- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 21, 2009

CLEVELAND | There are days Mirai Nagasu doesn’t want to get up at 5 a.m., doesn’t see eye-to-eye with her coaches and doesn’t feel like doing her homework.

Sounds like a pretty typical 15-year-old.

Except Nagasu is far from typical.

The defending champion arrives at this week’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships still trying to figure out how best to navigate her life as a teenager who delights in drawing on her friends’ binders and one of the country’s most promising skaters.

Nationals begin Wednesday, and the women’s short program is Thursday.

“Everyone has gone through it. Most everyone has gotten past it,” Nagasu said. “So regardless of my rebellious side, I know that I need to be strict with myself and discipline myself to get past it. If I get through all of the hard stuff now, it’ll be like getting over a mountain where climbing up is difficult but climbing back down is fun and full of excitement.

“Just the prospect of what’s beyond that mountain just makes me want to go farther.”

It doesn’t take a telescope to see what’s beyond that mountain: the Vancouver Olympics, only a year away.

“I always have it in the back of my mind the fact that I do want to go to the Olympics,” she said. “Just making it to the Olympics would be a dream come true.”

A surprise winner last year, Nagasu brought something new to a sport that has grown stale and stagnant with the departures of Michelle Kwan, Irina Slutskaya and Sasha Cohen. Nagasu’s skating was lyrical as she appeared to dance across the ice with her footwork and made even the most difficult of spins look like performance art.

She was just as enchanting off the ice, reacting with delighted surprise at every score. She didn’t even realize she had won the title at first, unable to see the marks without her glasses.

“I have to say that it was a lot easier being 14 last year with no thoughts,” Nagasu said.

You can’t stay a kid forever, though.

Her first challenge came in the form of a growth spurt. Just 4-foot-11 last year, Nagasu is now 5-3. That’s a huge difference in a sport in which even the slightest change in a skater’s center of gravity can affect how he or she jumps, spins and even moves across the ice.

Nagasu was mystified when she found herself leaning forward on jumps, something she had never done before. Then she realized she was still focusing her eyes on the same spot she always had rather than picking one that was higher up.

Compared to some skaters, though, Nagasu’s physical transformation has been smooth, coach Charlene Wong said.

“She’s grown up a lot, but she looks great. Seriously, nature has been very good to her,” Wong said. “She’s got these long legs, and she moves so beautifully.”

The bigger challenge has been Nagasu’s right ankle, which she injured over the summer. At first she thought the bone at the top of the ankle was bruised, but nothing showed up on X-rays or MRIs. Now she thinks it’s a pinched nerve.

Some of her coaches thought it was better to take time off to give the ankle a chance to fully heal. Nagasu, though, wanted to see if she could train through it.

“Mirai is growing in her desire to be more independent, [saying], ‘I think I want to do things more my way this year,’” Wong said. “It’s a challenge but also a time for learning. This will be a year for Mirai to learn what works, what doesn’t work and be ready for next year.

“The challenge in that is she’s not used to training [with an injury]. So everything this year was a little bit different.”

After her run of success last year (she was the bronze medalist at the junior world championships, joining Rachael Flatt and Caroline Zhang in a U.S. sweep), Nagasu found herself struggling in her first Grand Prix series as a senior. She was fifth, one spot behind Flatt, in a tough Skate America field, and a disappointing eighth at the NHK Trophy.

When she got back from Japan, she saw a doctor in Palm Springs, Calif., about her foot. He gave her exercises to strengthen the muscles in her ankle, and she has added more off-ice training to her schedule. She also limited the number of flips and lutzes she did in practice to lessen the stress on the ankle.

Because of the injury and her Grand Prix results, Nagasu said she doesn’t feel like the favorite this week. That honor might go to Flatt, who had the most success on the Grand Prix circuit, winning the silver medal at the Cup of Russia and finishing as the second alternate to the final. Or Zhang, who won a bronze at Trophee Eric Bompard.

Ashley Wagner, third at nationals last year, is back. And don’t forget Alexe Gilles, last year’s U.S. junior champion.

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