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An unlikely path from Ghana to possible U.S. Winter Olympic spot

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KEARNS, Utah (AP) — Maame Biney seems like the typical teenager. She giggles with her friends, is making her way through the Harry Potter movies and wants to go to homecoming.

But that’s where typical ends for the 17-year-old speed skating phenom.

Biney is on a path to be the next great U.S. short track skater with the Olympics six months way. The junior world championships bronze medalist won the World Cup qualifier this weekend against Olympians and skaters 10-plus years her senior.

She won three of six finals over the three days and should be named to her first World Cup team on Tuesday.

Biney is intimidated, sure, but that hasn’t stopped her from chasing her dreams.

“Before I came here in the month of June, I had a week worth of dreams about going to the Olympics,” Biney said. “I woke up and was like, ‘[Gasp], oh no, I’m not there!’

“But I’m so excited to go if I make it. And I really want to make it. … [It would be] mind-blowing.”

The journey to this point has been a bit random. Biney, born in 2000, moved to the U.S. from Ghana to be with her father at 5 years old. She was supposed to be coming for a short visit and cried her eyes out when she first arrived.

Her father, Kweku, had to pull the car over three times after picking Maame up from the airport to settle her down. She wanted to go home. But a trip to the mall and J.C. Penney started to change her mind, and soon afterward Maame was repeatedly asking to stay.

Kweku was living in Rockville, Md., and found a school and daycare and their new life began. One day they were driving down the street in Reston, Va., and Kweku looked over and saw a sign that read “Learn To Skate This Fall.” He asked Maame if she was interested, and that’s how it all started.

Ice skating isn’t exactly a popular endeavor in Ghana, so she didn’t know anything about the sport. She’d never seen a rink, but Kweku signed her up anyway.

“We weren’t looking for anything, we were just driving around,” Kweku said. “She didn’t even know what skating was. She didn’t even know what that word was and I explained it to her.

“Only thing cold in Ghana is cold beer.”

Maame was a natural. It didn’t take long before the coach suggested speed skating.

Twelve years later, Maame has moved to Salt Lake City to train in hopes of making the Olympic team. The short track trials begin Dec. 15, where up to five women could qualify for PyeongChang.

Editor’s Note: One athlete in U.S. Winter Olympic history was born in Africa — biathlete Dan Westover, who was born in Madagascar and competed at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games, according to Olympic historian Bill Mallon. Biney and skeleton slider Nathan Crumpton, who was born in Kenya, could both make the PyeongChang team.

Kweku suggested taking the year off from high school, but she didn’t want to fall behind. Maame wanted to graduate with her friends, so the school arranged for her to take online classes to stay on track while she trains.

Those types of decisions are the hardest part for Maame, who misses out on many of the normal teenage trappings.

“I feel like that’s the worst part of skating 24-7, not being able to go to homecoming the last three years and not able to hang out with my friends whenever they want to do something,” Maame said through another bout of laugher. “It’s like, ‘Oh, no, I can’t, I have practice.’ I like it, because I also have friends here. So it’s kind of like a win-win kind of situation, in a way.

“Not having a very good social life, I guess. I’m surrounded by speed skaters all the time, and I’m not saying anything bad about them or anything, but we’re not the most mature people in the world. We are not. Even though I’m 17, I feel like I’m a 12-year-old. I am not ready to be 18 in four months.”

That youthfulness also leads to a lack of confidence. Biney was the second American woman since 1996 to earn a junior worlds medal, but she still doubts herself competing against Olympians like Jessica Kooreman, Lana Gehring and Katherine Reutter-Adamek.

National team coach Anthony Barthell and the team psychologist work with Biney on getting out of her own head. Barthell said experience will help as she better learns to master her trade.

“She’s a natural athlete,” Barthell said. “Most natural athletes have a hard transition to skating because speedskating is so unnatural. It goes against everything you’re taught as an athlete. So for her, she’s learned how to skate and is able to use her natural athletic abilities.

“In my eyes, I feel she can be one of the top girls in the world. It’s going to take a little bit of time, but she has the potential.”

Kooreman remembers hearing about Biney four years ago from her coach and Gehring. At 33, Kooreman is aiming for her second Olympics and first medal while 16 years older than Biney.

“Her mentality as a skater and her personality … she reminds me a little bit of myself,” Kooreman said. “She’s a fighter. She enjoys what she does. She’s energetic and brings good enthusiasm to the team.

“It’s nice to have new blood out there and young blood that’s wanting to learn and excited to just skate every day.”

