Skate America: For Mirai Nagasu, it’s the best of both worlds

Hannah Montana, meet Mirai Nagasu.

The Disney Channel has a hit with its “Hannah Montana” series about a teenage girl who, unbeknownst to most kids at school, leads a double life. On the show, cute little Miley puts on a blonde wig and becomes her alter ego, a famous pop star.

In real life, at Southern California’s Arcadia High School, 15-year-old Mirai is just another sophomore walking the halls.

She’s in the Care for Kids club, boosting morale for hospitalized children. For a summer job, she is a cashier at her parents’ sushi restaurant in Arcadia. Her favorite food isn’t sushi, but “sweet stuff” like chocolate. At home, she likes watching “Project Runway” and “America’s Next Top Model.”

School subjects? Mirai sounds like a typical teen: “My favorite classes are the ones with all my friends in them.” All this evidence to the contrary, Mirai is no ordinary high school girl.

At Comcast Arena Thursday, after practicing her short program for Skate America, she faced a crowd of reporters jockeying for space and shouting out questions.

Hannah Montana has her wig, and Mirai Nagasu has her skates. When she laces them up, it’s magic. In January, three months before her 15th birthday, Mirai struck gold.

She won the ladies’ first place medal in the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, held in St. Paul, Minn. Skate America, in Everett today through Sunday, is a global competition, the first event of the 2008-09 International Skating Union Grand Prix of Figure Skating.

“I’m not really sure how I balance it,” Mirai said by e-mail before traveling to Everett. “Whenever I have the opportunity, I cram it all in. I like to relax like any other high school girl. It’s kind of like a different version of ‘Hannah Montana.’ ”

Her coach, Charlene Wong, said it’s rare for skaters at Mirai’s level to stay in a regular high school. “Some are home schooled or take limited courses,” said Wong, 42, who competed for Canada in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.

It’s rare and rigorous. “I usually get up at 5 in the morning, and am at the rink by 6-ish,” Mirai said. “I skate for about two hours, then hop into the car for school. School is getting tougher, so I usually have to stay up doing homework until 10.”

Wong said Mirai represents the Pasadena Figure Skating Club, but practices at Pickwick Gardens Ice Skating Rink in Burbank because its ice is competition-size. “Traffic is horrendous,” the coach said. Mirai’s mother, Ikuko Nagasu, does the driving before joining her husband, Kiyoto Nagasu, at work at their restaurant, called Kiyosuzu.

While Mirai’s Japanese-born parents were unavailable to comment, the parents of another teen competitor in Everett for Skate America said raising a world-class athlete brings rewards and sacrifices.

Jim and Jody Flatt, parents of 16-year-old Rachael Flatt, also responded to questions by e-mail. Rachael, who won the ladies’ second-place medal in the 2008 U.S. championships, trains in Colorado Springs, Colo. Her family moved to Colorado from their home in Del Mar, Calif.

“Family is very important to us, and we want Rachael to have a solid support system to come home to every day,” the Flatts wrote this week.

Rachael, too, is a student-athlete. She was awarded Cheyenne Mountain High School’s 2008 Athletic Excellence Award. At the school in Colorado Springs, she’s in the Advance Placement-Honors program.

“Having an elite athlete in your family means that life is going to be a little bit different than your average teenager,” Rachael’s parents wrote. “One of the biggest adjustments is learning to be flexible with your time, as the athlete’s schedule quite often takes priority.

“The most obvious benefit is that it is such a blessing to be able to watch your child work hard and succeed in something that she loves,” they added. “When you look at the opportunities, the travel, the opportunity to meet people from all over the world and develop friendships that will last a lifetime, it’s priceless.”

On the ice Thursday, Mirai, Rachael and the other women competitors practiced dizzying moves within a few feet of each other, all the while maintaining their cool and their smiles. They are so young, with so much on the line.

“It’s nerve-wracking,” Mirai said Thursday. “You never know how well you’re going to skate. It’s really strong competition.”

Her coach said the normalcy of school is a stress reliever. “Mirai wants to fit skating into life, not life into skating,” Wong said.

Mirai’s short program has a Charlie Chaplin theme. She skates to the tune “Smile” — with its unsung lyric “though your heart is aching.” Before starting her program, Mirai took a quick spill. She bumped the wall, got up fast, and there it was, a huge smile.

Back at Arcadia High School, word is out. There’s a national champion walking the halls. “They had an assembly for me, and there were signs up in the hall,” Mirai said.

On the Facebook Web site, there’s an “Arcadia High School Students for Mirai Nagasu” page. It has this posting from a boy named Craig: “mirai will you marry me?”

Standing up — all 5 feet, 1 inch of her — before that crowd of reporters Thursday, Mirai said, “I don’t consider myself a top skater. I’m just me.”

Columnist Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or

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