U.S. Figure Skating/Jay Adeff

Skating prodigy Alysa Liu, a senior national competitor at 13, is using the present to avoid future shock

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The idea was to show Alysa Liu what her future might look like and for her to get comfortable seeing herself in that picture.

So Samuel Auxier, U.S. Figure Skating’s international committee chair, arranged for Liu and her coach, Laura Lipetsky, to attend the junior and senior Grand Prix Final competitions earlier this month in Vancouver.

“Having judged and watched the Junior Grand Prixes, it was clear our skaters competing their first time in them were often very intimidated by the Russian and Japanese ladies,” Auxier said.

He soon realized that Liu isn’t intimidated by much.

“At first, she was amazed by the Russian ladies, but then (she) wanted to get out there and show them her triple Axels,” Auxier said.

That’s right, triple Axels.

The triple Axels Liu, 13, plans to show in the senior competition at next month’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit.

The jumps that make 1998 Olympic champion Tara Lipinski think Liu is good enough to take the senior national title three seasons before she will be age eligible for senior international events.

Lipinski, who will be commentating at nationals for NBC, knows whereof she speaks on the subject of precocious success. She is the youngest Olympic champion in history (age 15) and the youngest world champion in history (14), and she finished 15th in the senior world championships at 13 (age eligibility rules then were different.)

“If Alysa does all her elements, she has a very real chance to win the event,” Lipinski said. “I think we will definitely see her on the podium unless something goes terribly wrong.”

The idea of standing not just on the senior national podium but on the top step is among the goals that motivate Liu as she trains at the Oakland, Calif. Ice Center. That objective is born not out of excessive self-confidence but out of relentless competitiveness and desire to excel in this effusive, engaging young lady from Richmond, Calif.

“I hope to win, obviously,” Liu said. “I’d never go into a competition hoping I medal. I always strive for first, even if it’s not possible.”

Liu already has defied probability at a speed that makes anything seem possible right now.

In 2016, at age 10, she became the youngest intermediate U.S. champion in history. Last year, at 12, a six-clean-triple-jump free skate (with two triple-triple combinations) made her junior national champion in a 12-skater field where she was the youngest by nearly 15 months.

This year, Liu will be the only one of 22 senior women’s entrants at nationals under 15 years old. Defending champion Bradie Tennell turns 21 a week after nationals, and the leading title contender, Mariah Bell, is 22.

Even Liu is a bit surprised by how fast this has happened.

“Sometimes I’m overwhelmed,” Liu said. “I’m like, ‘Omigod, I have a triple Axel, and not a lot of people in the world have it.’ Then I tell myself, ‘Don’t think you’re the best in the world. You’re not the best yet.’”

Comparing scores – especially comparing international and national scores, since the latter usually are more generous – can be a fool’s errand. But the total, short program and free skate numbers Liu racked up while qualifying for nationals by winning November’s Pacific Coast Sectional event are higher than the best scores of any U.S. woman this season at any event above club level.

The numbers themselves mean less than how she got them. Her short program at sectionals included a clean triple Axel and a clean triple Lutz-triple toe combination. Her free skate there had a clean triple Axel-double toe combination and two clean triple-triple combinations.

And, just for the fun of it in practice last April, she tossed off a triple Axel-triple toe-triple toe-double toe combination.

It is such advanced technical ability that explains the decision to have Liu move up to the senior level nationally this season, even given her being too young for even junior competition internationally until next season. (Her 13th birthday was Aug. 8, five weeks past the July 1 cutoff.)

“After I won (the junior national title), I didn’t want to stay in juniors two years,” Liu said. “I want to get the experience of competing against the best seniors.”

That logic also helps explain why four of the five Russians who qualified for this season’s Junior Grand Prix Final are scheduled to compete in seniors at the Russian Championships this week. The Russians began letting juniors compete with the seniors as part of what became a stunningly successful rebuild of their women’s skating program leading to the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

For example: Elizaveta Tuktamysheva was barely 12 when she finished eighth as a senior at Russian nationals in 2010. Tuktamysheva, 22, has gone on to win the 2015 World title and the bronze medal in the senior Grand Prix Final last month. And Yevgenia Medvedeva, eventually a two-time world champion and 2018 Olympic silver medalist, was 12 when she finished eighth in her first senior nationals.

Athletes whom the legendary Dick Button famously called “baby ballerinas” competed as seniors in the U.S. Championships in the 1990s. They included Lipinski, 2002 Olympic champion Sarah Hughes and Michelle Kwan, all 13 or younger in their senior debuts.

Kwan was 12 when she finished sixth at her first senior nationals in 1993. At the time, Kwan said, innocently, of competitors Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, “It’s kind of fun skating with the older people. They’ve been around for a couple hundred years. I’m just starting to rise.” Kerrigan then was 23, Harding 22.