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Q&A: Apolo Ohno discusses 2018 Olympic short track

Hallelujah! Mariah Bell strikes secret chord with mentor Adam Rippon

Mariah Bell and Adam Rippon
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GREENSBORO, N.C. – Mariah Bell hit the final pose of her “Hallelujah” free skate in Greensboro, North Carolina on Friday night and couldn’t hold back her tears. The 23-year-old skater had just had the performance of her life at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

When Bell reached the kiss-and-cry, the first person she hugged wasn’t Rafael Arutunian, her coach since 2016, but former training partner Adam Rippon. A jubilant Rippon thrust Bell’s arm up in the air in triumph. As her score – a whopping 225.21 points, good for a silver medal – flashed up, he repeated the gesture.

“Adam has been such a major part of my success this year,” Bell said. “He’s completely changed my outlook on training. … To have that moment with him here was so special. I was hoping something like this would happen, because he deserved to have that moment, too.”

Considering all of the irons Rippon has in the fire, he is an unlikely candidate to be a coach, even part-time. Since the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, the personable 2016 U.S. champion is in high demand for reality TV, hosting and comedy gigs. He crossed the country promoting his autobiography, Beautiful on the Outside: A Memoir. But something was missing.

“After the Olympics, my plan was always to work with Rafael,” Rippon said shortly before the ladies’ free skate in Greensboro. “Then, I had a lot of opportunities come my way. One of my dreams was always to do what I do now, to be involved in comedy. I’ve always done it off the ice, and I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll just be the funniest person at the party.’ But when I got to do it as a job, it was a dream come true.

“Still, I felt I learned so much as a skater, because I was so self-directed, with Rafael’s help. Part of me that thought, ‘I can still help.’”

So after U.S. Figure Skating’s Champs Camp last August, Rippon teamed up with the talented Bell, then a U.S. bronze medalist known for her on-ice sparkle as well as occasional inconsistency. With his help, she had her best Grand Prix season ever, winning two bronze medals.

As Rippon tells it, the key was helping Bell work harder and smarter on the ice.

“She needed to switch her mindset,” Rippon said. “What she thought was hard work, I thought of as a light day. Her hard work was what I considered a warm-up.”

After Champs Camp, the Los Angeles-based Rippon had two weeks free, so he visited Bell at their training rink in Irvine, California for three hours each day. There, he sharpened her work ethic.

“All of a sudden I was (telling her), ‘You’re going to do a double toe, double loop at end of every jump, or a triple toe at the end of every jump,’” he recalled. “It was just challenging her in a way she hasn’t been challenged before, so that when she got to the competition the pressure was much less.”

Rippon created a training plan with Bell, charting everything from workouts to breaks to program run-throughs.

“We did this, so that when she got to a competition, she could look down on the paper and say, ‘Look at all of the stuff I did; I’m ready,’” he said. “She could just go and enjoy it.”

After the two-week period following Champs Camp, the busy Rippon could only work with Bell three or four times a month. The two stayed connected via frequent telephone conversations and videos.

Then, a few weeks before Greensboro, both Rippon and choreographer Shae-Lynn Bourne visited Irvine to help Arutunian prepare Bell for the U.S. Championships.

“We did a lot of work before nationals, running and polishing programs,” Rippon said. “I think Shae-Lynn is one of the best, if not the best, choreographer working today. So yes, I did the choreography of Mariah’s short (set to a Britney Spears medley), but when Shae-Lynn is there, you take advantage.”

Rippon’s strategy, along with Bourne’s choreography and Arutunian’s technical expertise, paid off big time. On Friday, Bell landed six clean triples, including a triple Lutz, triple toe loop, in a stirring free skate choreographed by Bourne to “Hallelujah.”

“Mariah took my advice and she worked hard and she transformed herself,” Rippon said. “She’s one of the oldest ladies in the competition, and she’s kind of having a renaissance, and I relate to that. I felt like that happened to me, too. At the end of my career, I that I was in the best headspace.”

NATIONALS: TV Schedule | Full Results

Despite the success, Rippon isn’t planning to expand his coaching to other skaters. He’s too busy with a new project, developing content for Quibi, a short-form mobile video platform.

“It’s my biggest thing right now,” Rippon said. “Everything on the platform is 10 minutes or less. I sold them a show and we started filming last week. I just had this week off, because I asked to go to nationals.”

It’s a comedy show, of course, with Rippon, other comedians and celebrity guests poking fun at the events of the day.

“We do a review of whatever idiotic thing happened,” he said. “It will be funny. I’m very excited.”

But no matter how successful this project, or the next, becomes, Rippon will never abandon figure skating.

“(Quibi) is my work,” he said. “When I have days off, I come to the rink  and I get to work with Mariah, and that’s sort of my relaxation. I reconnect to my roots.”

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MORE: Alysa Liu unflappable under intense pressure to successfully defend national title

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

Alysa Liu unflappable under intense pressure to successfully defend national title

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GREENSBORO, N.C. – Not long before Alysa Liu was to take the ice as the last of 18 women to do her free skate Friday night at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, the 14-year-old sat amidst the comings and goings and general commotion of a hallway leading to the ice. She had ear buds in place, munched on an apple and watched the skater who preceded her, Mariah Bell.

