SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) – They’re young, don’t have much experience and no one’s giving them any chance of winning a medal in Vancouver. As for those NBC commercials that will be on perma-play this next month, suffice it to say Rachael Flatt and Mirai Nagasu won’t have starring roles like Lindsey Vonn or Apolo Anton Ohno.
“Bring it on,” Nagasu said, a touch of defiance beneath her smile. “At this Olympics, it’s just Rachael and me and we’re just going to blow them away.”
Then she cocked her finger and pointed: “Bang. Bang. Bang.”
The Americans have been looking for their next big things since Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen stepped away in 2006, and there’s been much angst over the powerhouse’s loss of prominence and prestige. The United States has just two spots in Vancouver, failing to qualify for the maximum for only the second time since 1924. The gold medal contenders are from half a world away, South Korea’s Kim Yu-na and Japan’s Mao Asada.
But Flatt, 17, and Nagasu, 16, might be just the skaters to turn things around. What they lack in experience and exposure they make up for with youthful enthusiasm.
And lest anyone forget, nobody picked the 16-year-old Sarah Hughes to win a medal in Salt Lake City, let alone a gold one.
“We need to embrace the challenge, and I’m sure we’re both up for it,” Flatt said. “We’re young and spirited and have lots of enthusiasm, so I think that will bode well for the Olympics.”
Flatt may not have the natural grace and ease that made skaters such as Cohen and Kwan so successful (and popular). But she stuffs her program with so much difficulty she can overwhelm the competition. She was one of only two women to do a triple-triple combination Saturday night, and she did five more triples, including two others in combination.
Those four triples she did in combination? That was more than some skaters did total.
Her overall score of 200.11 makes her the first U.S. woman to crack the 200-point barrier and puts her in Kim and Asada territory.
And forget about flops, Flatt is as consistent as a metronome. She won the U.S. title Saturday after finishing second the previous two years. She made a very respectable debut at worlds last year by finishing fifth, and she’s the 2008 junior world champion. She’s been fourth or better at all of her Grand Prix events.
“I would love to be both, steady and spectacular,” Flatt said. “I’ve been pushing the envelope, but I haven’t quite been 100 percent happy with all of my performances. I’m always on the cusp of doing something that feels absolutely incredible and completely exhilarating.”
Nagasu was on the brink of stardom when she won the U.S. title two years ago. Just 14, she was perky and precious and was as entertaining off the ice as she was on it. For as gifted as she is, though, Nagasu is also a very typical teenager. When she struggled last year, part of it was ordinary teenage angst and rebellion.
But she switched coaches last spring and now works with Frank Carroll, and the move has made all the difference. Personality oozes from her programs as she uses every inch of her body – from the top of her head to the very tips of her fingers – to bring characters to life.
Her sexy, saucy and powerful “Carmen” sure proved that. She started with a seductive little dance and flew from there. Her double axel-triple toe combination was so massive it would have gone from blue to blue line had this been a hockey rink. Her spins are fabulous, done with the flexibility of a rubberband.
She also has found a way to blend the artistry and athleticism that makes skating so enticing – a quality many complain has been lost under the current judging system – by linking her jumps and spins with intricate steps and other deceptively difficult maneuvers. Instead of a series of elements, her programs are more like an entire piece of art.
She skates with her heart, too, and everyone in the arena is touched by it. She had the audience clapping in time to her music not even a third of the way into the program, and fans were on their feet when she still had a good 15 seconds to go.
Best of all, while Flatt and Nagasu have very different personalities, they’re both strong enough to carry their sport.
Flatt is the daughter of a molecular biologist and a chemical engineer, and all she’s done is make straight A’s her entire life. She’s applied to nine schools, most of them in the Ivy League. (To give you an idea of how stout the list is, she ranked UCLA as one of her “safety” schools.)
She now counts Dorothy Hamill as a friend and mentor, riding the bus to the arena with the Olympic gold medalist Saturday night.
“We were just talking about everything but skating,” Flatt said. “She was actually telling me once we got out of the van, ‘I’m so nervous for you.’ I think she was more nervous for me than I was.”
Nagasu, oh, where to begin.
The daughter of Japanese immigrants, her parents own a small sushi restaurant in Los Angeles. When she was younger, she’d go to the restaurant after school, do her homework and then sleep in a tiny storage room until her parents were ready to go home. She doesn’t do that any more – “I don’t fit. I like sleeping in beds now.” – but said the Vancouver Olympics will be a reward for her parents because of the sacrifices they’ve made.
“This year it’s been really hard for us because the economy isn’t doing so well,” Nagasu said. “I’m so excited to tell them the news because I’m the first Olympian in my family.”
She’s excited about a few other things, too.
Despite saying all week that she wasn’t thinking about the Olympics, she sure is itching to get her hands on all the swag and free stuff Olympians always get. She’s also eyeing that Cartier watch that training mate and world champion Evan Lysacek wears.
Asked if there are other events she’d like to see in Vancouver, Nagasu is eager to check everything out.
“We get the best seats because we’re the athletes,” she said. “I’m just excited to actually see the events live because I’ve grown up watching them on TV. The opening ceremony is definitely going to be the best part, I think.”
Despite their relative inexperience on the international scene and the fall in U.S. skating’s stature, much more will be expected of Flatt and Nagasu now simply because they are Olympians. Skating their best is great, but not if it’s only good enough for 20th place.
And that’s just fine with them.
“I’ve always said I was trying not to think about the Olympics, but it was always in the back of my mind,” Nagasu said. “We don’t have a strong Michelle Kwan or Kristi Yamaguchi to lead us on, but I feel that even though we’re young, we have big dreams to lead us on.”