It came down to the final skate of the night, as 14-year-old Alysa Liu defended her U.S. Figure Skating Championships title Friday night in Greensboro, N.C.
Liu held off an emotional performance from Mariah Bell, who finished third a year ago, to take the title. Liu tallied a total score of 235.52 with Bell earning 225.21. Short program leader Bradie Tennell missed a triple loop at the end of her program to finish in third with a 220.86 combined score.
"I was very happy for her because I watched because I was right after. I didn’t get nervous or excited," Liu said of skating after Bell. "My goal was just to do my best that I had done."
Known for her technical prowess, Liu opened with a clean triple Axel, double toe combination. Her second jumping pass was a quadruple Lutz, the only U.S. woman attempting a quadruple jump at the event. Though she landed the element, it received an underrotation call and a negative grade of execution.
2014 Olympic team bronze medallist Gracie Gold finished in 12th place, after tallying a total score of 161.75. It was the two-time U.S. champion's first appearance at the event since she disclosed her mental health and eating disorder struggles prior to the 2017-18 season.
Jumping for gold
Liu, who is so young that she is in the midst of her first season where she is eligible for junior international competition, is considered the best chance for Team USA to end its medal drought in women’s singles figure skating at the Olympic Games. No American woman has found her way to the podium since Sasha Cohen’s silver medal at the 2006 Torino Games.
Her arsenal of jumps, which includes both triple Axels and quadruple jumps, gives her the ability to compete with the Russian women who have dominated the sport. Russian's Alena Kostornaia, Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova currently occupy the top three spots at this week's European Championships after the short program. All three boast similar technical repertoires to Liu's.
"I do pay attention to other skaters around the world," said Liu. "I’m aware a lot of skaters are getting these difficult jumps and I’m just trying to keep up with the jumps."
Heading into Friday's free skate, Liu was also aware that it could all come down to her performance. But that didn't bother her.
"I don't really care what [position] I skate," Liu said after the short program. "You're not always going to skate like third or fourth or fifth or sixth. So I don't mind skating last."
That was clear as she attacked her program set to New World Symphony by Jennifer Thomas. She erupted with joy and disbelief as her marks were announced, confirming her title defense.
"This year, I am thinking this is a new decade…what a good start," Liu said with a laugh.
Emotional Bell delivers in free
Bell came into the free skate in third after performing what was to be a clean short program until she fell during her step sequence near the end of the program.
“I was really getting into it. It's like a total freak thing,” Bell reflected Thursday after her skate. “I don't think I've ever even done that in practice. But it's ice. It's slippery. It happens.”
After a career season in 2019, Bell returned to the ice this year nervous about matching her accomplishments. 2018 Olympic team bronze medallist Adam Rippon, who along with Rafael Arutunian coaches Bell, provided a reality check that pushed Bell into the new season. Rippon reminded Bell that despite her impressive bronze medal at last year’s U.S. Championships, she had failed to reach the podium on the Grand Prix circuit or at her ISU Challenger event.
“He’s already always got his slap of reality for me, which is great,” Bell said. “And, you know, this year is better."
Better indeed. Her 2019-20 season has already included two bronze medals in her two Grand Prix assignments and a win at the Nebelhorn Trophy, an ISU Challenger Series event. And Friday night, the skate of her life.
"It’s a very special feeling. I haven’t had that before in my career," Bell said in the post-event press conference. "The coolest thing about it was how intimate the crowd was. They were so loud. I just love to share what I get to do. I feel very fortunate to have that experience."
Gold sets sights beyond Greensboro
As Gold hit her final position, the crowd inside the Greensboro Coliseum was already on its feet. It was overwhelming, Gold said, as the audience acknowledged that what she has done this week at the U.S. championships extends well beyond the four triple jumps she landed in her free skate.
“I was excited. I was relieved. I was really, truthfully, just almost so overwhelmed that I was just like very much existing in the moment because I couldn't exist anywhere else,” Gold told media afterwards.
“Obviously, the audience reaction, I felt it was very powerful,” she added.
For Gold, it brings to a close a season of contradictions, having both exceeded her own expectations so far that it was at times difficult to set goals as she made stride after stride but also dealing with the constant comparisons to her accomplishments as a two U.S. titles and someone who earned the highest short program score at the World Championships in 2016.
She went from not being “courageous” enough to throw a triple toe or double Axel during skating shows to training quadruple jumps in a harness to qualifying to her first nationals since 2017. Progress that at the start of the season Gold did not expect.
“One of my struggles this year was actually getting a set goal and plan because the goal kept changing,” explained Gold. “It just kept going up, and up, and up, almost felt like too rapidly sometimes for me to adjust.”
“The bar just kind of went up so fast that I couldn't really get a grip on what was realistic,” she added.
What’s realistic still remains to be seen. Yet, Gold is committed to try to find out, saying that coming into nationals she had already planned to continue training through an off-season and a summer.
Now? She’s eyeing a seventh appearance at the senior championships next year in San Jose.
“I was bought in for at least an off season and a summer, so to speak,” said Gold. “But definitely another year, I think we've earned that.”