SAN JOSE — Having finished her practice session 20 minutes earlier, Ashley Wagner, the three-time U.S. champion, bundled up in a warm winter coat, pulling a rolling suitcase behind her, was walking out of Solar4Ice, a local skating and hockey facility, Tuesday afternoon when the beginning of familiar music stopped her in her tracks.
Wagner turned to watch Mirai Nagasu begin a run-through of her short program, knowing what was coming: a triple axel attempt, a jump so difficult only two other American women besides Nagasu have ever landed it in competition.
When Nagasu nailed the jump early in the program, Wagner joined a group of fans in applauding, then continued her exit having already seen more than enough.
A decade after she was billed as American figure skating’s next big thing, eight years after she finished fourth at the 2010 Olympic Games, four years after she was left off the 2014 U.S. Olympic team in a controversial snub that still stings today, Nagasu, 24, is once again making the sport stop and take notice of her.
By joining Tonya Harding as the only other American woman to pull off a triple axel in international competition, Nagasu has landed among the favorites at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships which open Wednesday at SAP Center.
Few would have imagined Nagasu’s return to the spotlight this season on that freezing Sunday in Boston in 2014 when a U.S. Figure Skating selection committee announced it was sending Wagner as the third member of Team USA to the Olympic Games in Sochi instead of Nagasu, who finished third in the U.S. Championships the night before, a spot ahead of Wagner.
The decision nearly drove Nagasu out of the sport.
Instead of quitting, Nagasu battled through four often trying years driven not only by a desire to avenge the 2014 decision but to leave the sport on her own terms.
“For me it’s really important that I hang up my skates when I want to and not when someone has me feeling down in the dumps and so I want to be happy with the way that I make my exit,” she said.
She arrives in the Bay Area coming off some of the best skating of her career.
“Ever since (Boston) she just had this crisis,” said Vincent Zhou, the World junior champion, who splits his training between Riverside and the Colorado Springs rink that is now Nagasu’s home base. “She had to find her place and now that she’s found her place she’s better than she’s ever been.”
It is more than just the triple axel, however, that…