Kwan, whom Liu cites along with 2010 Olympic champion Yuna Kim of South Korea as her favorite skaters, rose to the sport’s stratosphere. She became a two-time Olympic medalist, five-time world champion and nine-time national champion.

Yet the step up to seniors is a challenge, no matter how gifted the young athlete.

“It’s always a little intimidating turning senior and skating senior nationals for the first time,” Lipinski said. “There isn’t pressure at the junior level. You competed all the time there, and nerves didn’t get to you, so you became almost oblivious to pressure.

“I do remember feeling so nervous and jittery at my first seniors [she was bronze medalist at age 13]. I definitely needed that year, needed to go to worlds and mess up [23rd after the short program; only 24 made the free skate] to learn about dealing with the nerves from competing on the top international level. Skating is about talent, but it’s also about timing. That was on my side.”

Liu’s timing is more complicated because of rules changes about minimum international competition ages that became effective over the last 15 years.

Alysa Liu as a junior skater at the 2018 U.S. National Championships. Credit: U.S. Figure Skating/Jay Adeff

The 2022 Olympic season would be Liu’s first as a senior internationally (the senior age minimum is 15 by July 1 preceding the season). In her lone international competition this season, the Asian Open last August in Bangkok, Liu had to compete in the advanced novice division, which she won – but in which the program length and number of elements performed are fewer than in seniors.

“It is a little frustrating to wait,” Liu said. “But then again, I need more practice before I can be against the best.”

Russia’s Alina Zagitova was able to go from world junior champion to 2018 Olympic champion in just one year.

“But that’s really rare,” Lipinski said. It had, indeed, never happened before.

“I try to look at the international situation as a positive,” Lipetsky said. “Alysa has time to get stronger and stronger and stronger and have the tools so we can compete for first place.”

Such discussions about the Olympics are, of course, a bit premature in Liu’s case. But they are behind why Lipetsky wanted her to gain senior experience as soon as possible. It is also why she has begun working on quadruple jumps, as several of the Russian juniors are doing.

The timetable and the plan changed when Liu won last season’s U.S. junior title a year after finishing just fourth in novice.

“Winning juniors showed her it’s possible to be the best,” Lipetsky said. “It was a step towards the ultimate goal of trying to be national champion and world champion and win the Olympics. It’s a step-by-step process.”

The first step came when her father, Arthur, brought 5-year-old Alysa one weekend to the Oakland Ice Center, where Lipetsky teaches.

A journey of one thousand miles had begun.

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Arthur Liu’s narration of how they got to that point describes a journey that was much longer and more unusual.

He was born 54 years ago in Mingxing, a mountain village of 200 inhabitants in southwestern China’s Sichuan Province, as one of six siblings of a father who had a government job and a mother who farmed. He said the village did not have electricity during his childhood there.

He had the good fortune to reach high school age just after the end of the brutalizing Cultural Revolution, in which intellectual development was not only scorned but often punished. From test results, Arthur Liu would win a place in a boarding school in Chongqing, now a city of eight million.

He got bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Chinese universities and left China at age 25 for California, where he went on to an MBA at Cal State Hayward (now Cal State East Bay), a law degree at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law and a career as a legal general practitioner. He also is a single father of five children ranging in age from Alysa to 9-year-old triplets. They were born to two surrogate mothers through anonymous egg donors.

Liu told Alysa about the circumstances of her birth about five years ago, when she asked, “Why do I look different?  Why don’t I look Chinese?” She had met the woman who bore her before knowing of the link between them. They have visited each other since.

“Alysa and a friend had almost figured it out on their own,” Arthur Liu said. “So she wasn’t surprised when I told her.”

His mother, Shu, spent some eight years in California helping him raise the five young children, returning to China two years ago. Since then, a friend has taken over some of those parenting duties, which became a logistical high-wire act as Alysa began to spend more and more time at the rink.

The first skating trip had led immediately to group lessons with Lipetsky that ended with a skills test. The coach told Arthur Liu his daughter had done well and asked if they wanted to try private lessons.

“You could see how eager she was to learn and the love she had for skating,” Lipetsky said. “Over time, I saw she could be good. She wanted to learn, and I wanted to guide.”

For the first few years, that meant getting up at 4:30 a.m. at their home in suburban Oakland so she could do skating lessons and regular school. By the time she was 10, that arrangement became untenable because of missing so much school time while traveling to competitions, so Arthur Liu decided to have Alysa home schooled via Connections Academy courses.

Now she wakes at 6:45. Before he goes to work, her father takes the four younger children to school, then drops Alysa at the rink for the first of what can be three training sessions spaced over eight hours during the week. She does homework between sessions, usually eats dinner in the car on her way home with her dad and is asleep by 8:30. (A friend picks up the other children at school, feeds them and gets them ready for bed.) She skates for an hour on Saturday and Sunday.

