Before this weekend, there were only two women figure skaters in the world who had successfully landed a triple axel in Olympic competition: Japanese skaters Midori Ito (in 1992) and Mao Asada (in 2010 and 2014). But now there’s a new name on that very short list: At the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, American skater Mirai Nagasu made history by becoming the third woman ever — and the first American woman ever — to land a triple axel at the Olympics.
Nagasu landed the jump during the opening jumping pass of her free skate in the figure skating team competition, which took place Sunday night (morning/early afternoon in South Korea). Her performance helped the American team win the bronze medal. (The gold medal went to Canada, with Russia — a.k.a. OAR, or the Olympic Athletes from Russia — taking the silver.)
Out of the six jumps recognized in competitive figure skating, the axel is considered the most difficult because its forward-facing takeoff means it requires a skater to complete three and a half revolutions before landing, whereas all the other jumps require only three revolutions.
Nagasu completed those three and a half revolutions without under-rotating and landed the jump pretty cleanly. But according to the judges, there was still some room for improvement — possibly in the smoothness and flow of her landing.
The triple axel is a rarity in women’s figure skating, specifically because its extra half rotation makes the jump more difficult. While it’s much more common for male skaters to perform triple axels, that extra half rotation is also the reason no one has ever landed a quadruple axel in competition.
For Nagasu, hitting the axel and helping the US take home the bronze medal is the first step in her Olympic comeback after not competing at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Heading into Sochi, she was left off the US Olympic figure skating team when she was passed over for Ashley Wagner, whom she placed ahead of at the US Figure Skating Championships. Nagasu, who placed fourth at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, then added the triple axel to her arsenal to make her program more competitive and get back on the Olympic team.
Nagasu will next compete in the Olympic individual women’s figure skating event on February 21.