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'Rebellion' over, Nagasu keeps focus on Vancouver

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Mirai Nagasu was having one of those off days that every figure skater - everyone in every career, really - has had.

She missed one jump during her run-through, and then another. She lolly-gagged around the ice while her music continued to play, ignoring that coach Frank Carroll insists his skaters do their programs all the way through, no matter what.

Then the music stopped.

"I handed her the CD and I said, 'Get off the ice, go home, your skating is over today. You're going to do it my way, or you're going to have to choose somebody else,"' Carroll said.

"She was a little shocked. She's been the national champion, and she's being thrown out of the rink."

That kind of tough love is exactly what Nagasu was looking for when she switched to Carroll in May, determined to get herself back on track after a disappointing season.

Nagasu was poised to become skating's next big star after winning the 2008 U.S. title. Just 14 years and 9 months, she was the second-youngest winner behind Tara Lipinski and had a story tailor-made for those Olympic features NBC loves so much. Her parents own a sushi restaurant in suburban Los Angeles, and little Mirai would go there after school, falling asleep in a storage closet until the restaurant closed and her parents could take her home.

But an ankle injury, a growth spurt and typical teenage rebellion have made the 16-year-old more wild card than sure thing for Vancouver. The U.S. women only have two spots at the Olympics, and you might as well use a dart board to predict which of a half-dozen women will claim them.

Nagasu competes in her second Grand Prix event this weekend at Skate Canada, needing to win to have a shot at qualifying for next month's Grand Prix final.

"I just want to redeem myself and show the world that ... it wasn't a fluke that I won at nationals," Nagasu said. "I can compete on the international stage as well."

Nagasu seemed like the breath of fresh air the U.S. women so desperately need when she won in 2008. She has a delightful, lyrical style rarely seen since Michelle Kwan traded her skates for schoolbooks, and she exudes the kind of joy that can captivate an audience.

"It's just natural to her," Carroll said. "I can embellish on it, but it's there already."

She is equally enchanting off the ice. Bubbly and honest, she has managed to stay an ordinary teenager despite her extraordinary talent. (Ask about "Twilight" or "Harry Potter" and watch her eyes light up.)

But adolescence got the best of her last year.

"Last year, for lack of a better term, I was kind of lazy," Nagasu said. "Two years ago, it was like a whole different world was introduced to me. It was like a miracle for me, and I think I got caught up in it. I started taking everything for granted.

"When I started not training as hard and doing what I needed to do, everyone else improved without me improving."

Her problems centered on a nagging ankle injury. Her coaches recommended she take time off after hurting it in the summer of 2008, but she wanted to continue skating. She won out - but at a price. Because the ankle never had a chance to fully heal, she struggled through the Grand Prix season.

A 4-inch growth spurt that altered her center of gravity and forced her to adapt her jumps and spins didn't help.

When she took the ice for her free skate at the U.S. championships, she was wiping away tears.

"Ahhh, if the world didn't have cameras," she said, smiling.

"That whole year I felt like I was running away from everything. I didn't really attack out there, I'd just try to play it safe," said Nagasu, who finished fifth. "Nationals, even though it was under the worst circumstances, I was able to do the best I could. Even though I was crying because I didn't want to embarrass myself, I was so happy that I was able to get through it."

It wasn't enough to get her to the world championships, though.

Nagasu had missed worlds the previous year because she was too young. Now she was on the sidelines again. In her hometown, no less.

Worse, the U.S. women fared so poorly they earned only two spots for Vancouver. It will be only the second time since 1924 the Americans won't have the maximum three spots, making the competition at January's national championships particularly fierce.

"I was really mad the whole time," Nagasu said. "It kept running through my mind that it could have been me out there if I was doing what I was supposed to be doing."

Which brings us back to Carroll.

Carroll was the logical choice when Nagasu decided to switch coaches. The Hall of Famer is one of the best in the world, a master of both technique and artistry who guided Kwan and Linda Fratianne to Olympic silver medals and now trains world champion Evan Lysacek.

That Nagasu has talent isn't a question. She covers the ice quicker and easier than other skaters - "she can go like a bat out of hell from one end of the rink to the other and doesn't know why or how it happened," Carroll said - and has the kind of gorgeous lines that make everything look effortless.

But her technique needed refining. People laughed last year when Nagasu lamented getting older at all of 15, but she was right, Carroll said. An inch or two here, a pound or two there might not seem like much, but every little bit matters when you're launching yourself into the air above a sheet of ice and landing on a blade no thicker than a pencil.

"I look back at films of some of my skaters ... and they had to almost relearn the jumps, so that it wasn't as free and loose as it was but more controlled, more disciplined," Carroll said. "If you don't have the technique, it's a disaster."

Equally so if you don't have direction.

Carroll is no-nonsense, demanding the same focus and dedication from his skaters that he expects of himself. He was in charge, he told Nagasu from the start, and there is no room in his rink for attitude, angst or anything else.

"Kids are challenging in this day," Carroll said. "Unless a coach who wants to make the best skaters in the world has the determination and the courage to do it their way, it's not going to work."

And that is what Nagasu wants, to be the best in the world. Last year taught her that.

"Last year was a meltdown for me," she said, "so I could start rebuilding everything again."