GANGNEUNG, South Korea — In 2014, Mirai Nagasu moved from her native California to Colorado Springs, to train with the elite Broadmoor Skating Club near the U.S. Olympic Training Center. Nagasu had finished fourth at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, but despite finishing third at the U.S. Championships in 2014, was passed over by U.S. Figure Skating and sat out the Sochi Games. It was a bitter pill.
At 21, she needed a fresh start, some new coaching, just a basic change.
She began training and enrolled at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. Like most college kids, and all Olympic athletes, she needed some cash. That’s when she heard from others at the Broadmoor about a job up in Denver – Colorado Avalanche Ice Girl.
The NHL franchise operates a team of 20 women whose most visible work is to clear the ice of shavings during stoppages of play. There is also some community and outreach work involved. It’s sort of like being a hockey cheerleader, you wear a cheerleader-style uniform, but in this case, you have to skate around with a shovel and a garbage barrel.
The job comes with one chief requirement: must be able to skate.
Mirai Nagasu was a member of the Colorado Avalanche ice girls. (Getty Images)
Nagasu, one of the most accomplished figure skaters in the world, figured she had that part down. She drove up to Denver.
“I tried out,” Nagasu said here Sunday after a practice session ahead of individual competition that begins Wednesday. “I tried out like any other person. Sports is expensive and you have to find a way to pay for it.”
“Must be able to skate” is a broad skill set. Some of the women were just regular skaters. Some are former hockey players. Some are competitive skaters – active and former.
There was only one member of the 2015-16 Colorado Avalanche Ice Girls, however, that was both a former and future Olympian who would go on to win a bronze medal last week for the United States in the team skate.
“It’s basically just a bunch of girls who enjoy hockey,” Nagasu said.
She was hired right away and became the most overqualified member of an NHL ice-clearing crew in history. It beats most college jobs.
“I thought it was a lot of fun,” she said.
Nagasu isn’t exactly sure how many people knew she was an Olympic athlete when she began with the Avs. It’s not like the tryout called for a triple axel, which last week Nagasu became the first American and just third skater ever to land in the Olympics.
They found out soon enough. Nagasu’s schedule was complicated by outside factors, like attending the Four Continents Championship in Taipei (she finished second) or the World Championships in Boston (10th).
You know, just typical can’t-make-it-to-work excuses like that.
“They were really accommodating,” Nagasu said. “I had a great team of girls who were on the Ice Girls with me and if anything conflicted with my schedule they were more than willing happy to accommodate me. And I found a group of girls that I am pretty good friends with.”
She said she signed a contract that prohibits her from disclosing her pay, but it did help with bills. Her parents still live in Pasadena where they operate a family sushi restaurant. As for the job, as you might imagine, it wasn’t too difficult.
The ice surface was different. But on the bright side, there were no judges.
“It’s a lot more relaxed,” she said with a laugh. “Competing on my own is definitely a lot harder. … And you get to watch hockey.”
The Avs weren’t great and were actually under .500 at the Pepsi Center that season. That’s not a big surprise. The team hasn’t won a playoff series since 2010 and haven’t made the playoffs at all the last three seasons.
It’s not a stretch to say their best technical skater during that stretch was on the Ice Girls. Not that many people knew. Nagasu just did her job like anyone else on the team. For fans attending the game, she was the hidden Olympian in plain view.
She said she never met any of the players.
“Definitely not,” she said. “It’s a very, very professional atmosphere. The players have a job to do and a game to focus on. It’s very segregated. That’s their job. It’s a lot of pressure.”
Although she says she remains a Los Angeles Kings fan, the Ice Girls made her an Avs fan, too. “Jack of all trades,” she joked about the dual allegiances. And this year they’ve shown signs of life and are contending for the playoffs. “They are doing amazing, much better than the season I was on.”
She still lives in Colorado Springs and is finishing up her degree. Right now, fresh off her triple axel, with a bronze medal secured, she’s looking strong coming into the individual. She isn’t a medal favorite, but if she can skate clean she is capable of breaking the 200-point mark that usually can put someone on a podium. Just about anything is possible.
Mostly, she is trying to experience everything she can here when not training or competing. She was so young, 16, at the Vancouver Games that it seemed to go by fast. At age 24, she won’t make that mistake again.
“This is so exciting,” she said. “I am just trying to soak it all up.”
That included the Avalanche congratulating her on her bronze medal.
“So, so awesome,” the team tweeted.
They better have a Mirai Nagasu Night when she’s done over here.
More Olympic coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Team USA hints at bad sportsmanship, bad play by O.A.R. in lopsided loss
• Mikaela Shiffrin pours heart out on social media
• The story behind the famous Olympic escalator stunt
• Ester Ledecka celebrates surprise gold medal with trip to KFC
• Swiss father bikes 10,000 miles to watch son ski in Olympics