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From Winter Olympics to summer intern: Mirai Nagasu’s next chapter

‘What I did at the Olympics was great, but it doesn’t define me as a person’

Fame came fast for figure skater Mirai Nagasu. At the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang last year, Nagasu made history as the first American woman to land a triple axel in Olympic competition, en route to winning a bronze medal. But after a skating career that includes multiple Olympics and a U.S. title, Nagasu has stepped away from competitive figure skating.

In search of what’s next, she ended up in a place someone of her stature rarely does: at a local TV internship. Nagasu, 26, spoke with The Undefeated about her unexpected career detour.

You’re the first American woman to land a triple axel at the Olympics. You won a bronze in South Korea. Looking back, how would you describe your Olympic experience?

It was everything I wanted it to be. Although I made some mistakes, if it were perfect, it would be boring. I worked really hard towards a goal I didn’t even know I could achieve. To go to the Olympic Games and go for a jump I couldn’t even do four years ago and land it once out of three times, of course I wanted to land it every single time, but ultimately it didn’t work out that way.

I’m really proud I landed it at least once, because it’s a very difficult jump. To be the only female even attempting it in the competition is something I’m really proud of, and to have helped my team win a bronze medal. Four years ago I was crying because I couldn’t even make the Olympic team. To break down that barrier and achieve that goal is something that I’m really proud of.

Mirai Nagasu of the United States competes on Day Three of the 2018 Games at Gangneung Ice Arena on Feb. 12, 2018, in Gangneung, South Korea.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Amid all the glory of the Olympics, you got caught up in a little controversy about Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) representation by New York Times writer Bari Weiss. She tweeted after your triple axel: “Immigrants: They get the job done.” She tried to clarify she was referencing a line from Hamilton. Her tweet brought up the issue of the perpetual foreigner syndrome — the assumption that Asian Americans are always seen as immigrants, regardless of generation or where you were born. What did you make of Weiss’ comments then and now?

I understand the reference to Hamilton, so I didn’t really take offense to it. But at the same time, I understand your perspective as well. I’ve always felt I’m a little too Asian for the U.S., but when I go to Japan, I stand out like a sore thumb. You can tell from the way I walk, the way I talk, the way I dress, that I’m American. It is a little bit difficult to feel like I don’t fit in anywhere, but at the same time, I’m so proud of being Japanese American. I love being American because for me, representing America means representing all of the cultures of the U.S. I see the U.S. as everyone is an immigrant.

For me personally, representing the Asian community is especially important. I didn’t even realize Asian Americans are a minority because I grew up in [Arcadia,] California, where diversity is in abundance and all of the cultures are so well-represented. I didn’t even know I was a minority until I left my bubble of California. Going to events like The ESPYS made me see that a lot of people don’t see Asians as athletes but more scholarly types. That’s not who I am. I love the grind, I love working out, I love being hard on my body.

I’m really lucky that I had role models who were Asian American in Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan. I don’t even think I realized I chose those role models because they looked like me until I thought about it years later. Now I realize the importance of other Asian Americans breaking down barriers. Once one person is able to do it, people realize we’re able to achieve things that we don’t even know that we can. But you have to give yourself the opportunity to break that barrier down.

Like any ethnicity, Asians don’t just fit in one box. What do you mean by “you felt a little too Asian for the U.S.”?

I eat a lot of things that other Americans aren’t introduced to. I grew up eating a lot of things that many people would consider weird, but it’s just something that’s part of my culture. For me, there are so many foods that I’m ignorant of. I really like snails, and I know a lot of people say, ‘Eww, that’s disgusting.’ I didn’t have that negative stigma growing up. My mom would be like, ‘Here, try this,’ and I liked it.

I try to take that same approach to other cultures when I’m trying different foods. Respect is a huge part of Asian American culture, and I don’t ever want to be disrespectful. So regardless if I like the food or not, I’m always open to trying.

It’s like you’re watching out for potential hypocrisy. If I feel a certain way after someone questions the type of food I’m eating in elementary school because the tofu is too stinky, then who am I to say that about a different culture and their food when they may have experienced the same thing? I wouldn’t want to project the insecurities I once had to someone else who might be going through the same thing.

