In 2014 at the U.S. National Championships, Mirai Nagasu landed six triple jumps in a clean long program that one of the commentators called “the best we’ve seen Mirai skate in a long time.” She skated off the ice, a smile on her face and her eyes glassy with tears, seemingly thinking one thing: She was heading back to the Olympics.
She ended up taking home the bronze medal, coming behind skaters Gracie Gold and Polina Edmunds and ahead of Ashley Wagner. With the National Championships serving as the de facto Olympic Trials for the Sochi Olympics, the assumption was that the top three at Nationals would go on to make up the United States’s ladies singles team in Russia. (After Nagasu’s scores were announced, one of the commentators even said she was “likely to return to the Olympics.”)
But a day later, when the names were announced, Mirai’s wasn’t included — and Wagner’s was. This came despite the fact that she finished after Nagasu and she fell twice during the competition. But the top three at Nationals were not the be all, end all when it came to selecting the Olympic team, and U.S. Figure Skating president Patricia St. Peter said that they considered a skater’s body of work throughout the season, rather than just her performance at Nationals. Wagner, they said, had “top credentials.”
And so Nagasu was left in the alternate spot, a decision that momentarily had her thinking about quitting the sport, she told NBC Olympics. But even in the weeks after the shocking announcement, she said in a Facebook post she knew that she wouldn’t let this setback defeat her or extinguish her dream.
“Once I have time to fully process the impact of these decisions, I do know it will renew a fire inside of me,” she writes. “My Olympic journey does not end here. I will continue to work hard, to train and grow and improve as a skater and realize my dream of once again representing the United States at an Olympic Games.”
Nagasu had been a force in skating since she was a young teenager, winning the 2008 U.S. National Championship when she was 14 years old. She went on to compete at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, narrowly missing the podium when she landed in fourth place.
So when Nagasu took the ice at the 2018 National Championships, she was skating for more than just a medal or a shot at the Olympics: It was her chance to redeem herself.
“I’m hungrier than ever,” she told PEOPLE prior to leaving for Pyeongchang.
And she did just that, nabbing the silver medal and securing her spot on the team. When she made that triumphant silver place finish at this year’s Nationals, the crowd was cheering for her. She burst into tears when she received her scores and realized that she’d be placing in the top three of the night, likely to actually return to the Olympics for real this time.
Wagner once again came in fourth and was named as the team’s alternate. She recently praised Nagasu during a recent appeared on PEOPLE Now.
“That girl, I’ve been with her since 2010 and she is feisty, feisty, feisty,” Wagner said.
Today, Nagasu says that she understands the decision made back in 2014.
“I felt so disappointed in myself and I had so much regret,” Nagasu said. “I did finish in third place, but I was a little bit careless over the season, and I didn’t put out the body of work that I needed.”
And in the end, it pushed her in a new direction, one that eventually led her to PyeongChang. Her coach, Tom Zakrajsek, who she started working with in Colorado Springs a few months after the 2014 Nationals, says that she didn’t hold any bitterness over what happened. Instead, she just looked forward and started working hard.
“Most people have a hardship in their life and they blame and they point fingers, and they say I was screwed over,” Zakrajsek said. “Mirai could have said that, right? And she could have been bitter. I’ve never heard her say that. And to hear that maturity in her — even in this moment, she’s just owning it.”
It wasn’t always easy: In 2015, she finished in tenth place at the National Championships, her lowest ever place at the event. She competed at just one World Championships from 2014 to now, and only because Polina Edmunds had to withdraw.
“I think as a skater I started out really strongly,” Nagasu said of her skating career, “and as I have grown in the public eye I have had my rough seasons that most people don’t get as much attention for.”
However, with the rougher patches came some serious growth — including a place in the skating history books. At the 2017 CS U.S. International Figure Skating Classic, she landed two triple axel jumps, making her the first American woman to do so in international competition since Tonya Harding in 1991. (Skater Kimmie Meissner also landed the difficult jump during a national competition in 2005.)
She tried one of those triple axels in competition at this year’s nationals, and though she didn’t execute a completely clean landing, simply including it in competition is practically unheard of — and something none of her competitors are doing.
“It’s all about the points in figure skating, and how you can outrank your opponents. And the triple is almost twice the points as a double,” she tells PEOPLE of the notoriously difficult jump. “It’s kind of like a board game, and that’s my king. So I want to use it as many times as I can.”
When Nagasu steps onto the ice in PyeongChang, she’ll have the memories of Vancouver with her — and her family and friends in the audience after the Pasadena Figure Skating Club started a fundraiser to help get Nagasu’s family and boyfriend to PyeongChang to watch her compete.
And on the ice, she hopes to channel the mentality that helped her reach the heights she hit early in her career.
“I’ve always been a hard worker, and I’ve always had drive, even as a 14-year-old,” she told U.S. Figure Skating. “I had no expectations for myself and I think that’s why I skated so freely. I had no clue what pressure was. I’m working towards being able to skate like that still.”