Can Olympian Mirai Nagasu be the Future of Figure Skating?

STYLE & GRACE — Shin-Nisei Nagasu struts her stuff during her freestyle performance on Jan. 23. Kyodo News photo

With the 2010 Winter Olympics less than a week away, the United States will once again set their hopes on another Japanese American figure skater to bring home a medal.

Nearly 18 years after Kristi Yamaguchi won the gold, Mirai Nagasu will compete in the women’s figure skating competition at the Vancouver Games. The 16-year-old has gained a reputation for her ability to captivate audiences with her artistic style and is part of the rising crop of U.S. talent to become the next star. But after a year full of challenges, Nagasu faces tough global competition in a sport where Asian and Asian Americans have risen to prominence.

It might be fitting for Mirai Nagasu, whose first name means “the future.” Nagasu, along with Rachael Flatt, 17, are young and enthusiastic skaters rising through the ranks of U.S. figure skating going against a strong pool of talent from Asia.

Nagasu is regarded for her athleticism and graceful performances that elicited standing ovations at last month’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships where she was a runner-up. She lost to Flatt, who won with a steady performance in a tournament roundly criticized for its judging system that awarded technicality over artistry.

Both will be first-time Olympians, and it’s been a journey for Nagasu, who grew up in humble beginnings. A Shin-Nisei, Nagasu grew up in Arcadia, Calif. to parents who owned a sushi restaurant in Los Angeles. In her younger days, Nagasu did her homework at the restaurant after school and slept on a cot in the storage room until closing.

Now, her mother, Ikuko, devotes most of her time driving her daughter to training and even hired an extra waiter. Nagasu left public school and has taken an Internet homeschooling program to allow more time for practice. At the skating rink, her mother reportedly sits and gives hand signals to her daughter.

Nagasu burst onto the scene after she won the U.S. junior championships in 2007 and, at just 14, the 2008 U.S. title. But the following years have been challenging after being hampered by injuries, a growth spurt and an adolescent temperament.

Last year, Nagasu fell during her short program at the U.S. championships and sobbed as she stepped onto the free skate, eventually finishing fifth. She grew taller and the jumps that were easy in the past became more difficult as she suffered an ankle injury.

The pressure of being a national champion proved difficult as tensions grew with her former coach. Nagasu changed coaches after a series of disagreements and hired her current coach Frank Carroll, who has instilled a sense of tough love and confidence.

“Last year it was like teenage-ness hitting me full on. I was really surprised at how much I rebelled. A little rebelliousness is good but last year was just too much,” said Nagasu to the O.C. Register.

Nagasu’s spurts of talent have been encumbered by occasional mental lapses and many are wondering how she will prevail in the Olympics.

But with U.S. figure skating on a downswing, the expectations are measured. The Americans only have rising stars, a marked change from when the U.S. had prominence and prestige with skaters like Sasha Cohen and Michelle Kwan.

Of course there was Kristi Yamaguchi, who out-dueled Japan’s Midori Ito at the 1992 Albertville Games to become the first Asian American to win gold. Since then, a crop of young Asian American skaters are waiting in the wings to be the next star. At last month’s U.S. figure skating championship, eight of 23 women in the long program were Asian American.

On the international stage though, no American woman has won a medal in singles skating in the last three years at the world championships. The U.S. failed to qualify for the maximum number of spots for only the second time since 1924.

Meanwhile, Asian women have won seven of the nine medals at the last three world championships. Shizuka Arakawa was the reigning women’s Olympic champion.

South Korea’s Kim Yu-Na is considered a favorite along with Japan’s Mao Asada and Miki Ando, a former world champion. They are all well-rounded skaters with the international titles to back it up.

“We don’t have a strong Michelle Kwan or Kristi Yamaguchi to lead us on,” Nagasu told the New York Times, “but even though we’re young, we have our big dreams to lead us on.”

As the U.S. waits for their next star, the time has come to see if Nagasu will be the future of figure skating.

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