Absolutely. When I went to Japan, my parents took me to a restaurant and served me horse. In my mind, I parallel horses to our friends, and so it was a little hard for me to eat. But at the same time, it’s part of my culture. I definitely took a bite, and it was pretty tasty, but it’s not something I’d indulge in every day.

Let’s talk about post-Olympic life. Like many athletes, it’s an incredible psychological adjustment to work your whole life toward something and achieve it in your 20s. You even tweeted about it. What are some of the challenges of life after Olympic success?

No one can prepare us athletes for how much attention is thrown upon us at one moment in our lives. I didn’t know how to handle that attention. What I did at the Olympics was great, but it doesn’t define me as a person. That’s something my parents have taught me: to stay hungry at all times and always look for ways to better myself. I’ve had to continue my education, and I’ve taken on an internship because my skating isn’t going to carry me through the rest of my life. I want to find things outside of skating that I can really enjoy.

You made Olympic history, you were on Dancing with the Stars, Stars on Ice. To make the decision to be an intern at a local TV station, how did that come to be?

I asked the station if they had any spots available, took a meeting and signed up for the position. I feel lucky being able to secure the internship because I’m not getting my degree in communication or journalism. I’m actually getting my degree in business.

How does the internship work?

Mirai working at her internships

Photo courtesy of Mirai Nagasu

I was doing three days a week, with one day in sports, one in entertainment and one at the assignment desk. I’m really excited to be a part of the assignment desk because they send me into the field and I get to do things like interview people, including Gabrielle Union. I also look for [news] stories. There was the Del Amo mall shooting in Torrance, which was terrible, but I saw it on Twitter and brought it to my supervisor’s attention and she hadn’t seen it yet. When she sent out the mass email she gave me credit, and I was proud.

We’ve talked about AAPI stereotypes. To me, becoming an intern is a very AAPI move in that stereotypically, Asians are often about putting your head down and working harder than the next person to succeed. A lot of people in your position wouldn’t want to start off as an intern; they might feel entitled to more, considering what they’ve done. Was this a humbling decision to make?

My parents own a sushi restaurant, and I’ve grown up seeing them put in their everything and work every day. I used to sleep in the storage room. My parents always taught me to stay humble, and I want to go the broadcast journalism route. If I can go into color commentary or be a backstage reporter asking the questions, that’s really what I want to do. I find I’m my most vulnerable after a performance, so I’m always interested to see how other athletes feel. I have to show that I’m serious in what I want to do and think this internship is a great way to start. I don’t know if other opportunities will come from this, but I’m getting a lot of exposure to a different industry and it’s been really mentally healthy for me.

What would be the equivalent of nailing a triple axel in your next career?

I’m definitely still figuring that out. I’ve been at [the University of Colorado Colorado Springs] for a long time. The turtle always wins the race, so I just hope that I take advantage of my life and all the opportunities that come my way. Being able to see little girls at the ice rink trying a triple axel is something I’m really proud of. It’s really exciting to watch, and I think in our next generation our gender differences will be minimized.

[And] I’m really excited to see how this next generation of Asian Americans take over the world. I think we are the generation who have voices because we were born and raised in the U.S., whereas my parents’ generation is a little bit more of the traditional, keep your head down regardless what people say to you, just keep on working and good things will come your way. Our generation wants to stand up for what they believe in and are about representation and having a voice.

It’s really exciting to see Hollywood and the entertainment industry start to have movies and TV shows that give me a glimpse of what my past was like … because growing up I didn’t have any of that. I loved Hannah Montana, but Asian Americans weren’t represented on TV so [acting] wasn’t even something I considered. I think after this initial [mainstream] acceptance, it’d be great to understand that even within the Asian American culture there are so many subdivisions. I often forget the East Indians are also Asians because they don’t look like the stereotypical Asian, but they are still Asian. I hope that people can understand that even within the Asian American community there are so many cultures that are so different from each other.

Cary Chow is a freelancer for The Undefeated and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Manager for a Fortune 500 company. He has an unrivaled talent for breaking video equipment, still thinks Omar was wronged in "The Wire," and roots for both the Clippers and Lakers and doesn't care about your fandom rules.