Five-ring Circus

Olympics Jerk Watch: The Skater Who Said She Was Auditioning for Dancing With the Stars

USA's Mirai Nagasu competes in the women's single skating free skating of the figure skating event during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at the Gangneung Ice Arena in Gangneung on February 23, 2018.
USA’s Mirai Nagasu competes in the women’s single skating free skating during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at the Gangneung Ice Arena on Friday.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

Name: Mirai Nagasu

Home country: United States of America

Known for: Being the third woman ever to land a triple axel in the Olympics, blundering through the individual figure skating competition, using the games as a springboard to possible reality television fame.

Why she might be a jerk: At the beginning of the Pyeongchang Games, Mirai Nagasu was set up to be a hero. Her triple axel in the team figure skating event helped clinch the bronze medal for Team USA and gave American television viewers their first stand-up-and-cheer moment of the Winter Olympics. But ever since that glorious moment, Nagasu’s grade of execution scores both on and off the ice have gone into a free fall.

In the individual event, Nagasu fell on her triple axel in the short program, didn’t manage to attempt one in the free skate, and ultimately finished in 10th place, right behind fellow American skater Bradie Tennell. While it’s disappointing when an athlete peaks early in a competition, it’s hardly an act of jerkiness. Sports are unpredictable. People get tired. It happens. It happened to a lot of skaters in the women’s individual event, as a matter of fact, and many of them owned up to their failures. “I’m extremely disappointed. I’m not going to lie,” said American Karen Chen, who finished in 11th place. “Today was OK. Obviously, it wasn’t the way I wanted to skate,” said Tennell. “There was nothing in that program I felt good about,” said Canada’s Gabrielle Daleman, who finished in 15th place.

Nagasu took a very different approach to her post-event press conference. She criticized one reporter’s “very aggressive question” about the U.S. figure skaters’ poor performance and noted that “Gabrielle Daleman, who is an Olympic gold medalist, didn’t have a strong outing here in the individual.” So there! Other people were bad, too!

Nagasu also blamed her poor performance on traffic in South Korea, residual emotionality from winning the team bronze, and the lack of hot water at her lodging in the Olympic Village. According to ESPN, Nagasu said, “I also haven’t taken a warm shower because there are a lot of people on Team USA and somehow I keep trying to take a shower when all the hot water is gone.” As a man who likes his hot showers, I feel for Nagasu here. But this is still a jerky thing to say. I suspect Nagasu was not the only athlete in Pyeongchang, let alone on Team USA, who found the bathing facilities underwhelming. Don’t blame the showers for your failure to land the triple axel! Don’t blame your teammates for showering too long when you could have easily spoken up, or marked off the bathroom door with police tape, or something. And, anyway, the shower situation didn’t seem to hamper her earlier in the games when she helped win the team bronze.

About that team bronze: In her press conference, Nagasu announced she had “saved” the Americans’ medal chances in the team event with her triple axel and that she was content to rest on her laurels. “So today I put my medal in my pocket and I said, ‘Mirai, you’ve done your job already. This is all just icing,’ ” she said after the free skate. Nagasu’s recollection is inaccurate, and (in my estimation) jerky: As ESPN and others have noted, Team USA never trailed the ultimate fourth-place finisher, Italy. Second of all, describing the individual event as “icing” seems like a defeatist and oddly flippant attitude. Maybe she was just retroactively justifying her poor performance, but still: If you don’t care about your performance in a given event, why bother competing at all?

Nagasu’s answer to that question: She hoped to appear on Dancing with the Stars, and she treated her individual event as a kind of warmup. “I smiled in the middle of my program, which is really rare for me. So I enjoyed myself, and I thought of this as my audition for Dancing With the Stars,” Nagasu said. She did not seem to be joking.

Why she might not be a jerk: Was Nagasu’s press conference jerky, or was it just guileless and naïve? I’m inclined to believe the latter. I’m sure that many Olympic athletes hope to use their newfound fame to get on TV. Olympic fame is fleeting. In a matter of weeks, most of us will have forgotten that our favorite Olympians even exist. The athletes know this, especially the ones who, like Nagasu, are nearing the ends of their careers. Nagasu is 24 years old. There won’t be another Winter Games for her. Using her platform to advocate for herself and try to get another job is smart, not jerky.

I feel bad for Nagasu. That post–individual event press conference was likely the last post-Olympic press conference she will ever give. I can’t imagine what she was feeling at that moment, and I can’t blame her for speaking candidly. Neither can I blame her for being proud of herself, even in the wake of an objectively poor showing. Nagasu barely missed out on the Sochi Games—her consolation prize: eating In-N-Out burgers with Adam Rippon—and worked hard to get to Pyeongchang. Skating in the individual event was an accomplishment in and of itself, even if our results-oriented sporting culture would rather not admit as much.

It is dumb to criticize athletes for saying interesting things in press conferences, even (especially!) when those things do not reflect well on the athletes. Journalists go to press conferences because they want to hear athletes say interesting things, and most of the time the athletes say little of interest or value. When they do deviate from the standard answers, like Nagasu, they get in trouble for not saying something banal. The athletes can’t win! Truly, the members of the mainstream media are the real jerks here.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Nagasu has apologized for and attempted to clarify her initial remarks. “I don’t know if I can stress enough how mentally exhausting this all is, and to have gone out there and attacked every single element even though it wasn’t enough—I feel especially bad that my comments weren’t a good representation of me and I came off really poorly,” Nagasu told People magazine. She also apologized for citing Daleman’s underwhelming performance and for seeming to shortchange her American teammates’ efforts in the team event. She also acknowledged that she was upset about bailing on the triple axel in the free skate. “It’s really hard to watch and even think about, because I nailed so many in practice,” she said. “I cried about it at home, but I didn’t really want to be so emotional in front of everyone.” Who can’t relate to that?

Jerk Score: I’ll give Mirai Nagasu 2 out 3 style points, because at least she was lobbying for a slot on a relatively good reality show, as opposed to, like, Celebrity Big Brother. 1.5 out of 3 points for technical merit, because if you’re going to compare the individual event to icing, you might as well try for some product-placement cash and compare it to “rich, creamy Betty Crocker icing. Nothing tastes better on cookies or cakes. Now that’s gold medal flavor!” One out of 3 points for execution, because she really should have blocked off the Team USA showers with police tape. And 0 out of 1 points in the category of “Did she refer to herself in the third person during her press conference?” 4.5 out of 10 for Mirai Nagasu. Not much of a jerk! And with this, we put Olympics Jerk Watch to rest until the 2020 Tokyo Games. Congratulations to our Jerk Gold Medalist, Elizabeth Marian Swaney, aka the Trickless Hungarian. See all you jerks in two years!

Previously on Olympics Jerk Watch: 

• The Vice President of the United States of America: 7 out of 10 Jerk Points

• The Sporteaucrats Who Risked Snowboarders’ Lives: 6.5 out of 10 Jerk Points

• The Shirtless Tongan: 4 out of 10 Jerk Points

• The Inept Halfpipe Skier Who Loopholed Her Way Into the Games: 9 out of 10 Jerk Points

The Norwegian Curlers Who Wear Flamboyant Pants: 5 out of 10 Jerk Points

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Pyeongchang Olympics.