PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Mirai Nagasu finished just off the podium eight years ago in Vancouver, when her objective was simply not to fall down. After the selectors bypassed her for Ashley Wagner for the US figure skating team four years ago, she was determined to do whatever it took to make it back in 2018.
“I knew I would really have to be something special,” she said.
Special meant landing the devilish triple axel at the advanced age of 24. Only Tonya Harding and Kimmie Meissner had managed it among American women. Only Japanese skywalkers Midori Ito and Mao Asada had done it at Olympus, which is where Nagasu joined their company Monday morning. Her feat was, she said, “historical,” something that nobody could take from her.
Then Russia’s Alina Zagitova came out and blew her doors off by more than 20 points without even trying the axel. She did it by jamming all 11 of her jumps into the back half of her four-minute program, earning a 10 percent bonus for each one and by doing it with more panache.
And even that performance wasn’t enough to allow Zagitova’s fellow “Olympic Athletes from Russia” to retain the team title that they’d won on their home ice in Sochi. This time it was the Canadians wearing the gold medal after Patrick Chan had taken the men’s event, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir the dance, and Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford the pairs.
“We had the determination this time around,” said the 27-year-old Chan, the three-time world champion who’ll be chasing his country’s first Olympic men’s gold here Friday. “We saw the potential we had in Sochi and didn’t capitalize on it. This time we wanted to nail it into the coffin and win this thing.”
The Americans, as expected, took the bronze ahead of Italy and Japan. Time was when they would have been strong enough across the four disciplines to claim gold, but that time was before this millennium. The men haven’t made the world podium since 2009. The women have managed it once in 11 years. The pairs, who haven’t medaled globally since 2002, only earned one entry this time. And the dancers, while deep, probably won’t fare better than bronze.
Not that the Russians haven’t been slipping, too. The breakup of the Soviet Union was a significant blow to the world’s most dominant skating program, and while the Putin regime has been pumping cash into the sport, the priorities have shifted.
The pairs, who’ve won 13 of the last 14 Olympic titles, still are the gold standard. But the men, who won five straight gold medals between 1992 and 2006, haven’t made the world podium since 2011. And the dancers haven’t won a global title in eight years, their longest drought in nearly half a century.
The women, once a mere sideshow, now are center stage. They won their first gold in Sochi with Adelina Sotnikova and have claimed the last three world crowns. And Evgenia Medvedeva, who has won the last two, isn’t even the best on this team.
That distinction falls to the 15-year-old Zagitova, who won the European title last month. She not only cruised through her program in the team finale here, she performed a triple-double-double combination with her arms over her head, then did a triple salchow and triple flip the same way.
“I would give myself a four-plus [out of five],” she concluded. “There were some imperfections but they are easy to fix. We’ll work on that.”
The team event, held for the first time four years ago, essentially is a dress rehearsal with medals. The Japanese, who have no pairs or dancers of note, knew they had no chance at the podium. So they held out defending men’s champ Yuzuru Hanyu, who’s coming off a November ankle injury, and sent out third-stringer Keiji Tanaka for the final.
The Russians split the women’s assignments, as did the Canadians (world medalists Kaetlyn Osmond and Gabrielle Daleman).
The Americans, who reckoned they were locked into third coming into the Games, subbed out Nathan Chen with Adam Rippon, who placed a creditable third, and sent out Nagasu after using Bradie Tennell in the short. Since the triple axel had gotten her here, Nagasu figured that there was no reason not to use it.
“I tripped a couple of times going into it because I was so nervous,” she said, “but to tell myself, ‘No, I’m going for it 100 percent and not pull back,’ that was really special for me.”
So Nagasu got the bronze medal that was just out of reach in Vancouver and set herself up for another next week. But by landing the axel, she also got a headline and a memory.
“In these times of stress, these are the moments that really matter,” she said, “so I’ll remember this forever.”
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.