GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — There are days Mirai Nagasu is so brilliant she’ll bring coach Frank Carroll to tears.
Then there are days she’ll make Carroll want to tear his hair out.
“That’s Mirai,” he said Wednesday. “The thing about her that’s baffling is the peaks and valleys.”
Nagasu is perhaps the most promising skater the United States has had since the days Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen ruled the world, with a mesmerizing blend of athleticism, lyrical style and expression that can captivate fans and make them feel as if they’re on the ice with her.
She was just 14 years and 9 months when she won the title at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, making her the second-youngest winner behind Olympic gold medalist Tara Lipinski. She finished fourth at last year’s Vancouver Olympics, and led the world championships after the short program.
But success can be a little tough to handle for the irrepressible 17-year-old, who couldn’t take herself seriously if she tried.
“Sometimes I have issues believing in myself,” Nagasu conceded.
Rachael Flatt is the defending champion at nationals, which begin Thursday, and 2009 U.S. champ Alissa Czisny won the Grand Prix final last month. But Nagasu, who won her first Grand Prix medal at Trophee Eric Bompard in November, can never be counted out — unless she does it herself.
“I’ve grown up in a culture that it’s more important to hear the negative aspects and where you can improve rather than the compliments,” Nagasu said. “A lot of times compliments can go to your head. So I’d rather hear the negative parts. But sometimes it’s not always good, so Frank does a really good job with that.”
Indeed, it was Carroll’s no-nonsense style that made Nagasu want to train with him in the first place. After winning her U.S. title, Nagasu went through a growth spurt, ankle injury and ordinary teenage angst that, taken together, made for a disastrous season in 2009. She dropped to fifth at nationals, and was so unhappy that she was crying as she took the ice for her free skate.
She switched that summer to Carroll, who demands discipline and focus at every practice. Goof around, lolly gag or sulk, and skaters will find themselves banished from the ice for the day — as Nagasu has a time or two.
And what Carroll didn’t expect of Nagasu, training mate Evan Lysacek did. The Vancouver gold medalist works so hard Carroll often had to hold him back, and Nagasu couldn’t help but be influenced by his work ethic.
“Evan and I have been texting each other and he asked me about Mirai, and I said, ‘She needs you, get here. She needs you to scream at her,'” Carroll said with a laugh. “She always felt she couldn’t get away with anything because she wasn’t working as hard as he was so she’d better try harder. He was a great influence. And they’re very good friends. He’s sort of like her big brother.”
Added Nagasu, “He never has a bad day and I really like training with him because it motivates me. … If I could copy him and become a champion, that would be great.”
The good thing for Nagasu is she’s got another three years to mature before the Sochi Olympics, and each practice, each competition gives her an opportunity to grow. She followed a “brilliant” practice Tuesday morning with an “absolutely dreadful” one in the afternoon, Carroll said, prompting another one of their “talks.”
Think of music with extreme highs and lows, with Carroll the equalizer that turns it into a balanced, beautiful piece.
“She’s a very emotional girl,” Carroll said. “Unfortunately, this sport is based on getting the job done and being consistent. And consistency is not just doing the elements and skating consistently. It’s also handling yourself consistently. That part of her is something that she really will need to do in the future, be able to control her emotions better.”
If she does, Nagasu could find herself on a similar path as Lysacek, who was fourth at his first Olympics, too.
First things first, though.
“To forget about today and forget about everyone else and just live in the moment,” Nagasu said of her goals at nationals. “I mean, I’ve been to the Olympics, so it shouldn’t be so hard for me. I hope.”