Last year, Mirai Nagasu realized if she was going to keep figure skating, she would need to seek help from a place where she has seen both the best and the worst of times: Boston.
Now, nearly a year after a complicated hip surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital, she has no plans on leaving.
Nagasu, a two-time Winter Olympian best known for a clutch triple axel that led the United States to bronze in the team figure skating event at the 2018 PyeongChang Games, can now be found at a wide variety of rinks in the area, indoor and outdoor, Metro West to North Shore, skating and coaching. For the first time since last March, she is working on the triple jumps she was known for and relishing every moment on the ice.
“If I have learned anything about myself during this time, it is that I really love skating,” remarked the 27-year-old Nagasu between rink visits on a busy recent day.
If it sounds like her career has been reborn, it’s fitting, because Boston is where her career was reborn twice. In 2014, her performances at the US Championships at TD Garden were good enough to win her the bronze medal and standing ovations, despite her showing up to the event without a coach. In a controversial decision, she was left off the three-person Olympic team, with US Figure Skating’s selection committee claiming that her seventh-place finish at the Nationals the year before and inconsistent international results were a deal-breaker.
”Although I don’t ever want to relive not being named to the Olympic team, it was one of those moments where I decided to challenge myself and keep going,” said Nagasu. “If I hadn’t had that period in my life . . . I would never have worked on the triple axel. Some of what could be considered a low point was actually — I don’t want to say a blessing in disguise, but a turning point to where I am now.”
After 2014, Nagasu stayed in skating, finding a new coach in Colorado and enrolling at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. In 2016, her new dedication paid off, as she was called mere days before the World Championships to fill in for the injured Polina Edmunds, one of the skaters chosen over her for the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Where were those World Championships? Boston.
Back at the Garden, two years removed from disappointment, Nagasu shined. During one of the last elements of her short program, the crowd began to applaud, and by the time she finished, the entire Garden had jumped to its feet. Despite a few mistakes by her during the long program, the crowd responded similarly. That reaction, along with her 10th-place finish in an incredibly strong field, convinced her that she still belonged in skating.
But that year was when the hip pain started. She had severe pain shooting down her right leg, at one point keeping her from bending her knee. She worked through it, mastering the triple axel, a jump an American woman hadn’t had in the arsenal since 2006 world champion Kimmie Meissner. Nagasu first landed it in competition in the fall of 2017, and showed it off in practices at that year’s US Championships, where her second-place finish put her on the team eight years after her first Olympic appearance.
Her success with the jump in the Olympic team event vaulted her to popularity, leading to a wide variety of post-Olympic opportunities, including an appearance on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” and a tour with “Stars on Ice.” Soon, however, she was forced to do something about the hip pain.
”After the Olympics was such a hard time because of my hip injuries,” she said. “I had persevered through them to achieve my lifelong goals at the Olympics. It was not easy, and figuring out what surgery was right for me was difficult.”
At first, Nagasu had surgery on her labrum. She got back to the ice quickly, but not well, falling often. Eventually, she consulted with Dr. Ellen Geminiani, the Chair of Sports Science & Medicine Committee of US Figure Skating and a physician in sports medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital. Geminiani pointed her to the hospital’s Child and Young Adult Preservation Program and two of its surgeons, Dr. Michael Millis and Dr. Eduardo Novais.
”Dr. Millis really explained what I needed to do,” said Nagasu. “As a skater, any surgery is even scarier because you don’t want to be off the ice for any period of time. I am so grateful for the time he took to explain the surgery to me.”
Millis convinced Nagasu that a periacetabular osteotomy, known as a PAO, was the way to go. The program performs the intensive surgery more than 100 times a year on children and young adults. A PAO comes with a daunting recovery time — not only a month or longer of near-immobility, but 6-12 months away from one’s sport.
Nagasu took the risk, and Novais performed her PAO last spring. The immobile part of recovery was a little less frustrating than it could have been because of the pandemic.
”The first couple of weeks, I didn’t move a lot, because my hip was swollen,” said Nagasu. “But everyone was staying in. I did a lot of Zoom parties and played games like everyone else had to do.”
By the time she could begin physical therapy, restrictions had been loosened and she could see therapists in person, which became the only time she ventured outside her Copley Square residence. Her patience was tested throughout that portion of rehab.
”I would ask my PT, ‘Is this all I get to do today? These exercises are too easy,’ ” said Nagasu. “The athlete in me wanted more. But the PT would have to tell me, ‘We have to give your body a chance to heal.’ ”
It was a good life lesson for Nagasu, who had been juggling so much between training for professional events, school, and appearances for the last two years. She started to appreciate all that Boston had to offer, taking her crutches and wheelchair out to Boston Common and exploring what she could.
”There is so much diversity — in not just people, but places and food,” said Nagasu. “It is a city full of culture and education.”
Between physical therapy appointments, she finished up her degree remotely and started to think about the future. Eager to get back to the ice, she started coaching, and popped up at rinks in Peabody and Westborough giving paid lessons to all levels of skaters.
Nagasu believes skating can teach valuable lessons, even if you don’t go the elite route.
”Younger people, my generation included, we are so easily distracted,” she said. “We expect answers really quickly. But with skating, you can’t cheat your way through any of it. It doesn’t come quickly. You have to practice and have a plan. You have to work every day.”
Nagasu began training again in December, and has been celebrating landing triples again.
But even as she starts to work back to her former skating self, she is also preparing for her pivot to her post-skating life. She will be attending the Next Step program at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business this spring and has been accepted into Ernst and Young’s Women Athlete Business Network.
She hopes both will provide her mentorship and guidance on how to translate lessons she learned on the ice to a possible career off it.
It’s yet another rebirth of Nagasu’s career, and it’s again coming in Boston.
“I am hoping my story is still being written,” she said.