GANGNEUNG, South Korea — It took the talent, grit and artistry of eight American figure skaters over three days of competition at the Gangneung Ice Arena to deliver the United States a bronze medal in the team event at the PyeongChang Olympics.
But the most magical and pivotal contribution came from Mirai Nagasu, and it was over in an instant. In the span of one glorious eyeblink, Nagasu, who had been snubbed by U.S. skating officials for a spot on the 2014 Olympic team, poured all she had worked toward these past four years into the opening jump of her free skate on the final day of the team competition.
And when she landed solidly on one foot, after making 31/2 rotations in the air, Nagasu made history, becoming the first American woman to land the high-risk triple axel in Olympic competition.
Her 41/2-minute program, set to music from “Miss Saigon,” demanded eight more triple jumps, as well as high difficulty spins. But with history now on her résumé – and her U.S. teammates weeping and cheering, fully grasping the depth of her courage and the trials of her career – Nagasu, 24, sailed through the remaining elements of her program with the joy of a child romping on a playground, grinning more broadly each time she ticked off a skill.
Triple Salchow. Double axel-triple toe loop-double toe loop. Triple Lutz-triple toe loop. She could do these jumps in her sleep.
“You did it, girl!” screamed her teammate, pairs skater Alexa Scimeca-Knierim, from the U.S. team’s rinkside seats, loud enough for Nagasu to hear as she went into her final jump. She giggled to herself, which made her smile even broader.
“It’s historical and something no one can take away from me,” Nagasu said afterward. “I wanted to make America proud.”
That she did, contributing nine valuable points to the United States’ bronze medal effort.
Canada, which boasts the world’s top ice dance pair, won gold. The Olympic Athletes from Russia took silver, giving the motherland they are forbidden from acknowledging at these Olympics its second medal. Under International Olympic Committee sanctions following evidence of state-sponsored doping at the 2014 Sochi Games, Russia was banned from these Olympics but, in a compromise, was allowed to send 168 athletes absolved of any part in the scandal to compete under a stateless “OAR” banner.
The unprecedented compromise meant that during the medal ceremony that followed Monday’s competition, OAR silver medalists ascended the silver stand on the podium in drab gray and red warm-ups and were forbidden from displaying a Russian flag while Canadian and American skaters wore their colors with pride.
Canada held a commanding lead heading into Monday’s final phase of the competition (which consisted of the men’s, women’s and dance free skates) with 45 points. OAR occupied the silver medal spot, with 39, and the United States stood third (36). With it virtually impossible to overtake Canada, the Americans focused on outperforming the OAR and fending off Italy, which lurked one point behind.
The men’s free skate kicked off the competition. American Adam Rippon, 28, was elegant in his Olympic debut, turning in an emotive skate to Coldplay’s “O (Fly On),” which via costume and opening tableau told the story of a bird with a broken wing ultimately taking flight. But Rippon omitted his planned quadruple jump at the outset, substituting a double axel instead, and judges deemed his triple Lutz under-rotated. While his spins were lovely and Rippon projected sheer joy in taking his bow, judges were unmoved by a quad-less effort. His score, 172.98, was more than four points off his season’s best mark for the program, and it placed him third among the five competitors – putting the U.S. two points further in arrears to Canada and one point behind OAR.
Siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani returned to the ice one day after doing their short program to compete their free dance and contributed another nine points toward the U.S. tally, finishing second to Canada’s top-ranked duo.
The women’s skate represented the moment Nagasu had waited for since her fourth-place finish at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
She awoke at 4 a.m., nervous about shouldering such a responsibility for her teammates and her country. But she didn’t give a thought to omitting the risky triple axel. That jump – and the prospect of becoming the first American and just the third woman in history to land it at the Olympics, after Japan’s Midori Ito and Mao Asada – was the sole reason she kept training after being passed over for the 2014 Olympic team. Even before she could do the triple axel, she dreamed she could. She dreamed of landing it so much, in fact, that she thinks she may have taught it to herself subliminally.
The falls, the bruises and aches over the years attest otherwise. But Monday was her moment. It was her vindication.
“Midori Ito, Mao Asada and now Mirai Nagasu – all Japanese heritage,” Nagasu said afterward, with a proud smile. “But I am fortunate that I am American, so I’ll be the first U.S. lady to have landed the triple axel [in Olympic competition]. So today is a day of accomplishment for me.”