Standing alone on the ice at SAP Center on Wednesday night as she prepared to perform her short program at the U.S. figure skating championships, Mirai Nagasu said a few words only she could hear.
"I think every brilliant mind is a little bit crazy," she said. "Sometimes I doubt myself, and that was me telling myself I am fully capable and I can do it. Once the music started I was in the moment, and I feel good about how I did."
As well she should. Nagasu, who made the 2010 U.S. Olympic team but was passed over in 2014 in a controversial decision, took a significant step toward a berth in the Pyeongchang Olympics by finishing a close second to Bradie Tennell in the short program, the first phase of the women's competition.
Tennell, 19, earned 73.79 points for a flawless routine, just ahead of Nagasu (73.09), who flubbed the landing of a difficult triple axel jump. Behind them are defending champion Karen Chen (69.48); Angela Wang, who earned 67 points for a moving version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"; and three-time U.S. champion Ashley Wagner (65.94).
The women will perform their long programs Friday. A selection committee will meet to consider the Olympic criteria and will inform the chosen athletes late that night. The names will be announced on TV early Saturday.
American women's singles skaters have been shut out of medals at the last two Winter Olympics and have won only one medal at the last 11 world championships, a silver for Wagner in 2016. But Nagasu, 24, earned lavish praise Thursday from 1998 Olympic gold medalist Tara Lipinski, who was known for her fearlessness and her jumping skills.
"She is, for me, the most inspiring skater here," said Lipinski, a member of NBC's broadcast team here and at the Pyeongchang Games. "This girl is out for blood and she's not just riding that wave of, 'Oh, I have a name, I've been around for 10 years.'…She has upped the technical ante. She's trying the most difficult technical element for a woman, the triple axel, and she's nailing it like some of the best men nail it. And she's a true competitor. She sets the bar that much higher of how it should be done if you're going to stay in the sport. She is staying up there with the young ones, and I've been in awe of her all week."
Tennell stated her case emphatically with the highest short-program score ever earned at the U.S. championships. She has never been in this position before, but she betrayed no nerves. Tennell, of Carpentersville, Ill., said she planned to spend Thursday relaxing and watching the men's and pairs events. "On Friday I'm just going to focus on doing what I know how to do," she said.
Lipinski had predicted that Tennell will make the Olympic team but is curious to see how Tennell handles the new pressure of being a leader.
"When I watched her skate in comparison to the rest of group she had not only a very consistent technical arsenal and she never misses, that mentally she has blinders on, and that's very difficult as a competitor to do," Lipinski said of what she noticed in Tennell's demeanor.
Wagner, 26, said she wasn't comfortable with her program and felt it was stale, adding that she might rework or replace it if she goes to Pyeongchang. But to get there she first must excel with her new "La La Land" long program on Friday.