At 14, Nagasu soars

Special to The Times

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The applause from a standing ovation barely had stopped echoing in Mirai Nagasu’s ears when it was replaced by the sound of her cellphone ringing.

The caller was a friend at Arcadia High, where Nagasu is a freshman. Once Nagasu thanked the caller for congratulating her on winning Thursday’s short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, the two began talking about a boy at whom Nagasu was angry.

“She’s 14,” said Charlene Wong, Nagasu’s primary coach, sighing like someone familiar with the emotional roller coaster young teens ride.


Nagasu’s age is central to her story in many ways.

It makes her a prodigy in a sport with technical demands that favor girls like her whose bodies have yet to mature. That makes it difficult to predict how the talent the 4-foot-11, 78-pound Nagasu showed in her senior-level debut will translate to future success -- including today’s free skate, 30 seconds longer than a junior program.

“Mirai is incredibly gifted,” Wong said.

She could become national champion but is 2 1/2 months below the International Skating Union’s age minimum -- 15 by July 1 of the previous year -- for the senior world competition in March. The top three age-eligible skaters in the final standings make the U.S. world team.

Nagasu said not being eligible doesn’t bother her. “I just want to rack up the experience for when I get to go to worlds,” she said.

It also doesn’t change Wong’s timetable for Nagasu, an upset winner of the U.S. junior title a year ago. The coach chose to put her on the junior rather than senior Grand Prix circuit this season because Nagasu had almost no previous international experience, but Wong won’t limit expectations.

“I feel I have at my disposal everything necessary to help groom Mirai into an Olympic champion,” Wong said. “It is up to her to take what we’ve put on the plate and use it to her advantage.”

Olympic champion by 2010 or 2014?

“The way she skates, let’s aim for 2010,” Wong said.

The coach said that, even as she noted how Nagasu is in the stage of teenage willfulness and willingness that can be charming and maddening to adults.


“Mirai is full of mischief, stubborn and determined to get what she wants,” Wong said.

Nagasu defied her mother’s insistence on healthy eating by stuffing herself with chocolate chip cookies when no one was looking this week, then insisted to Wong she hadn’t eaten any despite the crumbs on her face.

There also was a day this season when Nagasu told Wong, “I don’t like your perfume, so I’m not going to come close to you to take direction.”

The counterpoint is Nagasu telling the media, “My mom is really dedicated to me. She drives me to school and skating, wakes up for me, and I’m just really appreciative.”

The counterpoint also is the dedication to excellence that drives Nagasu to wake up five days a week at 5 a.m., skate from 6 to 8, go to school until 3, tackle the pile of homework from her five classes and do physical exercises she is taught at biweekly sessions with AIM, the Manhattan Beach trainers Michelle Kwan used.

Wong sees how hard the combination of full-time school and elite skating is. That’s why Wong’s hopes for nationals were buoyed by how Nagasu responded to the two-week holiday vacation. The coach wasn’t surprised by Nagasu’s Thursday skate, which the judges rewarded with the second-highest short program score ever by a U.S. woman. It was just 0.89 from Sasha Cohen’s score at a 2003 Grand Prix event.

“Honestly, I expected this,” Wong said. “After the Junior Grand Prix Final [which Nagasu won Dec. 8], she put her nose to the grindstone. With the time off from school, she didn’t skate more but had more time to rest and restore.


“I suspect her schedule will have to change, but I think Mirai’s school life will always be on a par with her training.”

When Nagasu slacks off in training, her mother, Ikuko, will tell Wong not to give her a lesson that day, forcing the skater to work on her own. She already does that one day a week in an unusual training program during which Nagasu works with six different coaches.

Nagasu trains her jumps on Sundays with Sondra Holmes and on Mondays with Sashi Kuchiki, whose daughter, Natasha, was U.S. pairs champion in 1991. She takes Tuesdays off, works Wednesdays and Fridays with Wong, skates Thursdays on her own and does style work Saturdays with Bob Paul, who worked Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill. She also takes ice dance lessons with Jim Yorke and has Canadian choreographer Lori Nichol designing her programs.

“We don’t know whether she will be able to maintain this style of training . . . but it is working for now,” Wong said.

None of it would be possible without considerable financial assistance for Nagasu, the only child of Japanese-born parents. The family owns a sushi restaurant in Arcadia. Nagasu gets a scholarship from a foundation created by former U.S. champion Michael Weiss, ice time from the Pickwick Ice Center in Burbank, skates from SP-Teri and skating clothes from Se_Ku.

Until this season, Nagasu often would sleep until the restaurant’s closing time on a cot in a storage room so her family could save on child care.


“I have a lot of homework I have to complete on the computer, so I stay at home now,” she said.

Can’t let the schoolwork skate.


Philip Hersh covers Olympic sports for The Times and the Chicago Tribune.