Last night, Team USA figure skater Mirai Nagasu made Olympic history when she landed a triple axel in the ladies free skate, making her the first American woman to ever pull off the jump at the Olympics. This is 24-year-old Nagasu's second Olympics ever, and she went for the hardest element possible — and she nailed it. NBD.
In figure skating, the triple axel is a gutsy move with a big pay off. The axel is a required element in the ladies short program and free skate, but most people play it safe with a clean double, which has a base value of 3.3 points. A triple axel, on the other hand, has a base value of 8.5 points. Before yesterday, Nagasu was one of two women to try the triple axel in an international competition (the other is Tonya Harding). The majority of skaters wouldn't dare to try the triple, because it's just that hard.
Unlike most skating jumps that take off from a backward position, the axel takes off from a forward position. To do an axel, the skater has to jump off from the forward outside edge of one blade, rotate one-and-a-half times in the air, and then land on the back outside edge on their other foot. Skaters often rehearse the jump by saying, "leg, arm, legs." For a double axel, you technically rotate two and a half times around, and for a triple it's three and a half turns.
In a video for The Players' Tribune (below), Nagasu explained that turning at that speed is hard because of the sheer gravitational forces against you. "The faster you spin, the harder it is to breathe," she said. To get her used to the sensation of spinning in the air, Nagasu's coaches used a training aid that mimics the motion, first by spinning her on a platform, then allowing her to jump and turn in the air as many times as she can.
To be able to land a triple axel requires an impressive combination of strength, precision, balance, and a lot of courage. "They feel good, like they were meant to happen," Nagasu told The Players' Tribune. "Falling is really brutal." Going into the Olympics, Nagasu knew how much was riding on her landing this one particular jump, but said she loved the challenge of going for a jump no one else was.
Beyond this jump, Nagasu's return to the Olympics is especially noteworthy this time around. In 2014, Nagasu placed third at nationals, but was passed over for the Olympic team. Instead, Ashley Wagner took her spot. Nagasu said that was "heartbreaking," but allowed her to take time to grow as a skater and a person.
In a video for USA Skating, Nagasu said she trained "nonstop, consistently" on the triple axel leading up to the Olympics. "I don’t think I would’ve worked as hard on the triple axel if I hadn’t had that time [after Sochi] to concentrate and decide to," Nagasu told NBC. "It was a conscious decision to make a comeback — even though I hadn’t taken a break."
Despite all the training and practice, nothing could have prepared Nagasu for the pressure that comes with performing on the Olympic stage. Last night, after securing a bronze Olympic medal with her team, Nagasu tweeted that she was on cloud 9 and couldn't sleep. "This is definitely history, or herstory," she said in an interview. "Whatever way you want to put it."
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