This girl was on fire: Mirai Nagasu smokes triple axel (and rest of program), blazing her way into history

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea - She had been so down, so utterly devastated at having been left off the 2014 Olympic team in a controversial but justified decision. The day that happened, Mirai Nagasu skated an exhibition program at the U.S. championships gala with teary eyes and a shattered soul.

At that low point in her lengthy career, and for much of the next three years, it was almost impossible to imagine Nagasu blissfully soaring the way she did Monday, reaching a height no U.S. woman had attained in the history of Olympic figure skating: landing a clean triple axel.

And not just any triple axel: a brilliantly executed 3 1/2 revolutions in the air, followed by a totally secure landing.

It began a thoroughly sparkling performance that would lead her teammate, Adam Rippon, to cry for joy while watching Nagasu from the U.S. team box at the Gangneung Ice Arena.

It was a feeling undoubtedly shared by anyone familiar with Nagasu's emotionally charged story.

"I knew in my heart this day would come," Nagasu said. "I will remember this forever."

So will everyone who had the good fortune to see it. And Rippon was far from the only teary or exuberantly joyful eyewitness.

Pairs skater Meaghan Duhamel jumped out of her seat in the Canadian team box when Nagasu finished the triple axel. Her teammates broke into wild cheering and applause. More than anyone, fellow figure skaters could appreciate how special and remarkable the moment was.

Her original dream was just to be here, to make the 2018 Olympic team. But Nagasu also had dreamed many times she could land a clean triple axel -- the most difficult jump women attempt -- no matter how many times she fell while trying to learn it.

And then, having willed herself to realize the dream of getting back to her sport's biggest stage, Nagasu achieved what can only have seemed like fantasy.

"This is history -- or herstory, however you want to put it," Nagasu said.

She was fully aware of having joined two Japanese women in the very selective club of those who have landed the jump in the Olympics.

"Midori Ito (1992), Mao Asada (2010 and 2014) and now Mirai Nagasu -- all of Japanese heritage," Nagasu said. "But I'm really fortunate to be American so I'll be the first U.S. lady. Today is a day of accomplishment for me."

It wasn't just the landmark jump. She followed the triple axel, with which she opened her program, with the best free skate of her life, earning a career-best score of 137.53 for four minutes of perfectly clean skating to music from Miss Saigon.

"When someone gets to the Olympics and does their best -- and that was Mirai's best by a lot -- it's like the culmination of their dreams," said Tom Zakrajsek, Nagasu's coach.

There were none of the under-rotated jumps that have plagued her for several seasons. There was her first positive Grade of Execution (1.57) out of the nine triple axels she has attempted since keeping a vow to put the jump in her programs this season. There was a giggle and smile on her face when teammate Alexa Scimeca-Knierim shouted, "You did it, girl!" before Nagasu glided into the setup for the last of her eight triple jumps.

When she cleanly executed that final jump, a triple loop, Nagasu made more history: She became the first woman to land eight triple jumps in an Olympic free skate.

"I wanted to do it for my teammates, so to deliver the way I did, it's awesome," Nagasu said.

The U.S. won its second straight bronze medal in the team event, introduced at the 2014 Olympics. Nagasu finished second of five in the free skate, beating 2014 Olympic bronze medalist Carolina Kostner of Italy and reigning world bronze medalist Gabrielle Daleman of Canada. Russian wunderkind Alina Zagitova, 15, won by a whopping 20.55 points.

"I was very nervous," Nagasu said. "I felt a lot of pressure to support Team USA."

Her coach, Tom Zakrajsek, sensed the obligation Nagasu felt.

"I knew it was really important for Mirai to smoke the jump, and also to help the team out," he said.

Nagasu hit the jump in a way that suggested this girl was on fire. What Zakrajsek figured was an adrenaline rush made the following jump, a triple flip to open a combination, bigger and more explosive than ever.

The coach wondered if that might bother the second jump in the combination, a triple toe loop. But he saw Nagasu react just the way she has trained in practice, with the necessary adjustment on the fly to execute the toe loop.

Zakrajsek and Nagasu began working together four months after the skater's 2014 Olympic disappointment. At their first session, Nagasu told the coach she wanted him to teach her the triple axel. She was in her early 20s, an age at which few figure skaters try to begin mastering new jumps.

The one thing he asked was she show greater commitment to being better than she ever had. Nagasu was on the same page.

"To be left off the team, it was definitely not a blessing in disguise," she said. "But I took that heartbreak and made the decision to change myself and become more responsible and want to improve."

Nagasu had won the 2008 U.S. Championships at age 14 and finished fourth at the 2010 Olympics at 16. With the insouciance of youth, she thought the next few years would be easy, but they turned into a relentless series of ups and downs. Her inconsistent results were a big reason why U.S. Figure Skating picked Ashley Wagner over Nagasu for the Sochi Olympics, even though Wagner was fourth to Nagasu's third at the 2014 U.S. Championships.

"I could tell from the first lesson there was a lot to work with," Zakrajsek said. "It was almost like an iceberg. The skating world had seen only the top, but there was so much more. My theme has been to keep bringing that to the surface."

The emergence was slow. Last season, Nagasu let a spot on the world team slip from her grasp with an underwhelming free skate at the U.S. championships.

"It was rough," Nagasu said. "I did interviews where I was like, 'I haven't done enough, but I've been working really hard.'''

Nagasu gets Tuesday off. Then she begins training for the individual event, which begins Feb. 21, and she plans triple axel attempts in both the short program and free skate.

"A lot of people in figure skating considered Mirai a dark horse for the podium," Zakrajsek said. "This kind of cements that. Everybody should pay attention, and let's see what she can do."

The attention will be there. Mirai Nagasu has taken a giant leap into not only the history books but the sports world's consciousness.

(This article originally appeared on icenetwork.)