Mirai Nagasu has been recognized as a great jumper since she won the 2007 junior U.S. figure skating championship at 13. But to hear her tell it, her real strength may be the ability to pick herself up when she falls.
"It's easy to watch the athletes who are continuously successful but it's the ones who get up and keep fighting, I think, who are relatable. Those stories are worth telling," Nagasu said by phone this week from the set of "Dancing With the Stars," where she's due to compete again Monday, after skating in St. Paul Sunday as part of "Stars on Ice" at Xcel Energy Center. "Most people only see the success stories, but I feel good about being a little of both."
Here's what she's talking about: Nagasu was a figure skating sensation a decade ago, following up a 2007 junior silver medal by winning the 2008 U.S. senior title at 14, the second-youngest person to do so. She placed fourth at her first Olympics in 2010.
But growing pains followed, including a controversial decision not to send her to the 2014 Olympics even though she finished higher at nationals than Ashley Wagner, who did go.
Some skating fans thought that might happen again this year but Nagasu's second-place finish at nationals earned her an Olympic berth — and, ultimately, a bronze medal in the team event. Overall, Nagasu had a shaky Olympics, finishing 10th, but she became the first American woman, and only the third woman ever, to land a triple axel in the Olympics.
Now 25, Nagasu says the shy 14-year-old version of her couldn't have imagined any of that stuff.
"That little girl probably would not have expected the ups and downs. It's been a journey. I feel really grateful to all the people who have supported me. I like to think my story is unique," says Nagasu, who got into a little trouble for her uniqueness during the Olympics, when she spoke about the event as an "audition" for her dream of appearing on "Dancing With the Stars."
The California native says she's eager to return to the X, where she won that national title in 2008. But she won't see much of Minnesota, since she'll either be at the rink or practicing for "DWTS" while here.
"I absolutely remember St. Paul, winning nationals. It was freezing cold, but I got to enjoy Minnesota in the summer, too. The lakes are so beautiful," says Nagasu, who has visited figure-skating buddy Alexander Johnson, a native of Minnetonka.
Her partner on "DWTS," Alan Bersten, also is from Minnetonka. Generally, Bersten travels with Nagasu to "Stars on Ice" shows but she says he won't be coming to Minnesota because he's needed for a rehearsal in California. Between red-eye flights, Nagasu's days currently include rehearsing cha-chas and rumbas with Bersten for three or four hours in the morning, then shifting to the rink for a few hours with the other skaters on the tour, including fellow Olympic medalists Adam Rippon, Nathan Chen and Maia and Alex Shibutani, as well as Jason Brown.
At the X, Nagasu will join those athletes in some group numbers and skate a pair of solos, to "No Good Deed" from "Wicked" and Queen's "Body Language." The latter was choreographed by skating legend Christopher Dean (another Minnetonka connection: he was married to Tonka skater Jill Trenary) after Nagasu said she's a Queen fanatic.
"I said, 'This might not be my style,' " says Nagasu, who worried the song is too sexy. "But Christopher is one of the greatest and, out of respect for him, I thought I'd try it."
Sex appeal also factored into her first "Dancing With the Stars" appearance last week, a salsa. She finished second to Rippon, who has been her friend for more than half her life. (He choreographed one of her most memorable routines, which she performed through tears right after learning she was not going to the 2014 Olympics.) Although rivals on TV, they're allies in the crazy balancing act of "DWTS" and "Stars on Ice."
"It's part of our friendship, helping each other grow. We both felt a little lost for a while — it's such a lonely sport and it's so easy to lose yourself — so it's a great help to be able to find other things you're good at and to have someone to lean on," says Nagasu, who watched the Olympics on TV with Rippon when neither made the 2014 team.
Although she has one (bladed) foot in the figure skating world and one (high-heeled) foot in dance, it's widely assumed that Nagasu will retire from skating soon. She says she hasn't made that decision — "I need a vacation before I make a big decision like that" — but she does allow that she has no plans to tackle the quadruple jumps that some Russian teenage girls have begun to land. Meanwhile, the girl who once slept in a storage closet at her parents' Japanese restaurant (the family couldn't afford a babysitter) has begun thinking about what's next.
Broadcasting, maybe? Nagasu thinks she'd be great at being the sideline reporter who chats with skaters right after they leave the ice, partly because she has had to give those awkward, post-bad-skate interviews.
"Definitely quote me on this: I've literally had to eat my own words before," says Nagasu. "It's so often uncomfortable, but I think talking to a familiar face, someone who understands the situation and wants to help them show their best, that's something I'd be suited for."
Which seems about right, since what Nagasu is saying is that when she sees other skaters fall, she'd like to help them get back up and keep fighting.