By the time Liu reached the Greensboro Coliseum rink for her final warmup moments, the ice surface was littered with stuffed animals, a form of tribute to an outstanding skater, and packed with the flower girls who pick them up. It was also awash with noise from an audience saluting the brilliant skating Bell had just done, an elegant, near flawless performance to k.d. Lang’s haunting interpretation of the emotionally powerful Leonard Cohen song, “Hallelujah.”

With the crowd’s reaction roaring in her now open ears, Liu weaved through the girls and the plushies in what seemed an eternity before the announcement of Bell’s scores. Liu waited and glided around with an aplomb that is just one of the many extraordinary parts of the personality of this 10th grader who last year had become the youngest U.S. senior champion in history.

In the crowd, 1988 Olympic champion Brian Boitano watched with his coach, Linda Leaver, trying to see how Liu would react to what could be a discomfiting, pressurized situation.

“When she came out, I said to Linda, ‘Welcome to the big leagues, girl,’” Boitano said. “I thought it was really a sign of a champion she was smiling, and she was relaxed.”

And when her four minutes of skating to “Illumination” by composer-pianist Jennifer Thomas was over, Liu had moved into a league of her own in the United States.

“I was very happy for Mariah,” Liu said. “I didn’t get nervous or excited. I was kind of like, ‘Okay, she did well, and I also have to do well.’”

Capitalizing on the high values of her difficult jumps, Liu skated so well she won her second title by more than 10 points, with 235.52 to Bell’s 225.81. Bradie Tennell, who led Liu by 3.56 points and Bell by 5.74 after the short program, dropped to third (220.86) after mistakes on her final two jumping passes, including a fall on the last.

As they had done last year, Bell and Tennell had to lend their arms to help Liu ascend the top step of the podium for the awards ceremony, a delightfully ironic circumstance given how the 4-foot, 10-inch Liu towers above them in competition.

“It’s so exciting,” said Liu’s coach, Laura Lipetsky. “I’m so proud of her and happy for her. She really wanted to do well.

“She just blocked out what was going on beforehand and did her job.”

NATIONALS: TV Schedule | Full Results

Liu went into the free skate with a technical base value advantage of more than 16 points over both Bell and Tennell. She made the most of it by executing all but one of the 12 elements very well, failing only on her attempt to be the first woman to land a quadruple jump at nationals.

Her quadruple Lutz was called under-rotated and produced her only negative Grade of Execution. Both Liu’s triple Axels were solid, and her final two spins were of surpassing quality.

Liu said she had begun preparing for one potential psychological hurdle as soon as she saw the free skate draw: the guaranteed 40-minute gap between the end of the final group warmup and the time she was to skate. But she handled just as coolly the unexpected – the crowd reaction to Bell, whose only error was an under-rotated triple Lutz, and her own hard fall earlier in the day.

Liu’s fall had come on a quad Lutz attempt at the end of her final practice, some seven hours before her free skate. It was the last thing she did in that practice, running out of time before she could try another jump.

Some skaters are rattled by a competition-day practice that ends in such a failure, especially if it stings physically. Liu just shook it off.

“I have fallen like that before so it wasn’t like, ‘Omigosh, what am I going to do?’” Liu said. “I guess I knew how to recover from that and focus on other things. I relaxed the rest of the day and iced it so it wouldn’t hurt any more. I just didn’t let that fall get to me.”

Liu joined Ashley Wagner (2012-13) as the only women to win consecutive women’s national titles since Michelle Kwan won her last of eight straight in 2005.

“Last year was more special because it was my first,” Liu said. “This year, I’m just as excited. I’m thinking, ‘It’s a new decade, wow, what a good start.’”

This year is different because her competitive season does not end at nationals.

In 2019, when she was 13, Liu fell below the age minimum for even the Junior World Championships. (U.S. Championships do not have that rule.) Liu will be able to compete at the 2020 Junior World Championships this March in Estonia, but she is not eligible for senior international events until the 2021-22 season – the next Olympic season.

This was her first junior season internationally. She has won a silver medal at the Junior Grand Prix and won two Junior Grand Prix events. But Liu faces formidable competition now and in the future from what seems like an endless stream of young Russians doing quads and triple Axels.

“I am aware a lot of skaters around the world are getting these difficult jumps, and I’m just trying to keep up,” she said.

In Year Two of the Liu Dynasty in America, she has become the youngest to win consecutive national titles and, earlier in the season, the first U.S. woman to land a quadruple jump in competition. She is the only U.S. woman to do those difficult jumps.

“I just want to keep improving and hopefully make history along the way,” Liu said.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

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MORE: Gracie Gold in tears at figure skating nationals after emotional comeback

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.