Lipetsky, a married mother of two, has been coaching some 20 years. At 15, the coach finished ninth in the 1995 U.S. Championships. Injuries derailed her competitive career, and she went on to get a degree from the University of California.

Liu is Lipetsky’s first student to qualify for nationals. It is not surprising that some in the skating community have questioned the idea of Liu staying with such a little-known coach. Lipetsky has heard the questions but is not concerned.

“Alysa is a very smart girl, and she knows what works for her,” Lipetsky said. “She understands me very well, and she and her dad have trust in me. I know when to give her easy days and when to push her. It has been proven in the results.”

The eligibility peculiarities created by Alysa’s August birthday have given the coach more time to have her try more difficult elements. With no major competition open to her after last year’s nationals, they began perfecting the three-and-a-half-revolution triple Axel, which no other top U.S. skater is likely to do at nationals.

Only three U.S. women – Harding, Kimmie Meissner and Mirai Nagasu – had been credited with landing one in competition before Liu hit the jump in the Asian Open, making her the youngest in the world ever to land it in an international event. She now is doing one in the short program and two in the free skate, with a success rate of about 50 percent clean in her competitions this season.

“I had a ‘wow’ feeling for a little while after she began landing them consistently in practice,” Lipetsky said. “Then I felt it was just part of getting all the tools to put into the bag. It was just another tool for us to have.”

The same is true of quadruple jumps. Liu tried two quad Lutzes in the free skate at this season’s regionals, singling the first and falling after under-rotating the second. The quads then were set aside until after nationals, when, once again, she will have time to practice them.

“They wanted to experiment at regionals,” Arthur Liu said. “Sectionals, we wanted clean programs going to nationals. So no quads.”

That Alena Kostornaia of Russia just won the Junior Grand Prix Final without a quad, while two of her countrywomen badly botched attempts at them, does not dissuade either Lipetsky or Liu from wanting to master them.

“You can’t get stuck in a mindset of, ‘We won’t need quads,’” Lipetsky said. “You always want to push the envelope and challenge yourself. If you stand still, someone else will come out there and do more than you.”

Alysa Liu as a junior skater at the 2018 U.S. National Championships. Credit: U.S. Figure Skating/Jay Adeff

Liu’s immaturity as a performer notwithstanding, the triple Axels – and her triple-triple combinations – already can give her a substantial advantage at the U.S. Championships.

“But you don’t know how someone will react to the pressure of being on the senior level and knowing her technical score is what is going to give her that gold,” Lipinski said. “She has to hit those jumps.”

No matter what happens, when someone asks Liu what comes next, she will be able to say, “I’m going to Disneyland.”

That has become a post-nationals ritual for the Liu and Lipetsky families the last few years.

“It’s sooooo much fun,” Liu said, the emphasis in her voice making her sounding every bit the kid she still is.

There’s no need to rush to the future.

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

As a reminder, you can watch the U.S. Championships 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.

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2019 USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships TV schedule

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NBC, NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold combine to air live daily coverage of the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships, starting Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa.

The top three per individual event are in line to qualify for the world championships in Doha in late September and early October, should they have the world standard time or mark.

Sprint trio Christian Coleman (100m and 200m), Noah Lyles (200m) and Michael Norman (400m) headline the event. Each is 23 or younger and fastest in the world this year in his primary event.

Allyson Felix and Justin Gatlin represent the veterans. Felix, a 33-year-old with 17 combined Olympic and world titles, is entered in her first meet since having daughter Camryn via emergency C-section at 32 weeks on Nov. 28.

Gatlin, 37, has a bye into worlds as the defending 100m champion. He could be Coleman’s biggest threat in the 100m after breaking 9.9 seconds for the first time since the Rio Olympics.

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Day Time (ET) Network Key Events
Thursday 3:45-11 p.m. NBC Sports Gold 100m first round, 10,000m finals
Friday 1:30-9 p.m. NBC Sports Gold 100m finals, 400m semifinals
7-9 p.m. NBCSN
Saturday 2-6 p.m. NBC Sports Gold Finals: 400m, women’s 1500m, 100m hurdles
4-6 p.m. NBC
Sunday 4-9 p.m. NBC Sports Gold Finals: 200m, men’s 1500m, 110m hurdles
7-8 p.m. NBCSN
8-9 p.m. NBC

Beachvolley Vikings, sport’s top team, inspired by Kerri Walsh Jennings

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HAMBURG, Germany — Kerri Walsh Jennings smiled at the decade-old picture of her posing with a young Anders Mol.

Since Walsh Jennings met Mol, the now-22-year-old and his 23-year-old Norwegian partner Christian Sorum have become the top-ranked team in the world.

“Those boys inspire me a lot,” she said. “That’s how I want Brooke [Sweat] and I to play, really.”

