As soon as Nagasu pulled off the tricky triple axel jump — becoming the first American woman to do so at the Games — Kwan reacted with joy

By Adam Carlson
February 15, 2018 07:06 PM

Like many others around the world, Michelle Kwan was watching as American figure skater Mirai Nagasu took the ice earlier this week in the figure skating team event at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

And as soon as Nagasu, 24, pulled off the tricky triple axel jump — becoming the first American woman to do so at the Games — Kwan reacted with joy.

“Watching her do that triple axel and just nailing it, I was screaming,” Kwan, 37, tells PEOPLE in Pyeongchang, South Korea, where she is enjoying the Olympics as a spectator while appearing as a global ambassador for Procter & Gamble.

“Then following that, having the rest of the program just perfect, clean and just absolutely amazing, then taking home the bronze medal, I was so proud of her,” Kwan says.

The retired figure skater and two-time Olympic medalist, who is widely considered one of the most decorated athletes in the sport’s history, reached out directly via social media message to Nagasu to share her congratulations.

And of course Nagasu replied.

“I wrote ‘that a girl,’ and she wrote, ‘Thank you,’ and she had little emoji with the bronze emoji,” Kwan says. “I was like, ‘Uh-uh, emoji gold, let’s go after the gold.’ “

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Michelle Kwan (left) and Mirai Nagasu
Paul Zimmerman/Getty; Noam Galai/WireImage

Nagasu, a Japanese-American, has spoken before about the influence Kwan, a Chinese-American, and another skating champion, gold medalist and Japanese-American Kristi Yamaguchi, have had on her own career.

“Every single time I interact with them, I am in awe and shock with how much time they take to talk to me and to help me,” Nagasu said, according to NBC News. “Whenever Michelle Kwan texts me or mentions my name, I’m like, ‘Wow.’ I still can’t believe that this is someone who I grew up looking up to, and they know my name.”

“As role models, I think Kristi and Michelle are setting the bar really high,” Nagasu said.

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Kwan tells PEOPLE that she feels she and Nagasu share similar backgrounds: Her parents had a Chinese restaurant while Nagasu’s parents own a Japanese restaurant; and for both, their families sacrificed to support their skating.

“Nagasu and I share the same almost upbringing,” Kwan says.

Next up, Kwan — who’s been joined on this trip by her mom, Estella — says she will “definitely” be at some of the remaining skating events and possibly in the audience to watch friend Lindsey Vonn compete.

“To be able to share this Olympic experience as a spectator is really special,” Kwan says, “and it goes well with the ‘Thank You, Mom’ campaign of Procter & Gamble. Because to be here to share it, to know that she [my mom] was there every single step of the way throughout my Olympic career, it’s an opportunity to say ‘thank you’ and appreciate all the things that she’s done.”

Mirai Nagasu after finishing her free skate in the figure skating team event at the 2018 Winter Olympic
ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty

Walking around the venues, Kwan is sometimes stopped by passersby — though not quite for the reason you might think.

“I’ve performed in Korea many times with Yuna Kim, who is an Olympic gold medalist, Olympic silver medalist, just a hero in Korea,” Kwan says. “Sometimes they’ll come up to me: ‘Ah, you’re Michelle Kwan, you’re friends with Yuna Kim.’ “

Of Nagasu’s visceral reaction of joy at the end of her free skate in the team event on Monday, when she landed the triple axel, Kwan says, “I think everybody felt that way: people, her fans, little girls, little boys, watching on television, skating in the living room, trying to be Mirai Nagasu.”

“She’s inspiring and she’s an incredible role model,” Kwan says, using a word Nagasu has also used to describe her. “It’s nice to see her grow into this incredible, strong woman.”

The Olympics are airing live on NBC. To learn more, visit teamusa.org.

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