six points behind Bradie Tennell, who took the gold medal. They will be joined on the Olympic squad by Karen Chen, the defending U.S. champion who finished third on Friday.
For Nagasu, it was far more than a return to the Olympics. It was validation, after many felt she was wronged four years ago, when despite finishing third at the U.S. Championships, she was left off the national team in favor of Ashley Wagner, who placed fourth.
“I really took time to remodel myself, because I didn’t want to feel that regret,” Nagasu said Saturday morning after the announcement of the Olympic roster. “This has been about my journey and my goal to get here. To accomplish it last night has been a dream come true.”
As she struck a statuesque pose before beginning her free skate Friday, the televised close-up caught Nagasu mouthing a determined – and possibly expletive-laden – encouragement to herself. She then launched into a flowing, inspired routine that included a triple axel, a technically challenging jump that earns superior points for its level of difficulty.
Nagasu didn’t land the jump flawlessly, but she completed it, adding those valuable points to her overall score. She and Tonya Harding are the only American women ever to land a triple axel in international competition.
Later in the routine, she pumped both fists in triumph after a perfectly executed jump. After finishing, as the crowd roared, she couldn’t contain her emotion and broke out in tears.
Because of her experience and athletic ability, there was little doubt Nagasu would get the nod for this year’s Olympics. She missed out on a medal at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, where she finished fourth.
Her performance marked a stunning comeback from the devastation of 2014, when she was passed over for a trip to the world’s most prestigious athletic event, not because of her failure to rise in competition, but rather a decision made in a committee room far from the ice. She could easily – and understandably – have indulged in regret, anger, or bitterness, but instead focused on getting back into top form.
“I put a lot of that responsibility on myself, and I didn’t want to feel that same way this year,” she told the Bleacher Report. “I took on the full responsibility of becoming a stronger competitor and person, and I wasn’t going to let a decision that wasn’t mine keep me from my dreams.”
Following the controversial decision that left her off the team in 2014, Nagasu wrote, “My Olympic journey does not end here. I will continue to work hard, to train and grow and improve as a skater and realize my dream of once again representing the United States at an Olympic Games.”
Wagner, who again finished fourth on Friday and was named the first alternate for the Olympics, was livid about her scores in San Jose and made sure everyone knew it.
“For me to put out two programs that I did at this competition as solid as I skated and to get those scores, I am furious,” said Wagner, who placed seventh at the Sochi Winter Games in 2014.
U.S. Figure Skating President Sam Auxier said the choice of Chen over Wagner for the Olympics was “pretty academic,” citing Chen’s stronger finishes at last year’s World Championships and Friday’s nationals.
After the announcement, Nagasu said she could empathize with Wagner, who must be experiencing her disappointment of four years ago.
“It’s hard for me. I’m ecstatic for myself because this was my goal and my dream, but at the same time, a part of me really feels for her, because she is an amazing skater and one of our strongest competitors.”
A Washington Post story about Friday’s results drew some criticism, after focusing on Wagner’s failure rather than the success of the top finishers. The online story has since been revised, after it contained misspellings of Nagasu’s name and referenced Wagner as “All-American.”
Several online commenters felt that choice of words suggested Nagasu was less “American” than Wagner, who had already been featured in promotions for NBC’s TV coverage of the upcoming Olympics.
The blog Angry Asian Man was less sympathetic to Wagner’s situation in celebrating Nagasu’s comeback: “This has got to feel pretty sweet. See ya, Ashley.”
The site also celebrated the fact that the U.S. will be represented by no fewer than seven Asian American figure skaters in PyeongChang. Maia and Alex Shibutani finished second in ice dancing will compete in the Olympics, as will Madison Chock and Evan Bates, who took the bronze.
Nathan Chen repeated as the men’s U.S. champion and will travel to South Korea, along with third-place finisher Vincent Zhou.
So inundated with post-competition interview requests was Nagasu, that she had no time to change before catching her flight out of San Jose, and wore her skating outfit on the plane.
Later, on her Twitter feed, she offered a simple expression of gratitude to her supporters.
“2x Olympian. Thank you to everyone who never stopped believing,” she wrote.