Walsh Jennings met Mol in his native country at the 2009 FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships in Stavanger. Mol attended with his father, Kare, who was coaching the Norwegian teams, as well as his brother Hendrik and cousin Mathias Berntsen.

Walsh Jennings noticed the young Norwegians, who are now nicknamed the “Beachvolley Vikings,” eagerly doing the pepper drill on the sand between matches from 6 a.m. until well after dark.   

“She walked by and told us, ‘Hey, you guys are so good that if you guys keep practicing, you’re going to be playing on this stage one day,’” Mol recalled.

Mol’s passion for the sport only increased as he hit puberty.

As a teenager, he derailed his family’s vacation plans in San Diego by making them battle traffic up to Los Angeles to hear Walsh Jennings give a speech.

Childhood photo of Mol and Walsh Jennings. Courtesy of Anders Mol.

At 13 or 14, Mol and his brother beat their parents for the first time. Impressive, considering Mol’s father was a former national indoor team player and his mother, Merita Mol (née Berntsen), competed in beach volleyball at the 1996 Olympics.

At 16, he enrolled in ToppVolley Norway, a beach and indoor volleyball school that is a two-hour boat ride north from Stavanger. For three years, the boys would attend classes, lift weights and train for a minimum of 20 hours per week. Free time often meant pick-up soccer matches, which occasionally proves useful on the sand.

“It doesn’t look like Hogwarts,” Mol said, “but it sounds like Hogwarts because everybody is like a big family in this school.”

When Mol graduated, he played a year of professional indoor volleyball in Belgium. But he quickly realized that he preferred the freedom of beach volleyball, where players book their own travel, hire their own coaches and schedule their own practices.

In 2017, Mol was named the international tour’s top rookie. By the end of the 2018 season, Mol and Sorum had firmly established themselves as the world’s top team, winning their final three international tournaments including the FIVB World Tour Finals.

They have not slowed down in 2019, winning three tournaments on three different continents over three weeks in May. They have won 36 of their last 38 matches.

“The best blocker right now is Anders, and the best defender is Christian,” said three-time U.S. Olympian Jake Gibb. “It’s not really fair.”

The only two teams who have defeated the Norwegians since April 28 — Germany’s Julius Thole/Clemens Wickler and Brazil’s Bruno Schmidt/Evandro Goncalves — did not offer any clues on how to do it.

Wickler admitted that “in no other stadium would we have won this game” after the Hamburg world championships semifinal played July 6 in front of more than 12,000 hometown fans, the largest crowd either team had ever experienced. Mol and Sorum rebounded to claim the bronze medal the next day over Americans Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb.

Bruno rebuffed multiple teams who approached him looking for the secret to beating Norway.

“I’ve never seen a player like Anders who is so powerful and so skilled at the same time,” said Bruno, the 2016 Olympic champion with former partner Alison. “Players like that raise the level of this sport.”

Much of their success can be attributed to their defensive scheme. Most teams play a “zone defense,” with each player defending half of the court. The Norwegians play a “read defense” that gives each player the freedom to react and move to where they think the attacking player will hit the ball.

NBC Sports analyst Kevin Wong compared the Norwegians to “free safeties” in football.

“They are the most innovative defensive team we’ve seen in a long time,” he said.

The pair is relatively unknown outside Norway — neither has a Wikipedia page in English — and even in Norway they claim they are nowhere near as famous as the Alpine skiers nicknamed the “Attacking Vikings.”

But that will change.

At worlds, the pair hired a videographer to capture content for their YouTube and Instagram channels. They launched a Beachvolley Vikings clothing line that includes a “Sleeping Christian” shirt. They patiently fulfilled each and every request for pictures and autographs after matches.

“They are like rock stars,” said American Taylor Crabb, talking extra loud to be heard over a crowd of teenage girls hoping to take a selfie with the tall, blonde Norwegians. “Fans can relate to them because they see guys around their age becoming the No. 1 team the world.”

It is not just fans who are lining up to see the Norwegians.

“I love to watch them play,” said 2016 Brazilian Olympian Pedro Solberg, who made his international debut when Mol was just 8. “Every chance I get to watch them I do, because I learn a lot from them.”

Whether Mol and Sorum struggle with anything is up for debate. When asked, Kare boasted about beating them at the card game “President and the bum.”

“They are really smart in beach volleyball,” he said, “but they are really stupid in card playing.”

But both players disputed their coach’s claim.

“It’s not true at all,” Sorum said. “He loses even when he has the best cards.”

The Beachvolley Vikings are just getting started. 2008 Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser pointed out that beach volleyball players typically do not peak until their late 20s or early 30s.

“In my book, they are already among the top teams to ever play,” he said. “There are no holes in their game. I don’t see why they can’t keep this going.”

OlympicTalk editor Nick Zaccardi contributed to this report.

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