Figure Skating

In empty arena, glittering Mariah Bell edges ahead at Skate America

In the American-heavy field, Bell finished ahead of compatriot Bradie Tennell by three points. New duo Knierim and Frazier lead the pairs competition.

By Nick McCarvel ·

Not even a wardrobe malfunction could get in her way.

Mariah Bell, the reigning U.S. national silver medallist, officially opened the figure skating Grand Prix Series on Friday in Las Vegas at Skate America with a stirring short program performance, leading a field full of mostly Americans, including Olympians Bradie Tennell (2nd) and Karen Chen (4th).

Sixteen-year-old Audrey Shin was in third after the short.

In the pairs event, the new duo of Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Brandon Frazier were near perfection with a 74.19, outscoring their California training mates of Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson by three points (71.08). Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov sit third.

No fans are on site at the Orleans Arena for the event, which has been limited to U.S. athletes and those who train in the region, as the ISU has assigned skaters to just one Grand Prix versus their normal two.

There was nothing normal about how Bell, 24, felt in her short program dress when she wore it on Friday morning for practice, however, the American saying it did not feel comfortable. So she opted not to wear it for competition, instead grabbing her free skate dress as her back-up.

“I just said, ‘You know what? I’m not going to wear it,'” Bell told reporters. “We’re in Vegas. Anything goes!”

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Clad in her free skate dress, Bell skated to Pink’s “Glitter in the Air,” choreographed by coach Adam Rippon, and sparkled herself, hitting a double Axel, triple flip-triple toe and triple Lutz while moving across the ice effortlessly.

She earned a 76.48, three points ahead of Tennell's 73.29.

Tennell, under new coach Tom Zakrajsek, was called for an under-rotation on the back half of her triple Lutz-triple toe combo, but otherwise skated a compelling program, dressed in a superhero-like bodysuit.

"I need to work that combo a little bit more," Tennell said of her under-rotation call in an interview on NBCSN in the U.S. "Heading into the free skate I’m really excited."

Bell and Tennell were second and third, respectively, in January at U.S. nationals. Two-time and reigning U.S. champ Alysa Liu,15, is still age ineligible to compete at the senior level internationally.

Amber Glenn is in fifth, while two-time U.S. champion and Sochi 2014 figure skating team event bronze medallist Gracie Gold opened the night's skating as the first competitor. She struggled and did not complete the required jumping combination. She's in 12th of twelve skaters.

Ringing the Bell

Bell had a standout first half of last season, winning bronze at both her Grand Prixs and then a career-best silver at the U.S. Championships. But the world championships were cancelled in March, halting her march towards trying to help the American women get a third spot back for the 2020 event.

"I had a lot of great momentum coming off of last year," said Bell. "The thing that works best for me in general is just trying to be the best that I can be. I have complete control over what I’m doing. I love that personal challenge. I truly feel like I’m just coming into my prime.”

"I truly feel like I’m just coming into my prime.” - Mariah Bell on her current form

Tennell herself has continued to up her game, working on a triple Axel with her new coach, though she said she won't try it this weekend.

Chen, in fourth, looked in prime form, as well, setting up for a competitive season for the U.S. women.

"I've been feeling the best I've ever felt in practice," Chen told Olympic Channel after her short program, which she scored a 68.13 for. "(Beijing 2022) is on my mind, yes, but I like short-term goals. I'm trying to stay in the moment."

Chen, who began classes at Cornell in the fall of 2019, confirmed she's taken an official leave of absence from the school to focus on her training.

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Pairs: Knierim/Frazier in the driver's seat

Training together for just a matter of months, Knierim and Frazier wasted no time in showing some of their best skating, and were unshaken by officials playing the wrong music at the start of their program.

Alexa formerly skated with her husband Chris, who retired in February, the two winning a bronze medal with Team USA at PyeongChang 2018. Frazier partnered Haven Denney previously, whom he won the U.S. pairs title with in 2017.

They received positive grades of execution (GOEs) on all their technical elements, including a monstrous triple twist to start the program.

"We didn’t know what to expect together from one another," Knierim said of their new partnership. "(Tonight) was satisfying. We’re kind of just going through the process."

Some had seen Calalang/Johnson as the favourites coming in, but he doubled their planned side-by-side triple Salchows and she fell on the same jump, enough of a mistake to fall to second place.

2019 U.S. champions Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc are in fourth after a call from the judges downgraded their side-by-side triple jumps to doubles. The team did not agree with the ruling.

"It’s disheartening… all we can do now is leave this behind us," Cain-Gribble said.